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The Pervasiveness of Metaphors in Language and Thought

A metaphor—usually understood as a rhetoric artifice that exclusively falls within the scope of poetics—is often presented as a linguistic device by which language users employ a word or expression to refer to a concept other than literal meaning. It was 1980 when Lakoff and Johnson published their groundbreaking work, Metaphors We Live By, which would redefine our preconceptions of metaphor. Their article shows how this figure of speech is not only deeply ingrained in linguistic systems that language users are exposed to since childhood but also plays a significant role in our perceptions of the world. As will be seen, it is not a matter of language, but a matter of thought (Gibbs, 1996).

The Elements of Metaphors: Source Domains and Target Domains

Metaphor is a communicative tool whereby words are used in a particular way: nouns, verbs, phrases or expressions are recruited by the speaker to convey a meaning different than their regular, literal sense. The most relevant work on metaphors is the essay Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), in which the authors state that “the essence of metaphor is understanding one kind of thing in terms of another”. As a preliminary example, the "The world is a stage" metaphor will be presented as a case in point: this association is a metaphor because it connects the activity of acting to the activity of interacting with others—in other words, human relationships (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Love is another fertile concept for metaphors because it can be understood in many ways. Love can be understood as a "journey", whereby love is referred to as the development of a relationship of love over time (e.g. "Our marriage has taken a wrong turn", "This relationship is not going anywhere"); it is often expressed as "opponent" (e.g. "She was struggling with her feelings for him", "Love took complete control over him"), as "insanity" (e.g. "I am crazy about her", "She drives me out of my mind") and as a "valuable commodity" (e.g. "I gave her all my love", "What did I get from this relationship anyway?", "She has invested a lot in this relationship", "I am putting so much more in this than my spouse") (Gibbs, 1996).

"Time is money" has been identified as another ever-present metaphor: so, as language users, we may say that something was a "waste of time", or encounter sentences along the lines of "This trick will save you hours", "How do you spend your time these days?", "The delay cost me an extra hour", "I have invested a lot of time in my project", "We have run out of time", "I've got some time to spare". As shown by these examples, metaphors not only serve the purpose of being rhetorical devices confined to literary creativity and the competence of writers and poets; they are something that all language users not only understand but actively employ in their everyday conversations, using them naturally and effortlessly.

Because metaphors are made up of a plurality of fundamental components, the nature of a metaphor is complex. Knowles and Moon (2004) highlight how traditional approaches to understanding metaphors have identified three necessary elements of every metaphor: the metaphor itself is referred to as "vehicle", its sense as "topic" and the similarity, connection, or association, as "grounds". The example they present is "Be prepared for a mountain of paperwork", in which the element “mountain” is the vehicle; the intended, literal sense, or topic, is “a big quantity of something”; and the rationale behind the association of these two notions, or "grounds", is “something characterized by a big size and by a difficulty to be dealt with”.

Other scholars (Boroditsky, 2000) have focused on the central distinction between two domains that have been respectively called “source domain” and “target domain”. It has been noted that the source domain is usually a complex, abstract notion and that the target domain tends to be a concrete, empirical experience. Because efficient communication can only happen when there is a shared interest between interlocutors to deliver information successfully and to be mutually understood, every linguistic choice made throughout exchanges has the function of facilitating the effectiveness of communication (Grice, 1975), and that includes the choice of employing metaphors. Metaphors serve the purpose of supporting language users in understanding and communicating abstract phenomena, phenomena that might prove more challenging, that they could be unacquainted with, or linguistically less structured and less easily structurable. In other words, metaphors enable language users to reach and ultimately voice less directly available concepts. Source domains are therefore drawn from the direct, bodily experience that language users can acquire through the senses: common source domains are, for example, space, vision, touch, perception, and energy. Target domains tend to be abstract notions, representative of experiences that are not describable by the linguistic tools at the users’ disposal. Those include concepts such as importance, social relations, social hierarchy, logical reasoning, and emotional states. In sum, metaphors arise “when people struggle to make greater sense of these less well-understood aspects of their experience” (Gibbs, 1996). What occurs between the source domains and the target domains has been called a mapping: the concepts of the source domain are mapped onto the target domain.

The introductory example presented by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) is "Argument is war", by which the activity of discussing with others in order to settle a dispute is framed as a warfare conflict: accordingly, we may "attack" somebody’s arguments, we may "defend" our perspectives, and ultimately we may even "surrender". What this means is that vocabulary pertaining to the semantic field of war is drawn to talk about the more abstract concept of the activity of arguing: fighting parties in a war are mapped onto the participants of a war. Via the "Argument is war" metaphor, we may utter sentences of this sort: "Your claims are indefensible", "The weak point in someone’s argument", "His criticisms were on target", "She shot down and destroyed my arguments", "He attacked the argument". The participants of an argument are conceived of as fighters, warriors and any type of opposing parties; their interaction is not oriented towards peacemaking goals, but settling a dispute, and envisages the deployment of tactics and strategies in the pursuit of this goal; at the end, there will be a winner and a loser. The conceptual similarities between the activities of waging wars and arguing enable language users to map ideas belonging to war onto ideas belonging to arguing.

