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stand nonliteral speech, such as

Understanding Metaphors metaphors and idioms, as rapidly
Sam Glucksberg^ and as easily as comparable literal
expressions (Gibbs, 1980; McGlone,
Department of Psychology, Princetoti University, Princeton, Nevv^ Jersey Glucksberg, & Cacciari, 1994;
Ortony, Schallert, Reynolds, & An-
tos, 1978),
Current Directions is a gold mine. "dogs are animals," you would The second implication is that
You may or may not agree with probably go beyond the literal metaphor understanding is op-
this statement, but chances are you meaning of this assertion to try tional—unless the literal meaning
had no problem understanding it. and understand what the speaker of a sentence makes no sense in
How ditl you arrive at that under- meant by telling you something context, people will not go beyond
standing? In figurative language, that you know full well, and that the literal. The third implication is
the intended meaning does not co- he knows you know full well. The that the ground of a metaphor—the
incide with the literal meanings of utterance must be relevant some- relation between the metaphor
the words and sentences that are how, and so you must go beyond topic, X, and vehicle, Y—is arrived
used. Because literal and figurative the literal to figure out the rel- at via a comparison process. Meta-
meanings do not coincide, figura- evance and intent of his remark phors of the form "X is a Y" are
tive language has traditionally (Grice, 1975), literally false—after all. Current Di-
been considered derivative from Understanding metaphors such rections is not really a hole in the
and more complex than ostensibly as "Currertt Directions is a gold ground where gold can be found.
straightforward literal language. mine" also requires going beyond Therefore, people cannot under-
How might it be more complex? the literal. Everyone in the lan- stand them directly. Instead, meta-
In general, people use two kinds guage business, from philosophers phors are implicitly converted into
of operations in vmderstanding lan- to linguists to psycholinguists, true comparison statements (e.g..
guage. One kind is purely linguis- agrees on what people must do: Current Directions is "like" a gold
tic, and includes such operations as understand a speaker's meaning, mine) and then interpreted just as
lexical access (getting the meariings not just sentence mearung (i,e., they any literal comparison might be in-
of words) and syntactic analysis must understand what the speaker terpreted. In our research, my col-
(determining the grammatical re- intends listeners to understand). leagues and I have shown that both
lations among the words of a There are, however, deep disagree- of these implications are unequivo-
sentence). The second kind of op- ments about how people go about cally wrong. Metaphor under-
eration, pragmatic, is less well de- doing this. At one extreme is stan- standing is not an option, and
fined, but it is just as important for dard pragmatic theory, which metaphors are understood directly,
understanding language as are the holds tiiat people must first derive not via an implicit comparison.
purely linguistic operations. For the literal meaning of an utterance. When someone asserts that Current
example, if someone tells you that Once this is done, then that literal Directions is a gold mine, he does
meaning is assessed as to whether not mean that it is Uke a gold mine,
Recommended Reading it makes sense in the context. If it but that it really is one—a special
does not make sense in context, kind of gold mine, to be sure, but a
• Gibbs, R.W., Jr. (1994). The poetics of then, and only then, alternative gold mine nonetheless. Let us con-
mind: Figurative thought, language •• nonliteral meanings are considered sider each of these issues in turn.
and understanding. Cambridge, En- : (Searle, 1979).
gland: Cambridge University
Press, This view has at least three test-
Glucksberg, S. (1991). Beyond Eteral ' able implications. First, metaphor
meanings: The psychology of allu- understanding will necessarily be
sion. Psychological Science, 2, 146- FIGURATIVE MEANINGS:
more difficult and take longer than
Kittay, E.V. (1987). Metaphor: Its cog-
literal understanding, because lit- METAPHORS?
nitive force and linguistic structure. eral meanings are always com-
Oxford, England: Clarendon : puted before any nonliteral mean-
Press. ings, and the latter will always People cannot ignore meta-
Ortony, A. (Ed.). (1993). Metaphor and \ require more inferential work. phors, even when literal meanings
thought (2nd ed.). Cambridge, En- make perfect sense in context. This
gland: Cambridge University ; Given the ubiquity of nonliteral
Press. ' speech, this implication is fortu- conclusion derives from a series of
nately not true. People can under- experiments in which people

