Hybrids in Style

Our mixed up society is breeding metaphors!

This morning’s news brought to light a new product aimed at shedding new light on illy illuminated office workers – those now doused in a shower of flourescent needles. The product? Sunlight Direct’s indoor re-distributor of daylight: natural indoor light for a Dilbert dungeon. For the unenlightened:

“The Hybrid Solar Lighting (HSL) technology uses a solar concentrator to collect and distribute sunlight into the interior of a building via plastic optical fibers.” Sunlight Direct

Hybrid you say…?! A popular word, whose roots are rather boorish – or should I say boarish? From the ultra-handy Online Etymology Dictionary:

hybrid: 1601, from L. hybrida, var. of ibrida “mongrel,” specifically “offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar,” of unknown origin but probably from Gk. and somehow related to hubris. A rare word before c.1850.

Take note that the original form involved wild and tame elements, which are often rhetorically equated to raw and refined or dirty and clean. This semantactical subtext quietly lingers in the backdrop of some modern metaphorical uses such as hybrid cars, while the rhetorical overtone implies hybrid=improvement rather than hybrid=change, hybrid=partnership, hybrid=diluted or hybrid=sullied. Was the sow slummin’ it, or was the boar movin’ on up?

The metaphor version of this was scooped out of the muck some time ago and plastered all over the world of biology. Hybrids, the products of selectively crossbred plants or animals, are now garden-variety in the modern world, perhaps accounting for the bulk of what we pick from at market stalls. In the 20th century, we went completely bananas with the cross-breeding. We had so much fun as fertility chefs that we started cooking up crazy chimeras like the zonkey or the wolphin. [To Geneticists: the word chimera is being used metaphorically, rather than technically, so please, back away from your keyboards!].

In recent decades, we started tossing hybrid salads out of other things, such as machines, and this metaphor was given new life among the inanimate world. Take our above example, where dirty, disgusting flourescent light is bred with the heavenly, Sol-ful light. How about those new hybrid cars that mix dirty, disgusting fossil fuel power with non-gas-passing electric? Limply wandering the pesty, unweeded gardens of the Internet, The Metaphor Observatory spotted the following lively species of the hybrid metaphor:

  • “Hip-Hop Hybrid, Jazz’s Holy Grail” – mix of jazz and hip-hop.
  • “Hybrid Graphics” – 3D and 2D graphics providers.
  • “Hybrid Sound System” – artist, DJ, and production studio.
  • “IRCD Hybrid” – “High Performance Internet Relay Chat“.
  • “Hybrid Recordings” – a group of recording artists.
  • “Hybrid Aircraft” – mix of bouyancy and aerodynamic lift.
  • “National Hybrid, Inc.” – custom hybrid microcircuits.
  • “Hybrid Magazine” – pop culture, music and film magazine.

For those readers more familiar with the Observatory’s past antics, you may remember our longwinded examination of the words fusion, blend and mix. You’ll find these metaphors frequent the same places as hybrid does – naturally, since they all involve the same root principle. What may be interesting to the nerdly beasts that graze here is that each of these words seem to subtly imply different levels of original compatibility and resultant indivisibility. Fusion, for example, involves merging two items “made for each other”, and is considered as if final, while a mix may involve less inherent compatibility and more redivisibility (eg: “New Mix“, “Re-Mix“). Each of these mixture metaphors dress one’s speech in various cognitive apparel as well, setting a tone for listeners which may intimidate or soothe, familiarize or entertain. While fusion always wears a lab coat, hybrid can be seen on occasion sporting overalls – with close genetics cousin chimera dressed in a tunic, unassumingly swathing baby mosaic in a cute little artist’s smock. Ah, the always-fashionable mixture metaphor.

So what’s up with this whole mixture-metaphors thing? We’re sure metaphors for mixtures were used throughout time and culture. However, we’ll note that hybrid was in hibernation until 19th century science barged in and woke it from its boring slumber. The sciences were more divided then than now – and were still dividing, as was the corresponding language. Meanwhile, and for some time following, society was segregated by colour, and men had “men’s work” and women had “women’s work”. Division took the forms of both territory and strata, and different tended to mean inequal.

Then the 20th century dropped by briefly, bringing with it a party-platter of reintegration and the unwrapped gift of open-mindedness. We changed: as a society, as a language, as an attitude, and most importantly as individual cognitive processors. We needed new words and metaphors to express the many concepts new to our society. The stellar popularity of these metaphors today may be hinting that an egalitarian Shangri-la shines silent but brightly within contemporary hearts, even when it appears at times that our mouths are still rolling around in a 17th century pig sty.

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