You are on page 1of 14

1. Scope of study.

The aim of this essay is to illustrate, within a study of the metaphorical patterns of the lexicon

of English, how human mind tends to create analogies between abstracts entities and physical

realities. In others words, how what is less clearly delineated and therefore more difficult to

express is conceptualized in terms of the more clearly delineated.

2. Metaphor in language and thought.

It might be surprising for many people to learn that much of what is said in everyday

conversation has metaphorical roots. One may ask to any one in the street about what does he/she

relates “metaphor” with, and the most likely answer may be “Poetry” or “Literature”. However, as

the work of Lakoff, Johnson, Turner, and many others has convincingly demonstrated, metaphor

and the mental process that it entails, are basic to language and cognition. Therefore, a clear

understanding of its working may be relevant not only to “Poetry” or “Literature” students, but to

any one who deals with language (speakers or writers).

Traditionally, following Aristotle, schools have often presented metaphor as an anomaly,

an unusual or deviant way of using language. Philosophers have often wanted metaphor strictly

confined to literature, rhetoric and art, because its supposed dangers to clear thinking, Locke, for

example, in his “Essay concerning Human Understanding” denounced figurative language as


“But yet, if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that … all the artificial

and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate

wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment, and so indeed are perfect


A. Goatly makes a quite convincing refutation of Locke’s assumption of the possibility of a

philosophical language without metaphor. Goatly points out that this quote from Locke

paradoxically provides evidence for the role of metaphor as “an indispensable basis of language

and thought”. (Goatly,1997: 1) In the quotation, “move”, “mislead” and “cheat” are being used

metaphorically; “eloquence hath invented” is a case of personifying metaphor; the significance of

“insinuate” depends on a Latin metaphor where its literal meaning is ‘walk its way in, penetrate’;

and finally, literally we “allow” actions rather than propositions.

These two different views of approaching the concept of metaphor are directly related to

the function or functions with which figurativeness is understood.

Locke’s posture implies that figurative speech is unusual, perhaps ornamental, whereas

literal language is basic and better suited to talk about our experience and the objective world. This

view of metaphorical language as deviant suggests that non-literal expression should be relative

rare in comparison to more normal literal language. Metaphors, therefore, are considered to be

stylistics devices that tend to hide the real meaning of a message, an idea that has his roots in the

writing of Aristotle. The supporters of this view claim that even though literal language is unable

to name certain things, this does not necessary mean that a metaphor can do so. Therefore, if

metaphors are used to express the inexpressible, they do so at the expense of clarity.

However, as R.W.Gibbs and many others have highlighted, the use of metaphor does not lead

to loss of precision and clarity, because “many metaphor do not allow for a literal paraphrase. In

such cases, there is no loss, for either a metaphor is used or nothing at all is said” (R.Gibbs


Metaphor provide a way of expressing ideas that would be very difficult, if not impossible,

to transmit using literal language. Let’s consider the metaphorical expression ‘the thought slipped

my mind like a squirrel behind the tree’ (Nash, 1998: 44). It is difficult in literal terms to predicate

of thoughts characteristics such as ‘swiftness’ or ‘suddenness’ in the same way that they are

denoted from the latest expression. One may try to translate it into literal language, but still the

result is an essentially metaphorical use of language. (e.g. ‘The thought went away’1). Gibbs

expands this aspect of metaphor in the so-called “inexpressibility hypothesis” (Gibbs 1994: 124).

This hypothesis states that metaphor enables people to express ideas that cannot be easily or

clearly expressed with literal speech.

A second function attributed to metaphor by the supporters of Goatly’s posture is that it

provides a particularly compact means of communication, named by Gibbs “the compactness

hypothesis”. (Gibbs 1994: 125) Thus, for example the assertion ‘My love is like a blossoming

bouquet of roses’, expresses a large amount of information about love (that is, that is sweet,

delicate, beautiful, short in duration, etc) using relatively few words. Literal language simply does

not enable speakers (or writers) to convey a great deal of information in the same way that

metaphor does.

