global English metaphorical English

Metaphor and message

Our next guest post on the topic of metaphor comes from Dan Clayton, an English teacher and a Research Fellow at UCL’s Survey of English Usage on the Teaching English Grammar in Schools project. Dan’s A level Language blog English Language @ SFX can be found here.


James Geary told us on Monday that “Metaphors hide in plain sight, and their influence is largely unconscious”. What’s so pithy about that sentence is the way it reminds us that when we’ve grown accustomed to something it’s often much harder to notice it’s there, acting upon us in some way and colouring our perceptions. In terms of the language we use all the time, we need a form of verbal shorthand – and metaphor often provides that, along with colour and originality – but it’s also something we should occasionally question and draw attention to, because not all metaphors are healthy: some are downright pernicious.

Let’s take education for a start. We’re often told that teachers “deliver” courses or particular “units” of work. But I’m a teacher: if I’d wanted to deliver units I’d have got a job as an IKEA driver. The metaphor of knowledge as a package encodes a particular view of education which suggests that ideas can be neatly boxed up, wrapped in parcel tape and despatched to a student who will then accept the delivery (presumably, waiting in for 6 hours while the driver finds a place to park).

It’s a model of transmission from teacher to student that doesn’t allow for any unpicking or discussion of the actual ideas themselves or questioning of how they’re formulated but is all about sending a pre-packaged idea from A to B. Once the unit has been delivered, it can be ticked off on the list and the next unit keenly awaited.

Should we care? Well yes. The linguist Norman Fairclough in his influential book Language and Power tells us that metaphors “structure the way we think and the way we act, and our systems of knowledge and belief, in a pervasive and fundamental way” and points to the ways in which the metaphors familiar to one domain of life often leak into other domains. So, education and health care become suffused with the metaphors of business and commerce. We are no longer members of a community, but stakeholders in it – with all the gambling connotations associated with stake. Young people are no longer students but clients or customers. Schools and colleges become client-facing organisations with customer charters.

Fairclough argues that these metaphors change the way we behave and can lead to creeping social change, away from the interests of people and towards the interests of capital.

But are we spitting in the wind by challenging this sort of language change? As James Geary reminded us, these metaphors often hide in plain sight. For many of us, they’ve become so normal that we don’t even think about how they shape our thought. But by studying language in a little more detail we can start to see them again, trace their shapes, challenge the assumptions they embody and find new metaphors to describe their alternatives.

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Dan Clayton


  • Dan – am loving the ‘units’ thing with teachers ‘delivering’ and students accepting pre-packaged ides. One thing my 16 year old Tom is struggling with as he prepares for his GCSE Eng Lit exam, is accepting that he has to write answers which will ‘score points’ rather than answers which reflect his more individual reaction to and interepretation of the text…..

  • Thanks, Kerry. Sounds like a good example of how exams don’t always accurately measure intelligence but rather how good you are at exams! Bizarrely enough, even the “personal responses” which students are encouraged to give are often pre-packaged ideas designed to hit assessment objectives. Luckily, some (most?) examiners are human beings.
    Good luck to Tom – can’t be long until the exams now

  • Brilliant! Just up my street!

    I come from a culture where the language is naturally infused with metaphor!
    Try this one for exampe, untranslatable:

    if you turn your back to someone, you excuse yourself in Persian culture

    and the poetic response is always:

    “a flower has no front or back”!!! Terrible in English – but v moving in the original!!

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