For I met a metaphor

Posted by on April 15, 2011

Metaphorical English month continues with a post by our regular guest blogger Stan Carey. Stan writes on language on his own blog Sentence first and tweets @StanCarey.

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I was introduced to metaphor as a technique in writing or speech whereby something is described in terms of another thing. It might be an evocative idea that lets us see the original one in an indirect and illuminating way: Love is a rose; Death is darkness. With “a sea of troubles”, Shakespeare uses the ocean to convey the magnitude and turbulence of Hamlet’s quandary. We imagine him (figuratively) navigating a storm in search of a safe haven.

This conventional type of metaphor has occasionally been dismissed as ornamental and even deceitful. Plato found poetry and philosophy to be irreconcilable. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, wrote that reasoning with metaphors (and ambiguous language generally) is “wandering amongst innumerable absurdities”. Paradoxically, though, he relied on a spatial metaphor to make his point, and indeed his whole argument is strewn with metaphorical language. Later philosophers like Vico and Nietzsche were more sympathetic.

Certainly some metaphors are little more than decorative and peripheral, but others are indispensable – sometimes less obviously so because they are deeply embedded in our everyday language. Take “embedded”: embed originally referred to fossils in rocks, but I used it figuratively, and presumably without causing any confusion. In such cases, metaphor allows us to “lexicalise” an idea, i.e., to express it in a word.

Examples of this are ubiquitous. Macmillan Dictionary’s ‘metaphor boxes’, written by Rosamund Moon, offer many examples arranged systematically. An organisation is like a body. A conversation is like a journey. To be proud, happy, successful or powerful is like being higher up. Gaining knowledge is like navigating, understanding is like seeing, and an opinion is like a view. At Discover magazine, Ed Yong recently wrote about the implications of conceptualising crime as a virus or a beast.

Reading the metaphors Rosamund has collected, we find them intuitively true because they’re intimately tied to how we conceptualise. We use metaphors to handle complex or abstract ideas by showing their similarity to simpler or more concrete or familiar things. Many metaphors originate in our impressions of our bodies and their interaction with the physical world. They are integral to how we make sense of our experiences.

We depend on metaphors to express ourselves. Tuning in to their hidden power, we begin to notice examples that are unhelpful or even downright pernicious. Studying metaphors, we discern patterns in how we structure and organise our perception, and we can better understand ourselves and our worlds.

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Comments (5)
  • […] to decry them? It doesn’t seem so. Nowadays we give them more credit. My next article, “For I met a metaphor”, refers to several of Macmillan Dictionary’s “metaphor boxes”, written by lexicographer […]

    Posted by Dictionary of faded metaphors « Sentence first on 4th May, 2011
  • Every word is finally a metaphor – a substitute for reality.

    McGilchrist: “I am talking about the fact that every word eventually has to lead us out of the web of language, to the lived world, ultimately to something that can only be pointed to, something that relates to our embodied existence. Even words such as ‘virtual’ or ‘immaterial’ take us back to their Latin derivation – sometimes by a very circuitous path – to the earthy realities of a man’s strength (vir-tus), or the feel of a piece of wood (materia). Everything has to be expressed in terms of something else, and those something elses eventually have to come back to the body.”

    Posted by David on 11th May, 2011
  • Thanks for the quote, David. Language is a bind – virtually impossible to do without, but with its own subtle drawbacks because of the very human tendency to mistake the map for the territory. Bergson, in his essay on laughter, wrote something similar to McGilchrist:
    “The word, which only takes note of the most ordinary function and commonplace aspect of the thing, intervenes between it and ourselves, and would conceal its form from our eyes, were that form not already masked beneath the necessities that brought the word into existence.”

    Posted by Stan on 12th May, 2011
  • “tendency to mistake the map for the territory”

    Now there’s a metaphor I like.

    Do you have a reference for the Bergson?

    (The McGilchrist is Master and His Emissary, by the way).

    Posted by David on 16th May, 2011
  • Certainly, David: it’s from Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, chapter 3, part 1. It’s not so much an essay as a short book on the subject, and a very interesting one at that.

    Posted by Stan on 18th May, 2011
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