Welcome In the News Workshops AZ News
Welcome Language in the news
Language workshops
All articles
News & events


Studies such as Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By take a cognitive approach to metaphor. This approach suggests that metaphor is not only a means of describing things in a literary way, but that it also acts as the basis for the way we conceive the world around us, and how we act and interact within it. Metaphor allows us not only to talk about one thing in terms of another, but to experience one thing in terms of how we experience something else. For example, we don't just say 'Your position is indefensible' or 'I blew him out of the water' to note the similarities between arguments and war; we actually experience arguments as though they are similar to wars.

The cognitive view suggests that readers and hearers are able to process the meanings of conventional metaphors — LIFE IS A JOURNEY or IDEAS ARE FOOD — just as easily as more literal language. Indeed, we might struggle to actually talk about life or ideas without metaphors like 'She reached the end of her days', 'They were just setting out in life', 'The students fed off the ideas of the linguist'. Some scholars have suggested that we find metaphors easy to understand because we think in terms of them. This could explain why we have no more trouble understanding the statement 'Everyone will need to tighten their belts during these tough times for the economy' than we would 'Everyone will have to be careful to not spend too much money during these tough times for the economy'.

Just as Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that our conceptions of the world around us and metaphor are inextricable, so other researchers have argued that ideology — the ways in which we see the world, shared by different members of society — is embedded in our world view (Jeffries, 2010). If both metaphor and ideology play a part in shaping our outlook, then it seems quite possible that the two could come together to affect the way we think about things. An article on the use of metaphor to talk about the economy suggests that this is the case with the metaphor THE ECONOMY IS A MACHINE: such is the pervasiveness of metaphors such as 'Greece must kick-start its economy', 'The European economy has broken down' or 'Attempts are being made to fix the American economy' that we might struggle to view economic matters in any other way. This could cause problems: we are used to being able to control machines, but the economy is something so enormous and conceptual that the idea of it being something we can control could be seen to be hubristic.

Spotting metaphor and simile

One of the examples of a conceptual metaphor that Lakoff and Johnson discuss in Metaphors We Live By is ARGUMENT IS WAR. They suggest that this metaphor is so embedded in our way of understanding the world that we don't even see phrases such as 'He destroyed his argument' or 'I blew his suggestions out of the water' as metaphorical. Lakoff and Johnson even suggest that our whole concept of arguments would be completely different if we understood them in terms of a conceptual metaphor such as ARGUMENT IS A DANCE. While you might find it hard to imagine thinking of arguments in this way, take note of the way that arguments are talked about — 'He defended his position', 'He was defeated by her greater logic' — and consider whether these metaphors affect how we experience this particular type of interaction. Or, when you next find yourself in an argument, think about whether and how your experience of it is shaped by the WAR metaphor!

Recommended reading

Knowles and Moon's introductory text provides an introduction to a number of approaches to the study of metaphor in language:

Knowles, Murray and Rosamund Moon. 2006. Introducing Metaphor. London: Routledge.

Lakoff and Johnson's book makes the argument that metaphor is inescapable, to the extent that it defines reality itself, and provides a good introduction to the idea of conceptual metaphors:

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. London: University of Chicago Press.


Jeffries, Lesley. 2010. Critical Stylistics: The Power of English. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Share this post