Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Wot's this phor? (part two)

Last time we covered your basic metaphors. If you missed it, here's a link to Part One. Now, if that wasn't enough, beginning with the entries I found in Wikipedia, I trawled through the Web and compiled this list:

A dead or frozen metaphor is one in which the implied comparison has been forgotten and is taken literally. These phrases use a physical action as a metaphor for understanding (itself a metaphor), but in none of these cases do most speakers of English actually visualise the physical action. 'He is a snake' may once have been a metaphor but after years of use it has died and become a new sense of the word 'snake'. You could say the same for the word 'died' in the last sentence.

I have my hands full at this time
to grasp a concept
I gather you've understood.

Furthermore, a metaphor that is considered dead in one language or culture is not necessarily dead in another. There is much debate surrounding whether the metaphors of the Bible are living or dead, for example, with this distinction having a dramatic effect on the resultant interpretation of its teachings.

A dying metaphor is a derogatory term coined by George Orwell in his essay 'Politics and the English Language'. Orwell defines a dying metaphor as a metaphor that isn't dead but has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of inventing an original phrase for themselves. In short, a cliché.

ring the changes on
toe the line
ride roughshod over
stand shoulder to shoulder with

A dormant metaphor, on the other hand, is one whose metaphorical character people are aware of but rarely think about. A dormant metaphor is one where the connection between the vehicle and the subject is not clear.

I was lost in thought. (How?)
She flew at him. (Why? In anger? Love?)
He was rattled. (Why? By what or whom?)

A conventional metaphor is a metaphor that is commonly used in everyday language in a culture to give structure to some portion of that culture’s conceptual system.

I'll take my chances.
The odds are against me.
He's holding all the aces.
It's a toss-up.

An absolute or paralogical metaphor (sometimes called an anti-metaphor) is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the idea and the image.

I am the dog end of every day.
That is worth less than a dead digeridoo.
We faced a scallywag of tasks.
The couch is the autobahn of the living room.

An experiential or learning metaphor is an experience that allows one to learn about more than just that experience. Examples: Board-breaking is used in seminars as a metaphor for breaking through emotional boundaries and climbing Kilimanjaro is used as a metaphor for life in Eric Edmeades' Adventure Seminars.

A linguistic-form-as-spatial metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which linguistic elements are represented as occupying locations in physical space, as expressed in some forms of discourse deixis.

Now there's a good point.
Here comes the best part.
I'm lost.
Can we go back to your last point?

A structural metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which one concept is understood and expressed in terms of another structured, sharply defined concept.

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.

An entity metaphor is an ontological metaphor in which an abstraction is represented as a concrete physical object

We're still trying to grind out the solution to this equation.
My mind just isn’t operating today.
Her ego is very fragile.
You have to handle him with care since his wife’s death.

Personification is an ontological metaphor in which a thing or abstraction is represented as a person.

His religion tells him he can’t drink wine.

A containment metaphor is an ontological metaphor in which some concept is represented as having an inside and outside, and capable of holding something else.

He's a glass-half-full kind of person.
Her life is crammed with activities.
Get the most out of life.

An orientational metaphor is a metaphor in which concepts are spatially related to each other, as in the following ways: up or down, in or out, front or back, on or off, deep or shallow, central or peripheral.

Thinking about her always gives me a lift.
I'm feeling down.
I fell into a depression.

An implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: "Shut your trap!" Here, the mouth of the listener is the unspecified tenor.

Roasting today!
She had the screaming.
We were drinking the white.

When a subject is sufficiently well-known, then we do not have to explain it in detail. Most of our communications are like this, with much being left out but the intended meaning still being communicated.

An implied or unstated metaphor is a metaphor not explicitly stated or obvious that compares two things by using adjectives that commonly describe one thing, but are used to describe another comparing the two.

John swelled and ruffled his plumage (versus John was a peacock)
Golden baked skin (comparing bakery goods to skin)

A submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: "my winged thought". Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird.

Her thoughts were on the wing. (wing > bird > flight)
He legged it. (Leg > human > run)
A photon struck him; bolts were for greater men. (photon > light > small idea; bolt > lightning > big ideas)

A simple or tight metaphor is one in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Example: "Cool it". In this example, the vehicle, "cool", is a temperature and nothing else, so the tenor, "it", can only be grounded to the vehicle by one attribute.

He was mad. (mad = anger)
I'll chew on it. (chew = think)

A root metaphor is the underlying worldview that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding health as a mechanical process, or seeing life as the natural expression of an "ideal" form (e.g., the acorn that should grow into an oak tree). A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.

Winning the argument. (argument as war)
Time is money.
Life as journey.

Root metaphors can be unique to individual cultures, nations, organisations or groups. For example one culture may have a root metaphor of life as a journey, whilst another may see it as opportunity.

A conceptual metaphor refers to the understanding of one idea in terms of another. A primary tenet of this theory is that metaphors are a matter of thought and not merely of language: hence, the term conceptual metaphor.

Here is a whole list describing love as a journey:

Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road. We can't turn back now. We're at a crossroads. We may have to go our separate ways. The relationship isn't going anywhere. We're spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track. The marriage is on the rocks. We may have to bail out of this relationship.

