I'm curious about the origin of using descriptors of one sense (e.g. sight) in order to describe a different sense (e.g. touch). (Please note that humans have more than five senses, as this may affect your answer.)

Using one sense to describe another is common enough in English, like "a honeyed voice" where a sound (voice) is described using taste, smell, touch, and sense of time (honeyed).

For example, "her sleep-silted eyes were intently trained on a book" the word "silted" is used to describe a girl's sleepy eyes. "Silted" is typically used to describe sight (defined as "to become filled or blocked with silt") but is instead used to describe a touch-feeling. A feeling where her eyes are clogged with sleep as if with silt.

Is this a case of using one sense (sight) to describe another (touch) or is this just an unusual descriptor? Is the idea of using one sense to describe another just a particular type of metaphor? Where did this kind of word usage come from and is it generally considered to be a good or a bad way to describe something?

  • 1
    Even blind people say things like I see what you mean. But it's really just a matter of opinion as to exactly how far you can go with "mixed metaphors" like this. May 15, 2017 at 16:50
  • However, a recent (New Yorker, I think) article talks about using touch technology to enable the blind to see, arguing that it's the mind, not the eyes, that see. Also using sound the same way. This may be a question for the writing web site.
    – Xanne
    May 15, 2017 at 16:54
  • Absolutely not!! And any source that tells you otherwise smells!
    – Hot Licks
    May 15, 2017 at 20:08
  • Your question is too broad and, strictly speaking, not a question about English. Metaphoric dyslexia like this has been used effectively since the beginning of time. May 15, 2017 at 22:24

1 Answer 1


The well-known technique, sometimes called 'synesthesia', is common in English, both spoken and written.

It is not a "case of using one sense (sight) to describe another (touch)". It is "a particular type of metaphor".

Where the technique "came from" is a matter for debate; some would argue that it is the expression of a common mental process (also called synesthesia).

It is generally considered neither a "good way" nor a "bad way" to describe something, although, as always, the device may be poorly or well used, depending on the skill of the writer or speaker.

For examples of the literary device, see Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms, "Synesthesia", among others. For more examples, and a more elaborated, cross-disciplinary description of the phenomenon, see ThoughtCo., "Synesthesia (Language and Literature)".

For a capsule definition of the mental process, see Psychology Today, "Synesthesia". For a more in-depth treatment in the popular media, see NPR, The Salt: What's on Your Plate, "Food for Thought: Some People Really Can Taste the Rainbow".

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