Finally, metaphors way help to capture the vividness of our experiences. (called by Gibbs

“the vividness hypothesis”). Since metaphors convey complex configurations of information rather

A verb expressing “movement”, which is an activity “literally” only possible to physical entities, like go is
being used here to refer to an abstract concept like “thoughts”. Therefore, the language used is metaphorically

that discrete units, speakers can transmit richer, more detailed and vivid images of their subjective

experience, that they can express with literal language.

One domain in which the utility of metaphor has been explicitly examined is the verbal

expression of emotion. Researches have noted the high incidence of figurative language when

speakers talked about their Emotions (Otorny, 1979; Davitz, 1969). The inexpressibility hypothesis

predicted that the people would be more likely to use metaphorical language in descriptions of how

they felt when they were expressing an emotion than when describing what they did when they

experienced it. For instance, in some of these studies, people described their negative emotional

states with remarks like ‘It was like if someone has just dropped a bomb on me’, and positive

emotions with statements like ‘It was like if a very bright light was just shining outward’ (Gibbs,

1994:126). Metaphor seemed particularly useful to participants in expressing what was normally

difficult to talk about using literal language.

Lakoff & Johnson’s assertion that one tends to conceptualize the non-physical in terms of

the physical is basically supporting this view of metaphor as a necessary device for everyday

conversation that it has been tried to develop so far. Such remark is made following a number of

basic claims that forms the grounds of their approach to metaphor.

First of all, they consider metaphor to be a conceptual organization expressed by the

linguistic expression may evoke the same metaphor.2

A second assertion, which has already been commented on, is that metaphorical

expressions pervade ordinary language and they are not only used for artistic or ornamental


The word is a stage and Life is a play are two different linguistic objects evoking the same cognitive or
conceptual organization (Jackendoff & Aaron, 1991)

Finally, Lakoff & Johnson do not consider metaphor in poetry to be a different

phenomenon from metaphor in ordinary language, but both are together regarded to be a product

of the same cognitive process. Poetic metaphor, in fact, exploits and enriches the everyday

metaphors available in spoken language.

Following these three principles the description of metaphor built up by Lakoff and others

within his circle of influence is rather different from the more traditional point of view.

Traditionally, metaphor has been mostly seen as a comparison in which the first term (the topic) is

said to bear a partial resemblance (the ground) to the second term (the vehicle) (Gibbs, 1994:132).

For instance, in the expression Your essay is garbage, the Noun Phrase ‘your essay’ would be the

topic, and the Verb phrase ‘is garbage’ would be the vehicle. Presumably, there is in the utterance

some kind of similarity existing between ‘essay’ and ‘garbage’ which would be the ground of the

metaphor, and that in this case is that the essay is of little worth.

Lakoff & Turner’s definition of metaphor, by contrast, conceives it as “a mapping of

conceptual organization from one domain, the SOURCE DOMAIN, to another, the TARGET

DOMAIN”(Jackendoff & Aaron, 1991:323). Here, elements of the source domain are expressed in

the text, whereas the target domain may or may not be mentioned in the text, since it is “what

metaphor is really about”(Jackendoff & Aaron, 1991:323). Thus, in a sentence such as All the

world is a stage, the source domain is the conceptualization of the theater, as the term ‘stage’

evokes. The target domain is life in general, as is evoked by ‘all the world’3.

The most interesting point here is the way the structure of the source domain is applied to

the target domain to created new inferential possibilities. For instance, the phrase My career has

The metaphor expressed by this specific expression has been labeled by Lakoff & Turner as LIFE IS A
PLAY (Jakendoff & Aaron, 1991)

hit a dead end invokes a metaphor that could be sloganized as LIFE IS A JOURNEY (Jackendoff

& Aaron, 1991). The schema of a journey includes a traveler and a path; mapping this schema over

to live involves identifying the traveler role with that of the person whose life is being described.

The path role, however, has no immediate corresponding ‘role’ in the life schema, so the metaphor

creates a ‘course of life’ slot. The actual significance of the sentence comes then when the

characteristic inferences of dead ends paths (that is, the display of the path making impossible to

go any further in the same direction, the need to turn back and find a different direction, etc) are

applied to this new ‘slot’ in the target domain.

