Metaphors We Live By

This Is Water

Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash

Metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”1 George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen in their 2003 book “Metaphors We Live By” propose that human thought processes are largely metaphorical. Once I was exposed to this concept, I could not unsee it. I paraphrase and quote liberally below.

Argument Is War

Your claims are indefensible.
They attacked every weak point in my argument. Their criticisms were right on target.
I demolished their argument.
I’ve never won an argument with them.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, they’ll wipe you out. They shot down all of my arguments.

Time Is Money

You’re wasting my time.
This gadget will save you hours.
I don’t have the time to give you.
How do you spend your time these days? That flat tire costs me an hour.
I’ve invested a lot of time in them.
I don’t have enough time to spare for that. You’re running out of time.
You need to budget your time.
Put aside some time for ping pong. Is that worth your while?
Do you have much time left?
They’re living on borrowed time.
You don’t use your time profitably. I lost a lot of time when I got sick. Thank you for your time.

When we use the war metaphor to talk about arguments, when we use the money metaphor to talk about time, it is intended to highlight specific abstract concepts and anchor them in something more real, more grounded. That is the benefit of metaphor. However, along with the concepts we want to highlight, the metaphor brings along with it all the other aspects of the metaphor into our communication, whether we intend it or not. Those aspects may or may not be true. The metaphor may not apply where we don’t intend it to.

Words Matter More Than You Think

Lakoff and Johnsen ultimately point out that all of our language grounds out in our human embodiment.

HAPPY IS UP, SAD IS DOWN
I’m feeling up. That boosted my spirits. My spirits rose. You’re in high spirits. Thinking about them always gives me a lift. I’m feeling down. I’m depressed. They’re really low these days. I fell into a depression. My spirits sank. The physical basis is a person’s posture droops along with sadness and depression, whereas an erect posture goes with a positive emotional state.

CONSCIOUS IS UP, UNCONSCIOUS IS DOWN
Get up. Wake up. I’m up already. They rise early in the morning. They fell asleep. They dropped off to sleep. They’re under hypnosis. They sank into a coma. The physical basis is humans sleep lying down and stand up when awake.

HEALTH AND LIFE ARE UP, SICKNESS AND DEATH ARE DOWN
They’re at the peak of health. Lazarus rose from the dead. They’re in top shape. As to their health, they’re way up there. They fell ill. They’re sinking fast. They came down with the flu. Their health is declining. They dropped dead. The physical basis is being ill forces us to lie down and being dead forces us down.

So, this is all a neat trick, and perhaps mind blowing. The reason I want to share this and bring it to your attention is so that you can recognize the metaphor in your choice of words. Because once you see your metaphor, you may become capable of choosing a different one.

Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance. 

Some rhetorical questions to consider: Are you really fighting a fire when something bad happens at work? Are you really fighting a war when you’re in a war room? How much baggage are you bringing along with one convenient phrase? Do you want to feel at risk of death because a website is down and a computer can’t respond to a request? Is the metaphor worth it?

What Do You Think?

Since I read “Metaphors We Live By”, I cannot stop seeing the metaphor everywhere. Do you see it? Do you use some unusual metaphors purposefully? How would you describe “happy” without embodied metaphor? Is it even possible? Let me know in the comments.

Next Up

Next, I will write about Finite and Infinite Games.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: How Complex Systems Fail | No Motherships
  2. Pingback: Onboarding to a Software Team: In Three Parts | No Motherships
  3. Pingback: Finite and Infinite Games | No Motherships

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