Metaphors and thinking

Metaphors in which one thing is identified with another are something we learn at school as part of poetry – ‘Ever at my back I hear time’s winged chariot drawing near’. However much of our everyday thinking uses metaphors.

Some things are up  Others are down
happy: ‘I’m cheering up’ sad: ‘My spirits sank’
conscious: ‘I woke up’    unconscious: ‘I fell asleep’
in control: ‘I’m on top of it controlled: ‘He’s at the bottom of the totem pole’
more: ‘My income rose’ less: ‘The FTSE fell’
status: ‘Room at the top’ lack of status: ‘the bottom of the league’
moral: ‘High-minded’   immoral: ‘Low-down trick’
Ideas are: - food: ‘I can’t digest this theory’
- people: ‘He’s the father of modern linguistics’
- plants: ‘Physics has many branches’
- products: ‘Our meeting generated a lot of new ideas’
- knives: ‘She cut his argument to ribbons’
The mind is:   - fragile: ‘His mind snapped’  
- a machine: ‘He had a breakdown’
Love is:   - war: ‘He made many conquests’
- magic: ‘She entranced me’
- physical force: ‘Fatal attraction’
Time is: - money: ‘You spend/waste/save/lose/ find time’
Understanding is: - seeing: ‘I see’
Size is: - importance: ‘She’s a big figure in the fashion industry’  
There is no intrinsic reason why ‘happy’ goes with ‘up’, ‘love’ goes with ‘magic’, etc. This is just how the human mind works, presumably based on how we experience the world. The problem is distinguishing between metaphors that help and metaphors that hinder.

Current political metaphors

-          the war against terror (wars are against countries, not abstract nouns; does this accustom us to the use of military weapons against civilians and imprisonment without trial?)

-          the peace process (peace is not a process, but a state; does thinking of it as a continuous process condition us to think it will never be achieved?)

-          the road map (negotiation is not a road with a preset ‘route’ and ‘destination’; countries are condemned for not sticking to a pre-determined road-map)

-          the fight against drugs (if anything it’s against dealers, not drugs; does this help us to accept police-shootings?)

-          the black/gay/bilingual communities (hardly communities in any geographical sense, more attributes of people who can simultaneously be black, gay, ethnic etc; does this metaphor make us assume that ‘communities’ have leaders that speak for their members?)

-          carbon footprint

In one sense these are justifiable shorthand for complex ideas. The trouble comes when people take them literally rather than as metaphors.

Main source George Lakoff, Metaphors we Live by.

Words index  Vivian Cook