Copyright © 1998 American Psychological Society 39

would have performed optimally if any metaphorical meanings that metaphorical rather than literal
they had attended exclusively to are available, then the metaphor shark. If the same compound is in-
literal meanings while ignoring sentences would take longer to terpreted as a lawyer who repre-
metaphorical ones (Glucksberg, judge as false than their scrambled sents sharks (as in, perhaps, a legal
Gildea, & Bookin, 1982; Keysar, counterparts because of the re- matter involving protection of
1989). The experiments were mod- sponse competition between the sharks as endangered species),
eled after Stroop's (1935) classic "true" nonliteral meanings and the then shark refers to the literal shark
demonstration that people cannot "false" literal ones of the metaphor (i.e., the marine creature). Simi-
ignore literal meanings. As every sentences. Our results were clear- larly, compounds such as movie life
introductory psychology student cut. People had difficulty in reject- can be interpreted either meta-
knows, Stroop presented words ing metaphors as literally false. The phorically {his life is a movie) or lit-
printed in various colors and asked mean response time to reject meta- erally (the life of people who work
people to name the color of the ink, phor sentences (1,239 ms) was reli- in movies). Goldvarg and I pre-
not to read the words themselves. ably longer than the time to reject sented noun-noun combinations to
When a color word was printed in either literally false sentences college students and asked for their
some other color (e.g., the word red (1,185 ms) or scrambled metaphors interpretations. People over-
was printed in green), people had (1,162 ms). Furthermore, this effect whelmingly chose to interpret
difficulty saying the name of the was not due to mere associations combinations as metaphorical
color of the ink ("green"), indicat- between metaphor topics and ve- rather than literal whenever meta-
ing response competition from the hicles, but to an appreciation of phorical interpretations were avail-
color word {red) itself. This color- metaphorical meaning itself. If an able (Goldvarg & Glucksberg, in
word interference effect was taken association between topic and ve- press). Clearly, people are finely at-
to mean that people cannot inhibit hicle is sufficient for the interfer- tuned to finding metaphorical
reading words that are attended to, ence effect, then it would make no meanings, even when such mean-
even when such inhibition would difference what quantifier {all vs. ings are not the only alternative
improve task performance. some) is used, but it does. For ex- and even when they are presented
My colleagues and I applied this ample, people tend to agree that implicitly in noun-noun compound
logic to literally false but meta- some surgeons are butchers but do form rather than explicit metaphor
phorically true sentences such as not agree that all surgeons are butch- or simile form.
some roads are snakes and some offices ers. We ran a second experiment to
are icebergs (Glucksberg et al., 1982). see if quantifiers make a difference
Our experimental participants for metaphor interference. Not sur-
were shown sentences one at a prisingly, some surgeons are butchers BEYOND SIMILARITY:
time on a screen and instructed to produced the metaphor interfer- METAPHORS ARE
judge whether each sentence was ence effect, but all surgeons are UNDERSTOOD DIRECTLY
literally true or false. We used four butchers did not. We interpreted
types of sentences: literally true this metaphor interference effect in According to the comparison
sentences (e.g., some birds are rob- the same way that Stroop inter- view, metaphors of the form "X is a
ins), literally false sentences (e.g., preted his color-word interference Y" are understood by converting
some birds are apples), metaphors effect: People could not inhibit them into simile form, "X is like a
(e.g., some jobs are jails, some flutes their understanding of metaphori- Y." The simile is then understood
are birds), and scrambled meta- cal meanings, even when literal by comparing the properties of X
phors (e.g., some jobs are birds, some meanings were acceptable in the and Y. This view has been chal-
flutes are jails). The metaphors were context of our experiment. lenged on both theoretical and em-
literally false category-membership People also apprehend meta- pirical grounds. One finding is par-
assertions, but they were readily phorical meanings even when they ticularly telling: Metaphors take
interpretable if taken nonliterally. are only potentially available, as in less time to understand in class-
The scrambled metaphors were noun-noun compounds. Many inclusion form, such as my lawyer is
also literally false, but not readily noun-noun compounds can be in- a shark, than in simile form, such as
interpretable. terpreted either metaphorically or my lawyer is like a shark Qohnson,
If people ignore metaphorical literally (Wisniewski, 1997). For ex- 1996). That metaphors can be un-
meanings, then the metaphors ample, if the compound shark law- derstood more easily than similes
would take no longer to reject than yer is interpreted as a lawyer who argues that metaphors are exactly
the scrambled metaphors. If, how- is predatory and aggressive, then what they seem to be, namely,
ever, people automatically register the noun shark is used to refer to a class-inclusion assertions (Glucks-

