The ubiquity of metaphor

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. – James Geary

The conventional meaning of metaphor, familiar from school lessons in poetry and literature, is a description of something in terms of another – a representative or symbolic relation based on similarity. But in a more general sense, metaphor can be considered much more fundamental and prevalent, no mere literary flourish but the very stuff of language and thought. (There’s an example: metaphor as a substance, or, more generically, ideas as objects.)

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that metaphor pervades not only language but everyday thought and action. They describe metaphor as a matter of “conceptual structure” that “involves all the natural dimensions of our experience, including aspects of our sense experiences: colour, shape, texture, sound, etc.” Lakoff and Johnson supply many examples (e.g., argument is war, life is a journey, happy is up, less is down), each supported by examples of familiar expressions. A selection is here.

Julian Jaynes felt similarly. He considered metaphor to be central to consciousness, describing it as “the very constitutive ground of language” in a controversial book published in 1976. According to Jaynes, consciousness “operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it.” Spatialisation is characteristic of this practice: concepts that lack spatial qualities are given them in our minds for easier handling – time, for example, or ideas themselves. (Handling concepts is another metaphor.)

The quote at the top of this post comes from a talk in which James Geary reaches similar though less philosophical conclusions. Metaphors are everywhere – Geary says we utter about six a minute – but this goes largely unnoticed because they hide in plain hearing in our common speech. Signifiers become hidden in words whose familiarity then obscures their origins. Take for example the ubiquitous be, whose roots (Proto-Indo-European *bheu-, *bhu-, ‘grow’, ‘become’) reveal its close connection to the body as a process.

“Abstract words,” wrote Jaynes, “are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.” That’s a metaphor to leave by.

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[more posts about metaphor]

23 Responses to The ubiquity of metaphor

  1. NathanG says:

    I’ve been following your tweets for a few months now and this is just another awesome example of why. Great thoughts here.

  2. JScap says:

    I’m in complete agreement with NathanG. This is my first time to your site, and I can tell you it won’t be the last.

    The way that metaphors “hide in plain hearing” (great way to put it!) because our “familiarity…obscures their origins”– for me, this brings to mind those lovely moments when metaphors that may be “dead” in other languages (cliches) are translated and achieve a stunning freshness. One of my favorites is from Chinese. To say someone’s depressed or (in American idiom) “down in the dumps,” you say they’re “gray in the heart.”

    On a related note, Joseph Conrad would take old Polish saws and translate them into English, where they sometimes had a nice new shine. The only one I can remember off the top of my head is something like, “There’s still milk on his moustache”– used to mock youngsters.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Scott Huler says:

    life is a metaphor. i mean, life is like a simile.

  4. Stan says:

    Nathan: Thanks very much. Glad you’re enjoying the tweets and the bits of writing.

    Joseph: Welcome, and thanks for your comment. You make a good point about translation: it can invigorate metaphors simply by uncloaking them. I don’t know if I’ve heard the milk-moustache expression before — it’s a good one, though gender-limited.

    Scott: Indeed. And recursion is… No, better not fall into that one.

  5. I love the final metaphor – utterly beautiful!

  6. Val Erde says:

    My own familiarity with metaphor comes from trying to get my dream-brain to recognise daily metaphor so that I can change what it experiences when I’m asleep. I don’t know if that makes much sense. I don’t know about everyone, but my own and probably most people’s dreams are metaphors… Here’s an instance of a dream I had years ago. In waking life I was about to get married. In dream life my husband to be was pouring water into a pair of shoes – my father’s shoes. Metaphor: filling my father’s shoes. So my tendency is to look for things in waking life that will translate into the language that my unconscious understands. I’ve not managed it very much, but occasionally I do!

  7. Tim says:

    I dunno if we actually do use six metaphors a minute. If that is the case, then how difficult our language must be to foreigners trying to learn it!

    I know we are very specific in what we say, but when you wrap things up in a cloak of metaphorical expression, it must obfuscate some of what you wish to convey when your listener is not familiar with the comings and goings of such a means of expression.

    We all like to be clever with our language – it’s part of what makes being an English speaker so much fun. And the point about translating metaphorical speech from one language to another is very interesting; because every language has its own ebb and flow of metaphor usage. I’m sure there are many times when the intent is lost in translation, but whether this is for better or worse depends on the parties involved and the context of what is being conveyed. ;)

    May our words be products of deep thought and our ears be attuned to the vibrations that emit from the mouths of others. If the pen is mightier than the sword, what does that make the tongue?

  8. Hoover says:

    John Locke: “If we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats”

    Of course this is a fundamental misunderstanding of language. Someone should have pointed out to Locke that when he says “the art of rhetoric” he’s using metaphor (‘art’ is a metaphor for ‘technique’, which is a metaphor for ‘a method of expressing oneself’, and so on until you have to admit that the only non-metaphorical way of describing the art of rhetoric is to engage in the art of rhetoric).

    Likewise “perfect cheats” is poetic. And arguably, every time he uses a word, he’s using metaphor, as Jaynes suggests.

  9. Stan says:

    Jams: Jaynes had a beautiful writing style. Combined with his ideas, it made the book a pleasure to read.

    Val: Dreams are heavily symbolic but they can sometimes be surprisingly literal or pun-based. Your shoes dream seems to be an example of this.

    Tim: The six-a-minute figure presumably comes from some study, but I don’t think it should be taken as definitive. How many metaphors we use depends on some widely varying factors, such as how we define metaphor and how much we speak or write.

