Metaphorically Speaking

“Speaking? Don’t you mean metaphorically thinking?”

Metaphors fit the bill of today’s discussion. But don’t worry you second-hand journalists, you pitiful poets, you wanna-be literary gods, for this article isn’t for the writers of society and it isn’t about literary metaphors. It is about cognitive metaphors, those constructs through which we experience the world.

“Wait…metaphors aren’t just a tool of rhetoric?”

No, metaphors are a tool to understand one kind of thing or experience in terms of another. In short, we think in metaphors. This post will introduce two kinds of metaphors and illustrate how they appear in our everyday language.

Orientational metaphors give abstract concepts a spatial orientation. Compared to other classes of metaphors, these are special because they are grounded in our direct experience of the world. It is through our physical and cultural environments that these metaphors arise.

For example: Happy is up, sad is down.

Think about a particularly incredible day that you’ve had. It’s fair to assume that you were feeling great, walking with a spring in your step, your chin held high while you gazed up at the sky. What about the last time you were miserable though? Your shoulders were probably hunched while your chin rested on your chest, your eyes fixed on your feet as the soles of your shoes gradually wore away because of the way in which they dragged along. This is the physical basis of our first orientational metaphor. A happy person has erect, upward oriented posture while depression manifests as a sagging, limp posture.

So how does this metaphor manifest in everyday language? Have you ever said anything similar to “my spirits rose” or “that gave me a lift?” Those key words indicate an upward orientation. How about “I’m feeling down” or “I fell into a depression”? These words have a downward orientation. Have you ever thought about these simple phrases as being metaphors? If you’re anything like me, there’s not a chance. But don’t worry, we aren’t alone. Most people look right past these metaphors and actually consider comments like the ones above as being quite literal. This just shows how pervasive metaphor is in our language. Let’s look at another example.

Having control (or power) is up, being subject to control is down.

Ever been in a fight? Yeah, me neither. But we know what the end of any fight looks like; the victor is standing over the defeated as he bleeds (or cries in the case of the schoolyard…I’d hope there wouldn’t be blood) while laying on the ground. Do you see how the relative physical positions relate? The victor is above (up) the defeated (down).

So have you ever “had the upper hand” or “had control over the situation?” Ever “risen through the ranks?” I hope you can say yes to those and never have to experience a “decline or fall from power.” And I certainly hope you never find yourself “under someone else’s control.”

Again, orientational metaphors originate from our physical and cultural experiences and are so fundamental in our thinking that it can be difficult to find an alternative. Here are some more orientational metaphors. See if you can figure out the physical/cultural basis of each (you can get the first two no problem):

Conscious is up, unconscious down;

Health and life are up, disease and death are down (feeling “under the weather“, Flula?);

Good is up, bad is down;

Virtue is up, depravity down;

Rational is up, emotional down.

The second kind of metaphors we’ll cover are Ontological metaphors. These metaphors allow us to reflect on our experiences in terms of objects and substances, which can be treated as discrete entities. Conceiving everything as discrete allows us to refer to, quantify, group, and categorize them. But what do I mean by discrete? Let’s look at container metaphors, my favorite type of ontological metaphor.

We all have skin. It’s what separates the outside from our insides (our guts). We project this conception on everything we perceive as having a boundary, from forests and meadows, to roads and houses, and to countries and continents. And when entities are bounded, they have size and can be quantified by the amount of substance they hold. That’s why we say there is a “lot of land in China” and not China is made up of a lot of land. We perceive the land (the substance) as being contained by China (the container) even though the concept of “China” is an abstraction of the mind. And even though rocks can be a homogenous, it doesn’t stop us from “breaking them open to see the inside.” The inside is no different than the outside, except the outside is a boundary, so we perceive an in/out relationship (geodes are a cool exception to this example). And did your parents ever tell you not to “stand in the middle of the road?” They didn’t mind if you stood on it, just don’t stand in it.

The same holds true for our field of vision, as objects “move into and out of” our field of vision. Events and actions are perceived with the same metaphor as well. Have you ever “gotten out of doing work?” Or did you get “called in to work and have to drop out  of the race?” Again, our use of metaphor is pervasive.

Human cognition is fascinating and our use of metaphor in everyday thought and language was news to me. It’s interesting now to listen to conversations and pick out the metaphors, even when it’s me talking. If you want to learn more, check out Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a book about the Theory of Metaphorical Concepts, which is where this material came from. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then stay tuned for future posts on metaphors; this one has only scratched the surface.

This post is part of series. Continue reading here.


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