Published by Cambridge University Press

berg & Keysar, 1990). In this ex- metaphor vehicles such as Vietnam that nominal metaphors, such as
ample, the metaphor vehicle {shark) can be used as names for categories his bike was an arrow, are under-
is used to refer to the superordinate that have no names of their own stood. Arrows are prototypical
category of predatory creatures in (Brown, 1958). members of the category of speed-
general, not to the smaller, concrete Metaphors are thus attributive ing things; flying is a prototypical
category of marine creatures that is assertions, not comparisons. To say member of the category of fast
also named shark (see Fig. 1). This that someone's job is a jail is to at- travel. For both nominal and pred-
dual reference function of meta- tribute salient properties of the cat- icative metaphors, prototypical
phor vehicles is clear in metaphors egory "jail" to a particular job members of categories can be used
such as Cambodia was Vietnam's (Ortony, 1979). That particular job as metaphor vehicles to attribute
Vietnam. Here, the first mention of is thereby included in the general, properties to topics of interest.
Vietnam refers to the nation of Viet- abstract category of "jail," and as a The categorization view of
nam. In contrast, the second men- consequence of that categorization metaphor provides a natural expla-
tion of Vietnam does not refer to is deemed similar in relevant re- nation for a number of metaphor
that nation, but instead to the spects to literal jails (Glucksberg, phenomena. For example, it ac-
American involvement in Vietnam, McGlone, & Manfredi, 1997). Pred- counts for the fact that metaphors
which has come to epitomize the icative metaphors, in which verbs are, in principle, nonreversible. It
category of disastrous military in- are used figuratively, function makes sense to say that my job is a
terventions. That intervention has similarly (Torreano, 1997). The jail, but it does not make sense to
become a metaphor for such disas- verb to fly literally entails move- say that my jail is a job. When meta-
ters, and so the word Vietnam can ment in the air. Flying through the phors can be reversed, as in my sur-
be used as a metaphor vehicle to air epitomizes speed, and so ex- geon is a butcher and my butcher is a
characterize other ill-fated military pressions such as he hopped on his surgeon, the grounds of the meta-
actions, such as Vietnam's invasion bike and flew home are readily un- phor change. In the former, nega-
of Cambodia. More generally. derstood via the same strategies tive properties of butchers are at-
tributed to my surgeon, but in the
latter, positive properties of sur-
Superordinate Category Level: geons are attributed to my butcher
(Glucksberg, McGlone, & Man-
fredi, 1997).
M-shark properties: Vicious The categorization view also ex-
plains why metaphorical compari-
Predatory sons can be paraphrased as cat-
Aggressive egory statements and vice versa,
Tenacious whereas literal comparisons can-
not. Similes (e.g., my lawyer was like
a shark) can be converted into the
Basic Category Level: categorical form {my lawyer was a
shark) without an appreciable
change in meaning. However, a lit-
L-shark properties: Vicious eral comparison (e.g., barracudas are
like sharks) does not make sense if
Predatory converted into the categorical form
Aggressive {barracudas are sharks). Metaphoric
Tenacious comparisons can be expressed as
categorical statements because the
Fast swimmer simile is an implicit category state-
Has fins ment (Glucksberg & Keysar, 1990).
Has sharp teeth As mentioned earlier, in my lawyer
Has leathery skin was a shark, the metaphor vehicle,
shark, refers to the superordinate
Has gills category of predatory creatures ex-
Fig. 1. Properties associated with the metaphorical meaning of shark (M-shark), at emplified by the literal shark, not
the superordinate-category level, and the literal meaning of shark (L-shark), at the to the basic level, the fish called a
basic-category level. shark (see Fig. 1).

