The ubiquity of metaphor

September 14, 2010

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]