I recently read a sentence that has confused me in the book Educated by Tara Westover.

I watched the landscape splinter and barb, the rolling black summits of the Bear River Mountains giving way to the razor-edged Rockies.

In Oxford dictionary "splinter" means:

  • A small, thin, sharp piece of wood, glass, or similar material broken off from a larger piece.

And "barb" means:

  • A sharp projection near the end of an arrow, fish hook, or similar object, which is angled away from the main point so as to make extraction difficult.

So, could you please tell me if it is a metaphor? And, does the writer want to say:

  1. "the rolling black summits" look like "splinter".

  2. "the razor-edged Rockies" look like "barb".

  • Those verbs are being used intransitively or reflexively. To splinter means "to become splintered, to turn into splinters" (commonplace) and to barb (by analogy thereto) meaning "to become barbed" (a coingage, I think, though I should probably check the bard). Speech can become barbed. We normally use the phrase "become barbed".
    – TimR
    May 22, 2018 at 21:52

1 Answer 1

  1. No. Splinter is used as a verb (an action) rather than a noun (an object) in this context. Splinter is not being used here to describe the "the rolling black summits" of the Bear River Mountains. Instead, it is being used to describe the change from the Bear River Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.
  2. Yes. Technically, it means the Rockies look like barbs(plural, which is the grammatical form used for multiple things or for a group). The Rockies are a mountain range, a collection of individual mountains.

The imagery that the speaker/author is trying to describe is that the landscape progresses from the (relatively) singular, continuous, and smooth Bear River Mountains into more individual and jagged Rocky Mountains.

"Splinter" and "barb", in addition to being nouns, are also verbs that describe actions.

"Splinter" (as a verb) is defined as to "break or cause to break into small sharp fragments."

"Barb" (as a verb) is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as to "furnish with a barb (the noun)".

So an alternative (but less evocative) way of describing the scene is "as the Bear River Mountain range merged into the Rocky Mountain range, the mountains became less continuous and more jagged in shape".

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