March 20, 2008

#01-087: Anthropomorphization

photo of an old-fashioned computer monitor; the screen is black except for a "message of peace" caused by a virus
A computer with a virus is said to be "sick."

Note: We just can't help giving human attributes to things: "My computer hates me"; "This phone doesn't want to work." Let's get a better grasp of this idea.

Get Ready: Do you ever talk to your computer, your car, your TV, or other machines in your life--as though they were alive, and could think? Do you feel silly when you do?


Wow! What a mouthful! Seven syllables! But what does it mean?

Let's look at it piece-by-piece. Anthropos is the Greek word for "man," and it's also used for the human species. Morph means form. Now we have "human form." Finally, -ization is a noun indicating a process. Globalization means the process of making something global. Localization means the process of adapting something to the local user or market. And so on.

So now we have anthropomorphization as "the process of making something into a human form." And what does that mean?

Typically, it's a manner of speech in which a non-human (or even non-living) thing is given human attributes. When we say, "The sun smiled down on us," or "The sky was angry," we are using anthropomorphization. These attribute human actions and emotions to celestial phenomena. Other examples include, "My car is really happy that I washed it," or, "I washed my hair and now it doesn't want to cooperate."

We often hear this kind of talk in business, too. Here are a few examples:

  • Regarding machines:
    • "This copy machine has a mind of its own." When something isn't doing what we want it to, or behaving contrary to expectations, we might say it "has a mind of its own." To say this about people means they're stubborn; about machines, that they're alive.
    • "The coffeemaker died." This expression is used when a machine is broken, or no longer works.
    • "My computer is sick." It might have a virus! Unlike "it died," this means it's still working, but not properly. If it's sick for too long, it will probably die.
  • About business activities:
    • "Our new marketing campaign hit the market right between the eyes." This is a two-for-one anthropomorphization. A campaign can't actually hit anybody; to do so it would have to be alive. And a market doesn't even have eyes. So how can it be hit between them?
    • "This product sells itself." A salesperson has to think, talk, persuade--all very human skills. If a product is really good, the salesperson's job becomes easy: the product's quality does most of the persuading. In this case we say it "sells itself."
    • "Sales is the lifeblood of our business." The "lifeblood" of anything what gives it viability. In the case of people, other mammals, fish, birds, etc.: no blood, no life. So, with some--in fact, most—businesses: no sales, no business.

Look for anthropomorphized expressions in your reading, and listen for them in the speech of others. Then try to make a few yourself!


Read more:

Practice: Match the anthropomorphic expression to its definition below:

  1. (has) a mind of its own
  2. died
  3. is sick
  4. hit something between the eyes
  5. sells itself
  6. the lifeblood

  1. is right on target
  2. is not working properly
  3. does things we don't expect it to do
  4. that which makes something work
  5. doesn't take any effort
  6. no longer works at all

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 20, 2008

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