    Hoover: I agree, Locke’s statement is fundamentally misguided, and very pessimistic too. Language doesn’t lend itself to neat categories of rhetoric and non-rhetoric, metaphor and non-metaphor. Sometimes the closest we can get to the ‘truth’ is through analogy or even paradox.

  10. annie says:

    so interesting! thanks to all and of course Stan. Another book – ON METAPHOR edited by Sheldon Sacks is a compilation of papers from a 1978 symposium , “Metaphor:The Conceptual Leap at the University of Chicago.
    The forward begins with a quote by Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth:
    But if this is indeed the case-if metaphor, taken in this general sense, is not just a certain development of speech, but must be regarded as one of its essential conditions-then any effort to understand its function leads us back, once more, to the fundamental form of verbal conceiving..

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    I am reminded by this post of Hemingway’s abhorrence for metaphor whilst using it in the broader sense in most of his stories. Maxi vs mini.

  12. Stan says:

    Annie: That sounds like an interesting book; I’ll look out for it. Thanks for the quote from its foreword — it tallies very closely with what Lakoff, Johnson and Jaynes wrote.

    WWW: Yes, it depends on how broadly it’s defined. Maybe Hemingway had analogies like these in mind.

  13. Claudia says:

    Thanks! Interesting as always. Your above link made me laugh out loud. I’ve never been a very good writer but I’ve never been that bad!

  14. Jo says:

    Stan, your response to Hoover made me think, specifically about ‘truth’. Does it really exist, or rather is there only ‘one’ truth about anything? I guess I’m thinking of history, specifically. Its interpretation and retelling is by definition so subjective and I find that fascinating. I’m heading off in a different direction on this thread, but I enjoyed reading it very much and it made me think :)

  15. Sean Jeating says:

    Hm. As for metaphors: I am almost sure you’d enjoy reading Antonio Skármeta’s Burning Patience.

    As for the link to the ‘worst analogies’:
    He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

    Apart from that one ought never – haha ha! – trust anyone using superlatives: The masterminds of this very website should read the works of Flann O’Brien.

  16. Stan says:

    Claudia: The analogies seem to have come from a humour contest run by the Washington Post, which notes that “the line separating painfully bad analogies from weirdly good ones is as thin as a soup made from the shadow of a chicken that was starved to death by Abraham Lincoln”. You’re sure to enjoy this earlier collection too.

    Jo: Subjectivity in these matters is inescapable. Facts are useful but they can limit understanding. There’s no absolute and transcendent truth; or, if there is, we can’t know it, because if we could, it wouldn’t be absolute and transcendent. According to the mischievous Discordians, all affirmations are simultaneously true, false and meaningless in some sense. This is a helpful corrective to our tendency to overstate our conclusions. To assess historians’ work — the facts they select and how they interpret them — requires that we assess the historians themselves, their cultural context, and the extent to which they recognise their limitations.

    Sean: I’m sure I would — thanks for the recommendation. Re-reading those outlandish analogies, I thought of Flann O’Brien too, and his skill at delivering absurdity with deadpan eloquence.

  17. Jo says:

    Thanks Stan for your very interesting response; I just finished a respected historian’s account of the Mutiny of the Bounty. Her research is exhaustive and impressive but throughout the book she (openly) theorizes about possible motives, actions etc., to fill in gaps that cannot be explained by records of that time. It is very entertaining to compare the profiles she sketches of Bligh et al., with those reproduced by Hollywood over the years.

  18. annie says:

    Not because of this posting, but I have given my Artist Book students the option of doing a project on Metaphor. The examples: My heart of an open book, Her face was an open book… Could be fun, for them and me!

    And then there was the little girl who wrote to author Jane Yolen asking, for a report she had to write, how many Metalfors there were in Yolen’s book Owl moon.She wrote that she liked the metalfors very much .

  19. Stan says:

    Jo: And thank you for yours! I’ve no objection to speculation if it’s openly so and well informed. Jaynes’ book is a good example of this. I read two archaeology books recently with very different approaches to ‘truth’. One made dubious assumptions in an area the author was unfamiliar with, which undermined the validity of some of his conclusions; the other asked endless questions instead of making assumptions at all. Some readers might find the latter style exasperating, but I thought it was justified, and a welcome change.

    Annie: An artistic metaphor project sounds like great fun! Lots of surprises in store for you. Thanks for the charming story about Jane Yolen and the metalfors. (Which itself could be the title of a story.)

  20. A few years ago I lent my copy of George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things” to a good friend who died before she finished with it. I got it back recently, and flipping through the pages have been reminded of some of the thoughts I had the first time.

    For example, in chapter five there’s a discussion of a subtype of metonymy in which one step of a process stands for the whole process. That made me think about some common examples, for example in science I’d count “survival of the fittest” and in religion I’d count “salvation by faith”. As far as I know there’s no specific name for what we might call procedural metonymy, but it’s a useful thing to recognise for what it is.

  21. Stan says:

    Adrian: I’ve heard good reports of that book. Some day I hope to read it.

    Another description of metaphor that’s closely aligned with the above is “tools of thought”, from Daniel Dennett.

  22. […] them are effectively invisible, integral to the flows of speech and thought: inevitably, given their ubiquity. Metaphor is a way for us to relate to (grasp) abstract ideas in terms of simpler, more concrete […]

  23. […] often follow a gradual path from the concrete to the abstract, hence James Geary’s line that metaphor lives a secret life all around us. In the case of literally its meaning draws more attention to the drift, especially, incongruously, […]

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