Further examples can be explored in very different conceptual areas and experiences. "Diseases are enemies" is another recurrent and relevant metaphor. Diseases are conceptualized as enemies and all those unfortunately affected are framed as the entities who are being attacked. Therefore, we may find examples such as "She has lost the battle to cancer", "He fought bravely", "The body will fight off the illness", "Antibodies build resistance to the infection", and we may have illnesses such as "invasive bladder cancer". In this instance, the concept of an illness affecting a body is mapped onto the concept of an attack and the concept of victory is mapped onto the concept of recovery. Skott (2006) describes the terms by which cancer patients talk about their experience, noting that most often they resort to metaphors such as "cancer eating" and "fighting" as a way of articulating what they are going through.

While metaphors are traditionally “framed as a linguistic ornament” (Gibbs, 1996), in the last 20 years there has been an explosion of research on cognitive science on metaphor. This interest, initiated by Lakoff and Johnson’s work (1980), points to the fact that a metaphor is not merely a figure of speech; it is a specific mental mapping that influences how people think, reason, and imagine things in their daily lives (Gibbs, 1996). It is an essential component of the conceptual systems of our brains, and “operates at the level of thinking” (Haverinen, 2020). Therefore, metaphors can in their turn affect one’s decision-making with complex real-world issues, and affect many aspects of how people learn, remember, and deal with problems (Gibbs, 1996; Haverinen, 2020).

Returning to the "Argument is war" metaphor mentioned above, the association of war and arguments will not only affect the users’ perception of how they should linguistically describe the experience of arguing, but also how the argument will unfold in real life. And this is true whether we think about personal arguments, couples’ therapy and political debates, to name a few. In their groundbreaking work (1980), Lakoff and Johnson also point to the pervasiveness of the metaphor in languages, highlighting how metaphors and their underlying mapping of some concepts onto others is a device that is ordinarily known and understood by language users in their everyday lives and conversations. Metaphors, to put it differently, do not concern only language, but are deeply entrenched patterns of associations of thought. While this consideration—and the consequent exploration of the topic in fields that do not strictly pertain to the study of languages and linguistics—the contributions to cognitive linguistics, psychology and cognitive psychology, most notably, are to be appreciated. While this type of research has been certainly based on the analysis of linguistic expressions, these fields have a lot to contribute to the matter and how the mind frames metaphor into everyday thinking.

The Metaphors We Live By

In 1980, Lakoff and Johnson proposed that the human conceptual system is structured around a limited set of empirical concepts that, as previously observed, emerge directly out of the bodily experience that all humans share through their senses. The authors identify three main sets of notional relations that metaphors can be ascribed to structural metaphors, orientational metaphors, and ontological metaphors.

Structural metaphors map one complex concept onto another plainer concept. Examples include such as the aforementioned "Argument is war" metaphor and the "Labor and time as resources" metaphor. Orientational metaphors are based on fundamental spatial relations, which they list as follows: up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow, and central-peripheral. These spatial pairs—made of opposing directions—are then assigned more abstract meanings. Having a closer look at the up-down type, one example is "Happy is up, sad is down". Accordingly, we may say "That boosted my spirits", "I'm feeling high", when we want to communicate a positive emotional state or, conversely, "His mood sank after the terrible news", "I am depressed these days", when we are expressing the opposite. The authors ascribe the causes of these connections to physical and cultural factors: since there are direct correlations between emotions and sensory-motor experiences like stance and posture, these form the basis of orientational metaphors. Not only does this enable users to conceptualize feelings in precise terms that are easily understood by their interlocutors, but it will also extend to other concepts having to do with general well-being, such as health, life, and control. Therefore we will be able to say "I have control over the situation", "I am on top of the situation", and conversely, "He’s at the bottom of the ladder", to express, for example, the dire state of one’s finances or one’s lowest hierarchical position in their workplace.

Ontological metaphors are metaphors based on physical objects and, as such, they include entity, container and substance metaphors. Hu and Chen (2015), for example, review the metaphors associated with inflation. Among the most common ones, they list inflation as an entity (e.g. "Buying land is the best way of dealing with inflation") and as an animal (e.g. "How to protect your money from this predatory inflation?", "Korea to double efforts to tame inflation"). One entity metaphor envisions the mind as a working machine. By the "Mind as a machine" metaphor, we may find examples such as "My mind isn't operating", "Her mind is fragile", "I am a little rusty on the subject", "She fell to pieces", which all describe one’s inner emotional or mental state. A subset of this type of metaphor is the container subgroup: sometimes we describe concepts as if they were physical containers. When ideas are abstract, we sometimes tend to imagine them as physical objects in order to give them form. Container metaphors help us think about how we relate to an experience, whether we are part of it, experiencing it from the inside or witnessing it from the outside. Examples of these can be found in: "Are you in the race?", "She was very much in love", "To be on drugs", "How did you get out of that horrible job?", "How did you get into that line of work?", "I am slowly getting into shape", "He entered a state of euphoria". What these examples show is that experiences such as races, jobs, drugs, and love, are conceived of as containers to facilitate communicating about them. This can be motivated by the fact that, as humans, we do physically have a container, that is a body, which functions as the centre of our perceptions. As such, this leads us to have a clear and distinct perception of an inside and an outside (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).