Copyright © 1998 American Psychological Society

If metaphor vehicles refer to ab- derstanding a metaphor should in- With continued and repeated
stract superordinate categories, volve inhibiting the basic-level use, once-novel metaphors become
then calling attention to the basic- meaning of the metaphor vehicle. conventionalized; their metaphori-
level, literal meaning of a metaphor Gemsbacher, Keysar, and Robert- cal senses become dictionary en-
vehicle should make metaphor son (1995) asked participants to tries. The term butcher is a case in
comprehension more difficult. read either metaphors (e.g., my law- point: It can be taken to mean a
However, bringing to mind the lit- yer was a shark) or literal statements meat purveyor, a bungler, or a vi-
eral meaning of a metaphor topic (e.g., the hammerhead is a shark) and cious murderer, depending on the
should have no deleterious effect then to verify statements related to context. But even though these
because the topic is used literally. the literal meaning of the metaphor mearungs of butcher are now in the
My colleagues and I tested this pre- vehicles (e.g., sharks are good swim- dictionary, they are metaphorical
diction of our categorization view mers). People were much slower to nonetheless, and are understood as
by preceding (i.e., priming) meta- verify literal-property statements such by fluent speakers of idiom-
phors with either an irrelevant lit- following metaphors than follow- atic American English. The critical
eral property of the topic or an ir- ing literal assertions, suggesting test is that a metaphorical assertion
relevant literal property of the that literal meanings of metaphor can be paraphrased in either the
vehicle. People read metaphors vehicles are, indeed, inhibited dur- categorical or simile form: X is like a
such as my lawyer was a shark, pre- ing metaphor comprehension. My butcher can be expressed as X is a
ceded by (a) neutral control sen- colleagues and I replicated this butcher with no loss of meaning.
tences, such as some tables are made finding and, in addition, demon- Whether or not such conventional-
of wood; (b) irrelevant topic-prop- strated that the effect may be due ized metaphors are understood via
erty sentences, such as some lawyers to active inhibition of irrelevant, lit- the same processes as are novel
are married; and (c) irrelevant ve- eral meanings, not just to strategic metaphors remains a controversial
hicle-property sentences, such as retrieval strategies (Glucksberg, issue (see Gentner & Wolff, 1997),
sharks can swim. People took more Newsome, & Goldvarg, 1997). In to be resolved by futtire research.
time to understand a metaphor this respect, metaphor comprehen-
when it was preceded by an irrel- sion involves the same comprehen- Acknowledgments—^I am grateful for
research support from the Public Health
evant vehicle-property sentence sion mechanisms that are used for Service, Grant No. HD25826-01, and the
than when it was preceded by ei- comprehension of literal language National Science Foundation, Grant
ther a neutral control sentence or (see, e.g., Gernsbacher & Faust, Nos. BNS 8519462 and SBR 9712601. I
thank Kay Deaux, Zachary Estes, Genya
an irrelevant topic-property sen- 1991). Goldvarg, and Mary R. Newsome for
tence (Glucksberg, Manfredi, & helpful comments on the manuscript.
McGlone, 1997; McGlone & Man-
fredi, in press). Apparently, calling CONCLUSION
attention to the basic-level, con-
crete category of a metaphor ve- Our work has enabled us to Note
hicle interferes with its intended draw two major conclusions about 1. Address correspondence to Sam
function, that is, to refer to the su- metaphor comprehension. First, it Glucksberg, Department of Psychol-
perordinate category. is not optional. People apprehend ogy, Princeton University, Princeton,
If metaphor vehicles do indeed metaphorical mearungs as quickly NJ 08544; e-mail: samg@pucc.princeton.
and as automatically as they appre- edu.
refer to superordinate categories
and not to their basic-level exem- hend literal meanings. Second,
plars, then understanding a meta- people understand metaphors ex- References
phor would be comparable to un- actly as they are intended, as cat-
derstanding any polysemous egorical assertions. In a sense, this Brown, R. (1958). Words and things. New York: Free
utterance. When people under- is reassuring. People often mean Gentner, D., & Wolff, P. (1997). Alignment in the
stand a polysemous w^ord in con- what they say and say what they processing of metaphor. Jourtuil of Memory and
Language, 37, 331-355.
text, such as the word bank in the mean. When I say that my surgeon Gemsbacher, M.A., & Faust, M.E. (1991). The
context of money, then the contex- was a butcher, in a sense I mean it mechanism of suppression: A component of
general comprehension skill, journal of Experi-
tually inappropriate meanings of literally. I do not mean that my sur- mental Psychology: Leaming, Memory, and Cog-
the word are irihibited (Simpson & geon was merely like a butcher, but nition, 17, 245-262.
Gemsbacher, M.A., Keysar, B., & Robertson, R.W.
Kang, 1994). If understanding a that he actually is a member of the (1995, November). The role of suppression in
metaphor also involves activating category of people who botch jobs metaphor interpretation. Paper presented at the
annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society,
appropriate meanings and inhibit- in reprehensible and often appall- Los Angeles.
ing inappropriate ones, then un- ing ways. Gibbs, R.W. (1980). Spilling the beans on under-