The pataphor is an extreme form of metaphor, taking the principle to its limit, where the basic metaphor is typically not mentioned but extensions to it are used without reference.

It is probably best understood by comparison:

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line, two pieces on a chessboard.

Tom took a step closer to Alice and made a date for Friday night, checkmating. Rudy was furious at losing to Margaret so easily and dumped the board on the rose-colored quilt, stomping downstairs.

(The pataphor has created a world where the chessboard exists, including the characters that live in that world entirely abandoning the original context.)

The pataphor was first described by author Pablo Lopez, based on Alfred Jarry's "science" of ’pataphysics.

Therapeutic metaphor is a type of conceptual metaphor presented as a story or other parallel to an entire aspect of a situation, related by a psychotherapist to a patient. The purpose of this is to highlight to a person, in an effective way, some aspects and lessons that otherwise they might not be able to perceive as clearly in their current situation, or to suggest new outlooks on it.

Thus a therapist, told about the untimely death of a loved one, might respond by describing two roses in a garden, one of which is dug up.

An active (or live) metaphor is one which is relatively new and hence is not necessarily apparent to all listeners, although if the metaphor is well-selected, it will be easy enough to understand.

To ensure the active metaphor is understood, further contextual information may be used to hint at its meaning.

Let me compare thee to an arctic day, sharp and bright, forever light...
It's been a purple dinosaur of a day.
You're looking pretty rabbit -- what's up?

Active metaphors are often used in poetry and eloquent speech to stimulate the reader or listener. When words do not fit your known patterns of meaning, you are forced to think harder about them, their use and what is intended by the author.

Their use is a sign of a fertile imagination, and this attribute of the originator may well be recognized by the audience. This makes active metaphors a particularly useful method of impressing other people. Done badly, however, active metaphors can be a sign of arrogance or someone who thinks they are more intelligent than perhaps they actually are.

Now, of course, we have brand spanking new metaphors, a metaphor that is not already part of the conceptual system of a culture as reflected in its language.

Love is a collaborative work of art.

How long they will stay new is another thing entirely. Actually I think the term 'new metaphor' could be considered a new metaphor itself. Try looking it up on the web.

I have always been aware that our language is more visual that most of us imagine but it seems even I have only been seeing the tip of the iceberg. (See! See! Another metaphor).

Have a look at this list (there were others but one has to draw the line somewhere (Yes! Another one)): it only looks at metaphors involving arguments.

An argument-as-war metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which argument is represented as war, with such possibilities as attack, defence, demolishing, winning, and losing.

Your claims are indefensible.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
He shot down all of my arguments.

An argument-as-balance metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which rational argument is understood as a twin-pan balance of weights, such that the weight on either side represents the strength of the respective arguments on either side of a question.

The prosecution piled up evidence.
The debater built up a weighty argument.
The jury weighed the merits of both sides.
More facts might tip the scale.

An argument-as-building metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which a rational argument is represented as a building having parts and degrees of sturdiness.

We've got the framework for a solid argument.
If you don't support your argument with solid facts, the whole thing will collapse.
He is trying to buttress his argument with a lot of irrelevant facts, but it is still so shaky that it will easily fall apart under criticism.

An argument-as-container metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which rational argument is represented as a container with features such as an amount of content.

That argument has holes in it.
I'm tired of your empty arguments.
That conclusion falls out of my argument.
Your argument won't hold water.

An argument-as-journey metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which argument is represented as a journey along a path.

Do you follow my argument?
I'm lost.
You're going around in circles.
We have already covered those points.

Okay, that's me. I'm done.

There are dictionaries of metaphors (e.g. Renton's Metaphors) but I don't own any. Not yet. Although I probably do have enough dictionaries at twenty-seven. The great thing about the metaphor, in fact all language, is that we don't just pick from a list. We can invent our own. In fact we have to. Life refuses to keep still and language has to run to keep up with it. Metaphors are not mere words. Metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary, a means to an end. Sometimes poets can be a bit superior about this kind of language as if they're the only ones who should be allowed to handle them, which is rubbish. Without the metaphor we'd all be talking Newspeak.

For all that, let's end with a metaphorical poem:


I'm a riddle in nine syllables.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

There are a lot of serious people out there seriously interested in the metaphor. If you're at all curious here are a few links to have a look at:

The Metaphor Observatory

The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor George Lakoff

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics – George Lakoff

Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphor – Owen Barfield (an essay at

Metaphor and Meaning – William Grey

Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor Online (a list of links)

Elizabeth Camp has written several papers on the metaphor from a philosophical perspective:

Poesis without Metaphor (Show and Tell)

Contextualism, Metaphor, and What is Said

Metaphor and That Certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’


Metaphor in the Mind

Metaphors and Demonstratives: Josef Stern’s Metaphor in Context


Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

That was utterly fascinating and kind of frightening too - I had no idea there was so many variations on top of the ones you'd already shown in your last post. (Spot the spatial metaphor there?) I could - and might - spend all day recognising metaphors in everything I write now, which would be very distracting.

On a more random note - I've always loved that poem of Sylvia Plath's.

