MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Metaphors can make people into so many different things – objects (little pitchers), animals (night owl) and even agricultural products (apple of your eye). Today’s Air Forceful term is a metaphor in which an individual uses to erase themselves: “I’m a dot.”
I was first introduced to “I’m a dot” on a Friday afternoon back when we still worked in shared indoor spaces. As my colleague, a retired Air Force officer, walked toward the exit, golden late afternoon sunlight slanting down the hallway through the glass door, he waved over his shoulder and called back, “I’m a dot!” Then he paused, watching to see my reaction, knowing that I would likely tilt my head like a cat hearing a can-opener. So many of the phrases I write about sound like they have one meaning but really mean something else. This one was different – I had no assumptions at all what “I’m a dot” meant. There are so many possible meanings for the word “dot.” Dots are small, featureless and potentially inconsequential (“The town was just a dot on a map.”). Or they can mean the opposite because some dots can be definitive (“That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Period.”).
It turned out that “I’m a dot” means “I’m gone” or “I’m out of here.” My colleague explained that this was a reference to a pilot flying quickly away from a companion. As objects move far from us, our eyes perceive less and less detail. When they are far enough away, they will eventually appear to be nothing more than a dot. This metaphor is particularly complicated as it requires multiple steps to move from hearing someone announcing metaphorically, “I’m leaving,” to mentally perceiving that person as a featureless, distant dot.
First, I should note the nature of a metaphor. At its simplest, a metaphor is “understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain” (Kövecses, 4: 2010). Successful use of metaphors requires speaker and listener to share many cultural beliefs, symbols and experiences, and share linguistic practices, to understand what is being said. This means metaphors are “high-context” communication activities, as described by anthropologist Edward T. Hall: the people communicating with each other have a shared and complex set of values, assumptions and beliefs they subconsciously reference when communicating. They do not need to explicitly state their entire message in words because, through this shared understanding, their listeners know what the speaker means. Outsiders, though, would be completely clueless.
“I’m a dot” is another Air Forcefully term that derives from technology. The Air Force is the technological service because humans cannot fly without technological intervention. It seems natural that many of the terms I analyze in “Speaking Air Forcefully” are derived from technology, especially as technology related to flight. The previous metaphors I described are built in two stages: 1) A term develops for a way that humans interact with a piece of flight technology (like resetting a gyroscope to zero), then 2) That term gets used as a metaphor for human cognition (resetting their assumptions). Additionally, terms like “recage” or “spun-up” are physical metaphors – they use physical phenomena or actions to describe a non-physical activity. My equation for this process is:
Human action (resetting)
+ Technological item (gyroscope)
= Human cognition (reset assumptions)
Using terms like “recage” or “spun up” as metaphors for thinking and understanding is a fairly simple process – humans use a flight technology to fly successfully; then humans use a metaphorically similar process to understand other aspects of the world successfully.
“I’m a dot” is qualitatively different from other Air Forceful terms that I have described, but for a long time, I could not pin down how it was different. Eventually, after disappearing down the rabbit hole of metaphor theory (side note: I think of rabbit hole as an Air Force term since I only hear it in Air Force settings), I realized that “I’m a dot” is a combination of a physical metaphor with a sensory metaphor. This is how I pull it apart:
I’m a Dot:
Human action (departing from companion)
+ Technological item (airplane in flight)
+ Physical trait (extreme speed)
+ Sensory phenomenon (distant objects appear to human eyes as featureless dots)
= Human condition (Person is leaving or gone)
As I interpret it, there are two key factors in making this phrase: 1) the speed in which the “departer” is moving out of their companion’s visual field, and 2) the conflation in English of “seeing” (the process of bringing in and interpreting visual data) and “understanding” (the cognitive process of making accurate interpretations). This is not a universal linguistic practice to equate seeing with understanding. It is, though, a fundamental metaphor in English (see MacArthur et al.).
“I’m a dot” is partly a physical metaphor (human does physical action to technology, then does a variant of that to their own thinking) like I described in my equation above for “recage.” For “I’m a dot” to work, there is an added layer of sensory information: Knowing that our vision is imperfect and that an object or person at some significant distance will look like a featureless dot. This metaphor also requires a sense of speedy departure for the “leaver.” If someone were walking, running or even driving, it would take a long, almost comedically slow, time for the speaker (the one leaving) to be far enough away to appear to be nothing more than a dot. In fact, it is comedic to imagine a really slow-moving speaker, ambling at a glacial pace away from their companion, turning back occasionally to reannounce, “I’m a dot. I’m out of here. I’m so gone. Watch me leave. Here I go.” And so on, ad infinitum.
It is metaphors like “I’m a Dot” where a listener can recognize the high level of shared experiences and assumptions that go into crafting, receiving and interpreting a metaphor. I, for example, did not have the set of shared assumptions of, say, a pilot that would have helped me make immediate sense of my colleague’s phrase. Rather, it required an explanation from an insider. That explanation points to, once again, the very culturally embedded nature of language, jargon and speaking Air Force-fully.
Fiona MacArthur, Tina Krennmayr & Jeannette Littlemore (2015) How Basic Is “UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING” When Reasoning About Knowledge? Asymmetric Uses of Sight Metaphors in Office Hours Consultations in English as Academic Lingua Franca, Metaphor and Symbol, 30:3, 184-217, DOI: 10.1080/10926488.2015.1049507
Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor: a Practical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.