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food for thought

Using food for thought: Intellectual hunger, thirst, and omnivorous behaviors

We search for things to read to satiate our intellectual hunger or quench our thirst for knowledge. A favorite of mine is the phrase that someone is ‘intellectually omnivorous’, meaning that their intellectual diet consists of all (omni-) types of brain foods. Junkier ideas which are sweet and appealing are called brain candy. Brain candy is the idiom typically used to refer to ideas or pieces of intellectual stimulation which, like candy, give us an immediate burst of sweetness, the ‘sugar-high’ of intellectual stimulation.

A discussion that is particularly important or full of content, perhaps complex, can be called a meaty discussion. The implication is that just as meat is chewy, the discussion takes a considerable amount of masticating. And, similarly, just as meat is protein-packed, the discussion is saturated with content. When my grandfather, a mathematician, offers a challenging math riddle he might simply say ‘chew on that’. And I’ll invariably retort, ‘I think it’ll take me a while to digest the facts involved‘.

Teachers who stand at the front of the classroom dictating notes on a book are said to be spoon-feeding the material to the class. When students demonstrate their knowledge without any synthesis or analysis they are described as regurgitating the information. Neither implies any application of intellect.

Any group that tries to inculcate a particular ideology in its members might be described as shoving it down their throats. The connotation here is undoubtedly negative—who wants to be compared to a goose being gavaged to make foie gras?

If a theory is unoriginal we might describe it as warmed-over. Like Sunday’s leftover lasagna from that lovely dinner party, it was delicious on Sunday, but let’s not pretend you just cooked it. You only warmed it up, in the microwave perhaps. But if a theory is new and maybe still in the works, it is often described as half-baked. This too has a bit of a negative connotation—it suggests a certain degree of gooey sloppiness. The idea might smell nice but it’s not fully cooked and like a half-baked cookie, it might fall apart in your hands.

Extending a metaphor for food and ideas

Ideas are amorphous. While we might want to size them up or assign a color to them, we can’t. The only way we can describe them in the physical sense is through comparison. Metaphors help us to orient ourselves in the world. They give us a sense that anything and everything can be described, even such abstract notions as time, work, or love. A metaphor is defined as ‘a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable’, for example ‘love is a rose’ or ‘time is sand between your fingers’.

In every metaphor there is a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor, in the case of ‘love is a rose,’ would be ‘love’ and the vehicle would be the rose, because the rose is the vehicle through which love is given meaning through the metaphor. Sometimes, the metaphor is even extended so that one sentence might read ‘Love is a rose’ and then the next might read ‘Its small thorns might be prickly, but its petals are the softest in the world.’ This is called an extended metaphor.

However, some metaphors start with sentences such as ‘its small thorns might be prickly’ and skip the explicit ‘love is a rose’ sentence altogether. These sentences are comparable to food idioms that refer to intellectual hunger, thirst, and omnivorous behaviors.  I think we would all cringe a bit if somebody approached us and said ‘Ideas are food. I have a great thirst for knowledge.’  Or similarly if he had said, ‘Ideas are food. That awful school spoon-feeds information.’ On the contrary, we learn to assume that ideas (the tenor) are akin, at least rhetorically, to the vehicle, food.

Interestingly, it is not only in English that we make such assumptions and draw parallels between the orectic mind and stomach. In Modern Arabic, we describe somebody who is an avid reader as kajjakul ləktu:ba, someone who eats books. And, if somebody understands something we might say ‘hdəmt ddars məzja:n’, meaning that they digested the lesson very well. Something similar happens in Hebrew too. A professor might hand out an extra article to read after class which he will call ‘tsedah laderekh,’ an expression which literally means ‘food for the road’ and refers to food-packages typically taken on a journey. Beyond simply searching for the best way to describe the abstract realm of ideas, perhaps we use food as a vehicle for metaphor because it provides us with basic sustenance. The mind can be just as hungry as the stomach.

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