Published by Cambridge University Press


standing and memory for idioms. Memory and Goldvarg, Y., & Glucksberg, S. (in press). Concep- Some effects of context on comprehension.
Cognition, 8, 149-156. tual combinations: The role of similarity. Meta- Joumal of Verbal Leaming and Verbal Behavior,
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Assessments of Children's Credibility that have been fabricated or imag-

ined. From this perspective, cred-
in Forensic Contexts ibility is reflected in such factors as
the extent to which narrative de-
Michael E. scriptions of the target incidents
Section on Social and Emotional Development, National Institute of Child Health are placed in temporal and spatial
and Human Development, Bethesda, Maryland context, are logically coherent even
when marked by digressions, and
contain the imique details that ap-

Consider the following hypo- had to decide whether to believe

thetical case. Alarmed that her 11- Recommended Reading ;
him or Rebecca.
year-old daughter arrived home on Recent and continuing increases Ceci, S.J., & Bmck, M. (1995). Jeop-
foot 4 hr after school ended rather in the numbers of children who al- ardy in the courtroom: A scientific •
than on the school bus, Susan an- lege that they have been victims of ] analysis of children's testimony, i
grily demanded an explanation. sexual abuse have fostered legal • Washington, DC: American Psy- '
Rebecca responded that she had challenges to the credibility of ; chological Association. :
Lamh, M.E., Stemberg, K.J., & Esp- ;
decided to go briefly to a friend's these allegations. These challenges, lin, P.W. (1998). Conducting in-
house, and had then been accosted in tum, have underscored the need ! vestigative interviews of alleged
by an unfamiliar and strangely be- for forensic psychologists to de- sexual abuse victims. Child Abuse
having man while walking home. velop and validate techniques for and Neglect, 11, 813-823.
Under questioning by her mother, evaluating the competence and : Poole, D.A., & Lamb, M.E. (1998). In-
• vestigative interviews of children: A
Rebecca indicated that the man had credibility of young witnesses.^ guide for helping professionals.
made lewd advances and at- One prominent technique for Washington, DC: American Psy-
tempted to grab hold of her. This evaluating the credibility of chil- chological Association.
led Rebecca to run away and hide dren's accounts was inspired by Raskin, D.C., & Esplin, P.W. (1991b).
in terror until she was sure the man statement reality analysis, as de- (See References)
Stemberg, K.J., Lamb, M.E., Hersh- :
had gone. Despite Rebecca's skel- scribed by Udo Undeutsch (1982), kowitz, L, Yudilevitch, L., Orbach,
etal description of the alleged as- and has been labeled criterion- Y., Esplin, P.W., & Hovav, M.
sailant, a young man visiting based content analysis (CBCA). (1997). Effects of introductory
friends in the area was later de- Undeutsch reported that experi- '< style on children's abilities to de-
tained by the police. He denied enced events are reported in richer scribe experiences of sexual
abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 11,
ever seeing or interacting with detail and with clearer links to : 1133-1146.
Rebecca, and the authorities thus other experiences than are events

Copyright © 1998 American Psychological Society