Art Durkee said...

My brain hurt from part one of your list, as useful as it no doubt will be. (fascinating and frightening is a good way of describing it, yes.)

I have to say, though, that I think a lot of this second list, as carefully parsed as it is, can be sorted into two overall categories: dead metaphor and fresh metaphor. In other words, cliché and non-cliché. Wouldn't it be simpler and more manageable to sort it that way?

Just thinking out loud.

Jim Murdoch said...

That was the whole point of the post. I know it's just a ruddy great long list but I wanted to emphasise just how much the concept of metaphors – and to a lesser extent similes – is central to our ability to communicate with others. We think we are being so literal most of the time but we're not. You used the spatial metaphor 'on top of' and I used 'is central to'. I think it's a fascinating subject and I don't expect anyone to remember all of, or even a fraction of, what I've written but I think an awareness of how language can work is an essential thing for writers. We can take words for granted if we're not careful

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course, Art, it's really an exercise in overkill. So many of the entries in Part II can be boiled down to entries in Part I but I liked the idea of digging down another level.

Okay, the truth is I just got carried away with myself. I was having fun and where's the harm in that?

Art Durkee said...

No harm at all, naturally. And I do enjoy your thoroughness and overkill precisely because it does help to make the point that so much of language is signs and references, not direct-pointing. Writers do tend to think they're speaking literally when they're using dead metaphor, I think you're correct about that.

I get into an argument all the time with fellow poets who don't realize how central metaphor is to poetry. They tend to be in that camp that demands that poetry be in "plain and ordinary speech," and most of them do tend to produce poems that, were they not broken into lines on the page, would be indistinguishable from prose.

Of course, I also get into battles with the neo-formalists because I practice what I preach: i.e. that form is not a critical component of music. Or, rather, received and established historical poetic forms and meters. It is possible to use plain and ordinary speech, but in a heightened and condensed and empowered way, that doesn't rhyme or scan, and still be a poem. I write a lot of prose-poems and haibun; and even the neo-formalists I've argued with usually agree they're poetry.

But what none of them seem to get is the point I think you're trying to make (unless I'm far off the mark): it's ALL symbology, it's ALL signs, it's all referential.

Which is not to decry all that as bad and wrong, but rather to simply recognize it for what it is.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Years ago I read a book, A Man Without Words, about a young deaf man who had grown up without contact with other deaf people, thus he had no language -- which is not to say he had no way to communicate. His communication consisted primarily of pantomime, which greatly limited his conceptual universe. With contact with other deaf people he began to learn language, which meant he began to think abstractly for the first time. His mind came alive, the world opened up (Helen Keller said something similar). Yet the basis of this man's thought, the author (Susan Schaller) said, seemed to be metaphor. To relate to something not seen the man (as we all?) needed to compare/relate the thing to something immediate, something vivid and easily pictured. Otherwise it remained out of reach (so to speak).

Dave King said...

An interesting post Jim, and as with part 1, well researched. I was particularly interested in the dead metaphor. I find the origin of words and how they gain and lose meanings absolutely fascinating, so that one really grabbed my attention. I had not heard of it previously. Others that interested me were: the dormant, absolute, implicit and entity. Will I retain it all, though, there's the rub!

Conda Douglas said...

Oh my goodness, Jim--I had no idea--really none. Although I was reminded of my attempts to learn another language and my attempts to teach English to Tibetans (refugees). Very difficult to teach/learn as they do often embody abstract concepts. Or simply: toe what line? Where?

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that's the whole point, Art is that 'plain and ordinary speech', the language of the masses, IS heavily metaphorical. This was something I mentioned in a much earlier post about William McIlvanney who pointed out that the lower down the social strata one gets the more metaphorical the language gets.

That was a fascinating point Glenn. It reminds me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Darmok, where the captain ends up trapped on a planet with the captain of a Tamarian vessel with whom he cannot communicate because it turns out that the Tamarian language is entirely based on metaphors derived from their own experience and mythology, making it virtually impossible to comprehend.

Of course, Dave, that's the whole thing about language, its fluidity. I have an old dictionary that I like to browse through every now and then and it's striking to see just how much it has changed in just a hundred years. But, I'm like you, I simply can't retain all the stuff I write about. I study, absorb, organise on a page, post and forget. Such is life.

Nice point Conda, it's something I've never thought about before. I've always assumed that every language was as metaphorical as English.


I had no idea!

Lilly said...

Great post. I learnt a lot from that and had no idea. I fear I break every rule in teh book when it comes to language and writing. I will be back.

Jim Murdoch said...

Susan, thanks for dropping by. I was the same, the list just kept getting bigger and bigger.

And Lily - always nice to meet an Australian - the problem with a lot of kids is that they don't know there are rules there to break. The thing about the rules in English is that they're really guidelines; what was acceptable even fifty years ago is becoming old-fashioned now. On the whole it's a good thing.

Emerging Writer said...

What an informative blog. Thanks for that. What about metaphors (or similes) that used to mean something and no longer do. Like The car he bought was a pig in a poke. I don't know the origin, do you?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Kate. You can find out about the origins of the 'pig in a poke' expression at Wikipedia.

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