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Angels, Devils and Human Attributes

Posted by Mapping Metaphor on the 29th of June 2015

This post was written by Robin Sapkota, one of our Mapping Metaphor research placement students.

Giacinto Gimignani - An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child - WGA08997

The earliest recorded citation of ‘angel’ in the OED occurs in the Lindisfarne Gospels in 950AD and, along with ‘devil’ which has its first OED citation 150 years earlier, has likely undergone little change in literal meaning since. The Mapping Metaphor resource demonstrates that ‘devil’ is the polar opposite of ‘angel’, as opposed to God, and, in line with Christian theology, ‘angel’ represents all that is good in humans whereas the ‘devil’, a fallen angel, maps onto all that is bad. We find that the concept ‘angel’ maps onto the category of babies and young people and, when looking at the mapping of ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, we get the idea that, as these ‘little angels’ grow, there is a tendency to succumb to the ‘devilish’ aspects of humanity culminating in a fall from grace.

‘Devil’ exhibits a greater degree of mapping onto other categories and this reflects the ‘devilish’ human attributes, as reflected in metaphoric transfer, outweighing the ‘angelic’ ones with the former having 7 of its 9 connections relating directly to humans where the latter having 4, in total.

In addition to this, ‘devil’ also maps onto the categories of animals and habitats (‘beast’ and ‘Satanas’ which is a 15th c term for ‘feral’ or ‘savage’) as well as dirtiness (‘foul’, ‘ragamuffin’). Both of these categories are bi-directional with the transfer of meaning working in both directions. For example, when we think of an animal in terms of the word ‘beast’ we mean the ‘lower animals, as distinct from humans’ (OED, beast, noun, sense 1.C) and it is also used with direct reference to ‘quadruped’, or four-legged, animals such as horses (OED, beast, noun, sense 2.a). By contrast, when the category of animals and habitats is transferred to ‘devil’ we use ‘beast’ in the sense of “the animal nature (in humans)” (OED, beast, noun, sense 1.d). If we consider ‘foul’ we find that, when mapped to dirtiness, it is something that is “grossly offensive to the senses, physically loathsome” (OED, foul, noun, sense 1.a) and, in this sense, transfers to the ‘devil’ so that we view the ‘devil’ as the incarnation of things physically repulsive and, if we combine dirtiness and animals and attach it to humans, the ‘devil’ can be used to refer to the most revolting aspects of the lower animal nature made manifest in humans. This demonstrates the way in which the bi-directionality of the transfer of meanings is inextricably linked. Excluding these exceptions, both ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ map onto very similar categories and it is of note that in both cases the transfer of meaning goes in one direction with the meanings of ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ being attributed to humans but not the other way round.

By contrast, when we consider the category of ‘deity’ we find that this is a larger category (referring to everything from farming, the sky, wisdom, rule and government, etc.) with 30 connections in total.  This contrast further emphasizes the fact that the metaphoric mappings of ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ reflect the understanding of these concepts in Christianity.

The duality of these terms is reflected in the category of Physical Appearance. In this sense ‘angel’ refers to “a lovely, bright, innocent, or gracious being” (OED online, angel, noun, sense 1.d) in contrast with a ‘mahound’ (1400s - hideous, loathsome), ‘diabolical’ appearance onto which ‘devil’ maps. Where ‘angel’ maps onto the category of Love and Friendship, ‘cherub’ and ‘seraph’ (1850s – ‘beloved’, ‘passion’, ‘sweetest’), ‘devil’ maps onto the category of Hatred and Hostility with words like ‘fiendly<feondlic’ (OE-a1529 - ‘hostile’, ‘friendless’) and ‘devilish’. ‘Angel’ maps onto the category of Virtue with the adjective ‘angelic’ compared with ‘devil’ corresponding to the Category of Moral Evil with the adjective ‘satanical’.

As mentioned above, the only category in which ‘angel’ does not occur alongside ‘devil’ is Babies and Young People (‘cherub’, ‘angelet’) and this is understandable as it would seem odd to think of babies as ‘devils’. ‘Devil’ corresponds, independently of ‘angel’, to the categories of Bad (‘devilish’, ‘satanical’), Pride (‘Luciferous’) and Greatness and intensity (‘diabolical’ in the sense of “that coffee was diabolical”). This last example demonstrates a weakening, or ‘bleaching’, of meaning and when we use this metaphor we do not really mean that the coffee is like the devil but rather that it is particularly bad as far as coffee goes. This demonstrates the pervasive nature of such metaphoric uses in everyday language.

Perhaps the most fascinating revelation of the Metaphor Map, when thinking about human attributes in relation to the concepts ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, is the extent to which the ‘devilish’ aspects outnumber the ‘angelic’ ones. Babies and young people are ‘angelic’ by virtue of not having been in the world for very long and this is really a default state void of intention. This leaves 3 categories onto which ‘angel’ maps relating to human attributes involving volition of some kind compared to 7 for ‘devil’. It would appear to be the case that, in the history of English, we have displayed a tendency to think of humans as ‘devils’ rather than ‘angels’. I shall leave it to the reader to conclude whether this is due to a general pessimism among the inhabitants of the British Isles or is simply a reflection of human behavior.