Mekeo chiefs and sorcerers: Metaphor, ideology and practice

Alan Jones*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    5 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper evaluates two English expressions used by Michelle Stephen to translate the Mekeo terms lopia and ungaunga, traditionally rendered as "chief (or "peace chief) and "sorcerer" (Seligman 1910; Hau'ofa 1971, 1981; Mosko 1985). Stephen suggests that more "literal" translations are "man of kindness" and "man of sorrow". I argue that the expressions proposed are only literal if we accept postulated etymologies based on Stephen's reading of the Desnoës Mekeo-French Dictionary (1941) and a grammatical analysis Stephen puts forward as unproblematic. I use authentic texts from Desnoës and my own grammar of Mekeo to challenge Stephen's suggested translations, and suggest that the use of conventional labels for key cultural terms is preferable to searching for non-existent "literal" meanings. More generally, I discuss the use of etymologies that are unverifiable, and often from a linguistic viewpoint unlikely, in ethnographies of the Mekeo and to some extent elsewhere. I outline linguistic processes whereby metaphors and other associative tropes rapidly become conventionalized, and lexical items become grammaticalized. I evaluate the role of metaphor and metonymy in the formation of concepts and belief systems, and sketch an interpretative framework capable of accounting for the different effects and uses of polysemy and homonymy.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)286-312
    Number of pages27
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2007


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