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OnWords: The Metaphors of Agriculture


Late spring and early summer is wheat harvest season in Kansas, and it has me thinking about how deeply agricultural metaphors interweave into common speech.

This is maybe a bit surprising, considering how few of us actually farm.

Even in urban settings, we “reap what we sow.” And Russian web-bots have been accused of “sowing the seeds” of dissent in American elections.

Heavy eaters are still admonished for “eating like pigs” and “hogging” their food, even though few of us have seen real swine at the trough.

Likewise, we say we’re “sorting the wheat from the chaff” when going through mounds of Google searches despite threshing having been automated on the farm for a century or more.

And though most of us buy our chickens and eggs at the supermarket, we’re still warned not to count said chickens before they’ve hatched.

These metaphors may seem dead and headed toward the compost heap of cliché, but it’s a testament to their power that they haven’t yet been supplanted by phrases more germane to our daily lives.

Perhaps they are powerful because they contain kernels of basic truth, raising images of natural forces stronger than the consumer culture of the here and now.