A living metaphor

Think metaphors are the reserve of poets? Think again. Metaphors are all around us in every sentence we speak. You just have to know where to look...

By: Clare Howdle,   2 minutes

Back in November, I went to a lecture about metaphors. Not the kind of metaphors we all learnt about at GCSE, shouting out examples in English class before taking to our exercise books to demonstrate we understood, but the kind of miniature metaphors that we use every day to express how we feel about people, place and brands. It was eye-openingly fascinating and at the end of it a book was recommended.

Metaphors We Live By argues that contrary to popular belief, metaphors aren’t just the tools of poets, authors and wordsmiths. In fact they are pervasive in everyday life, in all our words and our thoughts and our actions.

It starts simply, looking at obvious metaphors in our language. Argument as War is a clear example. If you think of a few phrases we use to describe the process of arguing it explains itself.

Your claims are indefensible

I’ve never won an argument

I’m not willing to fight with you on this

He shot me down

This metaphor doesn’t just structure our discourse about argument, it defines how we act and do, so that in this sense we are looking at how metaphors are concepts for living, not just tools for writing.

The book then begins to consider the different groupings of metaphors. It starts with orientational, where spatial orientation dictates the concept used – for example health and life are ‘up’ sickness is ‘down’ (he’s in the peak of health or he came down with flu), then moves on to ontological, looking at how we use entity and substance to comprehend events, activities and states.

From here it gets more complicated, unpacking the difference between metaphor and metonymy including synecdoche, where metaphor is a way of conceiving one thing in terms of another to facilitate understanding and metonymy is primarily referential, allowing one thing to stand for another.

Metonymy and synecdoche are pervasive in western culture, especially around the use of the face to represent the whole body – most likely because of the dominance of portraits and paintings throughout history. If you asked to see a picture of my sister and I should you a close up shot of just her face, you wold be satisfied that that was a picture of my sister. But if I showed you a close up picture of just her arm, or just her leg, you wouldn’t accept that as a ‘picture’ of her. Plus you’d think I was pretty weird. Synedoche in action!

I could keep going through all the different layers of metaphor we use, as the book did, but I fear you might lose interest. All I can say if how we talk, behave and live interests you and you’re looking for a mind-expanding summer read, give it a go. You’ll feel smarter, I promise…

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