Apparent Contradictions and The Example of Time

Because our language systems are so rich in metaphorical resources and usages, the same abstract notion has been shown to be expressible by way of different metaphors. As an example, Gibbs explains that "journey", "insanity", "opponent", and "valuable commodity" are all metaphors employed to represent the sentiment of love (Gibbs, 1996). As a result of the aptness of abstract concepts to be represented by a variety of metaphors, conflicting tendencies may arise in the expression of the same notion.

Lakoff and Johnson note how the organization of time sequencing in English seems to be based on two conflicting metaphors (1980): in the first, the future is in the front and the past is in the back (e.g. "In the weeks ahead of us…", "That’s all behind us now"); in the second, the future is in the back and the past is in the front (e.g. "In the following weeks", "In the preceding weeks"). Moving objects generally receive a front-back orientation so that the front is in the direction of motion (or in the canonical direction of motion). Time in English is structured in terms of "Time is a moving object" metaphor, with the future moving towards us (e.g. "The time for action has arrived", "Time flies"). Time then receives a front-back orientation facing the direction of motion, just as any moving object would. Thus the future is facing us, and we find expressions like "I can’t face the future". However, there is another way of conceptualizing time: time is stationary and we move through it. "As we go through the years", "We’re nearing the end of the year", "We’re approaching the end of the lesson".

In her paper (2000), Borotidsky focuses on the linguistic representation of time via spatial vocabulary in contemporary English, highlighting how time is “learned, represented, and reasoned about” in terms of space. She reviews the two dominant spatial metaphors are ascribed to the sequencing of events in time: the first has been called the ego-moving metaphor, by which the observer functions as the centre of perception and his progression along the timeline is conceptualized as his own movement towards the future, as in "We are coming up on Christmas". The second is the time-moving metaphor, in which it is the events that move along from the future to the past as in "Christmas is coming up"—the future event is moving from the future towards the observer and will fly by into the past. What these two metaphors have in common, Lakoff and Johnson point out (1980), is the element of movement: what makes them coherent between one another is how they are all metaphors about motion, with the difference being that some expressions orient times with respect to people (e.g. "Time flies", "Time creeps along", "Time speeds by", "The years ahead of us", "I look forward to"), while expressions like precede and follow orient times with respect to times.

Gibbs (1996) also addresses the apparent contradictions in the metaphors present in the linguistic systems by reiterating that concepts and notions are not fixed, static structures, nor are they monolithic entities which are, of necessity, internally consistent. Metaphors are alternative ways of construing the same experience. The fact that people possess alternative, metaphorical models of many experiences and abstract ideas does not represent a problem at all, because two different conceptualizations are often needed to solve different types of real-world, science problems. These representations are, in fact, temporary and dynamic: in other words, they are context-dependent. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) highlight the crucial association of language with pragmatics, which is the field of linguistics that considers the meaning of words and sentences in the context of use. The contingent conditions of the utterance contribute to shaping the meaning of what the speakers communicate. Taking the argument further, it can be stated that metaphors are culturally grounded in specific ways. As an example, it can be pointed out how, in Western culture, labour and time are both conceived of as resources. This stems from the relationship that Western culture has with material resources. Such resources can be quantified, have a value, have a purpose, and can exhaust their stocks. This is strictly dependent on how Western culture conceives work and time.


Metaphors are not just a figure of speech, but linguistic devices that language users actively understand and employ in their turn in their everyday interactions. More than that, metaphors are frames by which language users will then explore the newer experiences they may come across. To summarize the properties of metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson claim that metaphor is a quality of concepts, and not of words and language; the function of metaphor is to better communicate and understand less accessible concepts and does not only serve some artistic or esthetic purpose. Metaphors are used naturally in everyday life by ordinary people and, as such, it is an intrinsic process of human thought and reasoning.

Bibliographical References

Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75(1), 1–28.

Gibbs, R. W. (1996). Why many concepts are metaphorical. Cognition, 61(3), 309–319.

Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Cambridge University Press eBooks (pp. 202–251).

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by.

Akseli Haverinen, A. (2020). The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning: A Survey Study in an English as a Foreign Language Environment

Hu, C., & Zhi, C. (2015). Inflation metaphor in contemporary American English. Higher Education Studies, 5(6), 21.

Knowles, M., & Moon, R. (2004). Introducing metaphor. In Routledge eBooks.

Skott, C. (2002). Expressive metaphors in cancer narratives. Cancer Nursing, 25(3), 230–235.

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Nicole Lorenzoni

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