What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a way of representing one thing in terms of another.

If you are learning the language or in need of an urgent definition of metaphor (delightful to imagine that situation) then that will do.It’s not quite that though is it, or at least not quite as simple as that.

So we start sifting that definition, to take out the courser definitions first.



To ‘represent’ can be a lot of things. In some sense every letter on this page is a symbol that represents a sound, or sometimes, a collection of letters form a different kind of symbol that represents a different kind of sound. S. H. Sh.

Let’s not dwell on phonetics for now, and move right on to functional representation, or what is probably easiest to call mathematical representation. A symbol that is an instruction to do something. Something harder than make a noise. +. -. %.

These symbols, both phonetic (letters) and mathematical, are still some distance from representation in the metaphorical sense though, aren’t they. It is true to say that we are representing the ‘sh’ sound by the ‘sh’ letters, and so we are certainly representing one thing in terms of another, but if you were to ask someone for their favourite example of a metaphor and they responded with ‘sh’, you would not likely be satisfied.

Nor would you with a plus sign. Nor a stop sign. Nor a cross nor a swastika. All of which are one thing (a visual thing) which acts as a ‘placekeeper’, almost a bookmark, for something else. They are not metaphors so much as shorthand.

And metaphors are the opposite of shorthand.

When we think of metaphor, we almost can’t help but think of them as something visual. The metaphor, as we instinctively imagine it is precisely that, something we can imagine. Some invoked image, and invoked to some ends, to illuminate or colourise a concept or description.

‘I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew,
and on thy lips a fading rose
Fast withereth, too. ‘

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John Keats

Centrally though, it is not just a picture but a picture with a purpose. There is something about the picture which draws our attention to something the author, or poet wants us to notice, wants us to see.

A fading rose on your lips is not just helping us to imagine a rich dark red, but there’s more. More perhaps in that the colour is changing, darkening.  More in that it is itself a metaphor of death, representing death.

It’s not shorthand, it’s the opposite. It’s not reducing or summarising what’s there, it’s adding to it. Adding in meaning, adding in richness.

A metaphor is not substitution, substitution in terms of representation is less than the focus, where a metaphor is invariably more.

And is that then, what a metaphor is?

A way of not just visualising or seeing something from the text, but seeing it in a particular way, feeling it in a particular way?  That feels much better than our previous definition.  I only ever head about metaphors in English class, and there is something connecting them to poetry and imagery.

But then…

Then the online world lights up, as it so often does, with news that;

‘Andrew Neil destroys Ben Shapiro’.

Now, this could be a literal statement.

Person A acts on Person B.  Subject verb object.  Anne likes John. John and Anne go for a walk.  Andrew Neil destroys Ben Shapiro.  It certainly seems to have at least the same shape and structure of a normal literal sentence, in a way that ‘I see a lily on thy brow‘ simply doesn’t.

Furthermore it isn’t impossible in the way that “All the heavens were a bell, and being but an ear” is.  Quite conceivably, Andrew Neil, notable news anchor for the BBC could have kidnapped Ben Shapiro and stuffed him into a functioning incinerator (or bathed him in ammonium hydroxide) so as to completely immolate (or dissolve) both the body and the person of Ben Shapiro.

Had that happened, the very least we could say is “Andrew Neil destroyed Ben Shapiro”.  Saying so in so many words might seem a little uncomfortably discompassionate, but it would not be untrue, or unfair.

Of course this isn’t what the headline is saying.  It’s saying something else.

It is another metaphor. And even though it’s nothing at all like our previous musings about what a metaphor is, this kind of metaphor is almost the most common one by far.  The conceptual metaphor.


Conceptual Metaphor

Their marriage was on the rocks, but now they seem to be back on path. There was plenty of copy paper here this morning but along came a spider. I can never catch a break.

All of these are sentences which are immediately understandable, but none of them literal. All of them are metaphors but not of the kind ‘I see a rose on your lips‘. They are not, or at least not obviously representing one thing in terms of another. They are not, at least obviously, simply pictures to draw our attention to something the author (or speaker) sees.

While the quintessentially red of a rose might make us imagine that red on someone’s lips, what do the picture of rocks draw our attention to in a marriage?  Or a spider lifting copying paper?

That is, we might understand those metaphors, but when we pause to think about why we do, the answer isn’t obvious.

We use metaphors like these a thousand times a day almost without realising. Subtler, and more deeply embedded metaphors are ones about space and time. We use metaphors that suggest an annual event could be be physically moving, or that being up high means you are in control.

That might sound strange, at first, but they are immediately and intuitively understanable should someone say ‘Christmas is coming fast but I’m really on top of it this year.’

In fact, the more time we spend identifying metaphors like these, the more rapidly the idea our previous definitions of what a metaphor is comes apart at the seams.

There’s nothing about Christmas that has velocity, and there’s nothing about on-coming motion that draws our attention to anything about Christmas.

So what’s going on?

Linguistic and Conceptual Metaphors

The very visual, evocative, often evisceral images and artistic flare employed by people like Keats and Yeats are what we call linguistic metaphor. Linguistic metaphor is to enrich our imagination, to help us to see and feel what an author or poet sees and feels.  To help us experience something in a way that we hadn’t before.

While these linguistic metaphors contain a kind of truth, it is not a literal truth.

We can distinguish linguistic metaphor and conceptual metaphor in that the former is to help us imagine, where the latter helps us understand.

The central idea to Lakoff and Johnson’s now famous ‘Metaphors we Live By’ was this idea. Metaphors are not just literary flourishes. They are a foundational cognitive mechanism that we can’t help but use to make sense of our world.

That is, there is much about our world that we cannot understand except for thinking of it in terms of simpler things.

It’s not something we occasionally creatively employ, it’s something we can’t do without.

How could we even really begin to talk about ideas which are not physically experiential, when at one point, the only words we had were words relating to our immediate physical experience?

The answer? We had to build them.

We build our conceptual structures using the lego blocks of immediate experience. Things that are good, physically (like being warm, sturdy, and fed) became the words we used to talk about things which are good, conceptually (like hospitality, organisations and love).

Lakoff said of this that if you can think of any primitive, physical state in which you are generally better off, you can find a metaphorical equivalent in our language. Generally, you are better off standing up than lying down, where the latter is the case when you are hurt or ill. From this we develop the metaphor the primary orientational metaphorical system; “UP is GOOD” and “DOWN is BAD”.

And there’s the key.

Now we don’t necessarily need to relate one concept in terms of another directly, but so long as one concept refers to a metaphorical conceptual system, with which we are familiar (like “UP is GOOD”) then the metaphor makes sense.

When I learned that I was on top of the world. My writing just took off, I felt I was on high, cloud nine.

But then I realised that this is just the tip of the ice berg and I came crashing back to earth. This week I’ve been pretty down about my research actually, partially because I’ve been under the weather but as it happens I’ve just been feeling pretty low generally.

Up. Top. Above. Good.

Down. Under. Low. Bad.

To test it, I’d recommend switching the polarity, just to see how, even though verticality and elevation should have nothing to do with research or my feelings, just switching the UP metaphors with the DOWN metaphors, very quickly makes you sound like a lunatic.

Then there are more complex metaphorical systems. ARGUMENT is WAR. LOVE is a JOURNEY, and most importantly for educatators everywhere, KNOWLEDGE is an OBJECT, and TEACHING is TRANSFER.

But those are for another time…

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