Evidence for the powerful affect of metaphor on conceptualization leads not only to

emphasize Metaphorical its cognitive nature, but also to see it as a linguistic and textual


3. Metaphorical Patterns in the English Lexicon

There exist certain basic analogies that can be seen as structuring the Lexicon of English.

Different vehicles allow the speaker/writer to highlight different features of the same topic. The

highlighting of some aspects of experience implies the suppression on neglecting of other features.

However, the ignoring of differences and highlighting of selected similarities is, in fact, absolutely

necessary in any act of classification and conceptualization.

The establishment of these basic analogies that rules the structure of the English Lexicon

has its basis on Lakoff & Johnson’s “Experimental Hypothesis” (Goatly, 1997:41) This hypothesis

is based on the fact that we have certain preconceptual experiences as infants, such as experiences

of body movements, our ability to move objects, to perceive them as wholes and retain images of

them, etc. The hypothesis claims that most abstract concepts arise from these preconceptual

physical experiences by metaphorical projection. These abstract concepts like ‘amount’, for

instance, are conceptualized by metaphorical projection from the bodily experiences of ‘up’ and

‘down’, giving rise to a number of lexicalized metaphors:

a. The number of books printed each year keeps on going up.

b. My income rose/fell last year.

(Goatly, 1997:42)

The vast majority of abstract vocabulary in the lexical of English derives from conceptual

metaphors extending deep underground because of classical borrowing/burying.4 Goatly uses the

term “Root Analogies” to refer to those metaphors structuring the Lexicon of English, that are

Buried, but still alive and therefore have the potential to grow. He has developed a mapping of this

Root Analogies that it will be tried to summarize in this section.

2.1. General Reifying

The first major step on the metaphorical structuring of abstraction depends on reification.

2.1.1. Create, Destroy, Transform

Abstract entities are seen as concrete and integrated objects that can be created:

‘construct a theory’, ‘make a confession’

though they are subject to penetration, destruction and disintegration:

‘disolve a theory’, ‘damage economy’

However, efforts can be made to prevent their destruction or decay”

‘preserve a relationship’

“By Buried metaphor we refers to a change of form which disguises the original morpheme expressing the
analogy” (Goatly, 1997:33)

The propensity of an abstract entity to decay and disintegration depends on its strength or


‘delicate problem’, ‘hollow argument’, ‘strong beliefs’

2.1.2. Transfer, Handle, Posses, Impact

Like objects, these abstract entities can be metaphorically handled, grasped, turned and


‘handle a situation’, ‘grab attention’, ‘take a bath’

They can be possessed, kept or transferred to others:

‘keep a promise’, ‘give impression’, ‘possess quality’

These abstract objects are supposed to be solid enough to have physical impact on humans which

they can protect themselves against:

‘leave its mark on’, ‘shield from information’

2.1.3. Place/Space. Proximity

If two abstract entities are concretized, then they have positions in space relative to each other.

Therefore, they can be separated or grouped, and can replace, interact or combine with each other

in various ways:

‘gather courage’, ‘sort out problem’

2.1.4. Dimension/Shape/Parts

As objects these abstractions have center and peripheries:

‘core of a problem’

They can be divided into parts:

‘sector of economy’

posses dimension:

‘little change’, ‘small business’

and changeable shapes:

‘elastic policies’

2.1.5. Perception/Seeing

First-order entities are subject to visual perception:

‘problems appearance’, ‘ memories disappear’

There is also the possibility that they may be either present or absent in the visual field, be lost and


‘the fact emerges’, ‘seek revenge’, ‘find time’

2.2 Specific Reifying

A second step on the mapping of the metaphorical patterns of the Lexicon of English is

represented by more specific categories of reified abstraction. Goatly does not fully develop it, and

here it would be done just a fast exemplification with the analogy WORDS = MONEY (Goatly,


Words are conceptualize as coins/money:

‘currency of words’

with a certain value:

‘cheap remark’, ‘pay someone back in their own words’

2.3. Animizing and Personifying Metaphors.

So far it has been considered metaphorical sets that involve the concretizing of

abstract entities as substances or objects and their qualities. In this section, most analogies present

the abstract entities not only as concrete but also as animate and human.

