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It’s all in the genes: DNA and metaphor

Sixty years ago this week, the journal Nature published Francis Crick and James Watson’s groundbreaking paper on deoxyribonucleic acid, which described for the first time the double helix shape of the DNA molecule. As often happens with scientific and technical vocabulary, the term DNA soon broke out of the specialized field in which it originated, and began to be seen in newspaper articles about genetics and similarly general texts. More recently, it has taken a further step into the mainstream by acquiring a metaphorical use. We say that a particular characteristic or talent is “in someone’s DNA” or “part of their DNA” as a way of emphasizing that this is a fundamental aspect of their nature, and unlikely ever to change.

We read, for example, of a British conservative politician, that “Euroscepticism is stamped in his DNA”, or that the Boston Red Sox are “the baseball team that is a part of the city’s DNA”. The DNA metaphor is especially favoured by organizations seeking to promote a positive corporate image. If your mission statement claims that some desirable quality is “part of your DNA”, that’s a lot more impressive than simply saying that it’s something you are committed to. Here are some examples from our corpus:

Cafedirect is about ethics and value – these are part of our DNA.
He highlighted the importance of university research in helping Shell improve. “Technology is in our DNA,” he said.
Innovation is imbued in Suntech’s DNA, and … our R and D professionals are committed to continually improve how we harness solar energy.

A variation on this is to say that something is “in someone’s genes”:

Neil’s passion for plants may well be in his genes. His grandfather was heavily involved with the Delphinium Society.
Music was literally in her genes as her mother Velma Brunt once sang with the legendary Sam Cooke.

In much the same way, now that computers have become part of our everyday experience (rather than being the province of geeky programmers), some of the vocabulary of the field has crossed over into general discourse. In all these examples, the words in italics started life as technical terms in IT:

With a withering sneer as his default setting, Bob Dylan could have the playlist to himself, but “Positively 4th Street” beats the rest.
This is a straight-up, what you see is what you get album, and the lyrics stick closely to the well trodden paths of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The frantic pace of success may or may not have contributed to his recent gall-bladder removal (he was up and running within a week).

While none of this is scientifically precise, these metaphorical uses at least preserve the feel of the original technical meanings. Occasionally, though, the metaphor moves off in a quite different direction. The word light year, for example, denotes a unit of measurement used in astronomy: it’s the distance that light travels in a year (approximately 10 million million kilometres). But in this case, the presence of  “year” in the term suggests time rather than distance, and this is how it tends to be used in general discourse, as an emphatic way of saying “a very long time”:

In many ways [19th century engineer] Brunel was light years ahead of his time.
They came up with a front-wheel drive hatchback which was modern in concept but light years behind with build quality.

An even more unfortuante case is the word Neanderthal. Technically referring to an extinct species of hominids (or early humans), it is now widely used for insulting people you regard as stupid or backward-looking: “Speaker of the House John Boehner has come out swinging, calling Tea Party congresspeople ‘morons’ and ‘Neanderthals'”. Which seems rather unfair on the poor Neanderthals. For all we know, high intelligence might have been part of their DNA.

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Michael Rundell


  • A commenter on my blog once expressed his dislike for the figurative use of DNA, so I said the aversion must be in his genes. There’s a quite remarkable extended metaphor along these lines quoted in Janet Byron Anderson’s book Sick English:

    “After more than a decade of remapping techno’s DNA by splicing electronic beats with Mexican regional folk music, … the tandem has added yet another chromosome to its sonic gene pool…” (Reed Johnson, LA Times, 2010).

  • Another example that comes to mind is viral. When it was adopted by IT from medicine/biology, it acquired a negative connotation but in its most recent usage in general discourse it denotes a positive concept (“very popular and spreading very quickly”).

  • That’s a great quote from Reed Johnson, Stan. Thanks, Licia, for that interesting observation. Most of the nontechnical terms in IT start as metaphors (window, icon, recycle, Trojan [horse], cut-and-paste etc), and a computer virus is always something bad. But ‘going viral’ is definitely positive – it’s what we’re all aiming for!

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