Depending on metaphor

Posted by on April 05, 2011

April is metaphorical English month here on Macmillan Dictionary Blog and over on the dictionary. We have some great contributors and contributions lined up for you. To kick off, our regular guest blogger Stan Carey discusses the importance of metaphor. Stan blogs over on Sentence first and tweets @StanCarey.

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A character in Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis says that “the defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real”. This might seem a strange paradox if we think of metaphors as the imaginative literary flourishes we were taught to look out for in Shakespeare. They are that, but they are more, and the truth is therefore more interesting: metaphors are deeply integrated in our everyday language – its idioms, phrases, even words themselves.

Of course, it depends on how we define metaphor, but if we take figurative language to be metaphorical, then a great deal of language is metaphorical. Many everyday words have followed a path of increasing abstraction from relatively concrete origins. “Followed a path” is obviously metaphorical: it describes progression through time in terms of a path, something we might physically walk along.

For a subtler example, take a word I used a moment ago: depend. Its modern use is chiefly abstract, but its original sense was “hang down”, like a pendulum. Its meaning has slid from physical reliance to figurative reliance. Why did this happen? Guy Deutscher, in his book The Unfolding of Language, writes that “what lures the stream of metaphors down towards abstraction is nothing other than our need to extend our range of expression”.

Creating and using metaphors helps us make sense of abstract ideas and complex events by relating them to more palpable and familiar things, such as our bodies, the objects they encounter, and our experience of three-dimensional space. As Michael Rundell has shown, this role of metaphor could help language learners get a handle on the seemingly chaotic cluster of English phrasal verbs. It’s also a useful insight for more fluent speakers.

Metaphors tend to be based on a key conceptual correspondence. This is one reason they’re so productive. We can retain a metaphor’s central idea, but extend it and play with it and still be understood even as we conjure up unprecedented descriptions. Our natural creativity with language gives words whole constellations of related meanings. Hence, as Rosamund Moon points out in her introduction to metaphor, “when a word has several different meanings, some of those meanings are usually metaphorical”.

Abstraction has become so commonplace in our thoughts and words that we tend to ignore what lies beneath it. Familiarity has fostered invisibility. The psychologist Julian Jaynes expressed it in a memorable metaphor:

Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.

You can read more about metaphor in these posts on Macmillan Dictionary Blog and in a series of recent articles in MED Magazine.

Comments (5)
  • Interesting. I recently wrote about mixed metaphors and idiom blends, which we’re told are wrong, even though Shakespeare used them…

    http://www.write-well.co.uk/2011/03/05/charlie-sheens-genius-for-mixed-metaphor/

    Posted by Jude Sheerin on 8th April, 2011
  • Thanks, Jude. I enjoyed your post. Yes, mixed metaphors are widely and consistently reviled in writing circles, but I find them interesting too, and often amusing.

    Posted by Stan on 13th April, 2011
  • A friend on Twitter brought a passage by Nietzsche to my attention, one that might have inspired Jaynes’s line:
    “Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

    Posted by Stan on 15th April, 2011
  • [...] thought of as similes, analogies and so on, but single words can be metaphorical too. In “Depending on metaphor”, I point out that although the current use of depend is chiefly abstract, its original meaning [...]

    Posted by Dictionary of faded metaphors « Sentence first on 8th May, 2011
  • Thank you for the reference to Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis. It brings to mind the debate between Catholics and Protestants regarding the sacrament of the Eucharist. Is the bread literally the body of Christ? For Catholics, the metaphor of the bread is or becomes real. For Protestants, this metaphor is merely symbolic. This debate within the Christian community about transubstantiation is at the heart a debate about metaphors.

    Posted by Doré Bak on 16th April, 2014
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