2.3.1. Life, Survival.

Abstract entities conceived in terms of human life, both live and grow:

‘life of a government’, ‘economic growth’

Also, they need shelter or a house:

‘abilities reside in’, ‘ sheltered existence’

and they can go under attack, injury and death:

‘poison a relationship’, ‘suffocate a business’, ‘fatal to the enterprise’,

‘dying tradition’

2.3.2. Relationship, Control

Relationships between abstract can be personified as human feelings/relationships:

‘twin ideas’, ‘welcome an idea with open arms’

and interactions:

‘disturb a state’, ‘an answer stares you in the face’

Interaction between abstracts is seen as equivalent to speech acts and their perlocutionary effect:

‘trouble menaces’, ‘promise to develop’

Finally, the effect of or on an abstract entity is seen like the control of government of humans:

‘reign of terror’, ‘a factor governs another factor’

2.4. Materializing Abstract Process

Internal mental processes, such as cognition and affection, thinking and emotion are

usually metaphorically represented as perceptual processes. This categorization will be

exemplified by the analogy UNDERSTAND/KNOW = SEE (Goatly, 1997:54)

To understand or know is to see:

‘I see’ (= I understand), ‘see the light’

Trying to understand/remember is to lock for:

‘regard what he is saying’, ‘search you mind for’

Something easy to understand is transparent:

‘clarity’, ‘crystal clear’

Something difficult to understand is opaque:

‘unclear’, ‘diffuse’

To make knowledge available or direct attention to it is to make it light:

‘elucidate’, ‘highlight’

Clearness in understanding knowledge is brightness:

‘bright’, ‘brilliant’

Inability to understand is the darkness:

‘dim’, ‘dull’

Mental faculties are eye sight:

‘focus attention’, ‘short-sighted’

2.5. Process = Process

This final section, unlike the previous one where vehicles were generally less

abstract than their topics, contains metaphors in which vehicle and topic belong to the same order

of entity. Perceptual and material processes can be conceptualized as other kinds of processes. This

type of analogies can be illustrated by the Analogy SPEAKING/ARGUING = WAR/FIGHTING

(Goatly, 1997:75)

Disagreement is physical attack:

‘biting criticism’

Maintaining one’s opinion is defense:

‘defend an argument’, ‘disarm criticism’

Arguing is throwing or firing:

‘fire away questions’ ‘shoot down ideas’

Their degree of hostility is sharpness:

‘harsh remark’

3. Conclusion

It seems to be clear so far, that our cognitive structure is determined by

conventional metaphors, and evidence for this, as it has been illustrated, can be seen in the lexicon

of English. The conceptualization of the non-physical or the abstract in terms of physical or

concrete items is a mental process that, as it has been said before, Lakoff & Johnson entails to

cognitive processes that take place in physical experiences as infants such as body movement or

our interaction with the world that surround us. These processes are supposed to be universal since

similar reactions to similar external stimulus have been reported by many neuro-scientifics in

different studies with children (Pinker, 1994). Therefore, metaphorical abstractions are more or

less shared by members of the same culture or language group, and in many cases, the same

conceptualization can be found cross culturally, (like HAPPY IS UP) (Jackendoff & Aaron, 1991)

Finally, as it has already been said, metaphor fills lexical gaps in the cases where

literal language is not adequate to express some information. It is not only a matter of

(im)possibility of expressing concepts but of economy of language. For instance, in describing

long astronomical distances, though there exist literal means to express them, it is difficult to

process figures such as 94,630,000,000,000 kilometers and therefore, we use the term light-year.

(Goatly, 1997:149)

Davitz, J (1969) The language of emotion. New York Academic Press.

Gibbs, R (1994) The Poetics of Mind. Cambridge University Press.

Goatly, A (1997) The Language of Metaphor. Routledge.

Jackendoff & Aaron (1991) “Review of Lakoff & Turner 1989” Language 67 (1991) 320-


Nash, W (1998) Language and Creative Illusion. Longman.

Ortony, A (1979) Metaphor and Thought. CUP

Pinker, S (1994) El Instinto del Lenguage. Como Crea el Lenguage la Mente. Ed. Alianza

Psicologia Minor (Spanish Edition)