Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly refers to one thing by mentioning another for rhetorical effect. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas. Antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile are all types of metaphor. One of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature is the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7

This quotation expresses a metaphor because the world is not literally a stage. By asserting that the world is a stage, Shakespeare uses points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the behavior of the people within it.

The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1937) by rhetorician I. A. Richards describes a metaphor as having two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the object whose attributes are borrowed. In the previous example, “the world” is compared to a stage, describing it with the attributes of “the stage”; “the world” is the tenor, and “a stage” is the vehicle; “men and women” is the secondary tenor, and “players” is the secondary vehicle.

Other writers employ the general terms ground and figure to denote the tenor and the vehicle. Cognitive linguistics uses the terms target and source, respectively.

The English metaphor derived from the 16th-century Old French word métaphore, which comes from the Latin metaphora, “carrying over”, in turn from the Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá), “transfer”, from μεταφέρω (metapherō), “to carry over”, “to transfer” and that from μετά (meta), “after, with, across” + φέρω (pherō), “to bear”, “to carry”.

Metaphors are most frequently compared with similes. A simile is a specific type of metaphor that uses the words “like” or “as” in comparing two objects. A metaphor asserts the objects in the comparison are identical on the point of comparison, while a simile merely asserts a similarity. For this reason a common-type metaphor is generally considered more forceful than a simile.

The metaphor category contains these specialized types:

Metaphor, like other types of analogy, can be distinguished from metonymy as one of two fundamental modes of thought. Metaphor and analogy work by bringing together concepts from different conceptual domains, while metonymy uses one element from a given domain to refer to another closely related element. A metaphor creates new links between otherwise distinct conceptual domains, while a metonymy relies on the existing links within them.

A dead metaphor is a metaphor in which the sense of a transferred image has become absent. The phrases “to grasp a concept” and “to gather what you’ve understood” use physical action as a metaphor for understanding. The audience does not need to visualize the action; dead metaphors normally go unnoticed. Some distinguish between a dead metaphor and a cliché. Others use “dead metaphor” to denote both.

A mixed metaphor is a metaphor that leaps from one identification to a second inconsistent with the first, e.g.:

I smell a rat […] but I’ll nip him in the bud”-Irish politician Boyle Roche

This form is often used as a parody of metaphor itself:

If we can hit that bull’s-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards… Checkmate.

An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. In the above quote from As You Like It, the world is first described as a stage and then the subsidiary subjects men and women are further described in the same context.

The term metaphor is used to describe more basic or general aspects of experience and cognition:

Metaphors can be implied and extended throughout pieces of literature.

Some theorists have suggested that metaphors are not merely stylistic, but that they are cognitively important as well. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. A common definition of metaphor can be described as a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way. They explain how a metaphor is simply understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another, called a “conduit metaphor”. A speaker can put ideas or objects into containers, and then send them along a conduit to a listener who removes the object from the container to make meaning of it. Thus, communication is something that ideas go into, and the container is separate from the ideas themselves. Lakoff and Johnson give several examples of daily metaphors in use, including “argument is war” and “time is money”. Metaphors are widely used in context to describe personal meaning. The authors suggest that communication can be viewed as a machine: “Communication is not what one does with the machine, but is the machine itself.”

Metaphors can map experience between two nonlinguistic realms. In The Dream Frontier, Mark Blechner describes musical metaphors, where a piece of music can “map” to the personality and emotional life of a person. Musicologist Leonard Meyer demonstrated how purely rhythmic and harmonic events can express human emotions. It is an open question whether synesthesia experiences are a sensory version of metaphor, the “source” domain being the presented stimulus, such as a musical tone, and the target domain, being the experience in another modality, such as color.

Art theorist Robert Vischer argued that when we look at a painting, we “feel ourselves into it” by imagining our body in the posture of a nonhuman or inanimate object in the painting. For example, the painting The Lonely Tree by Caspar David Friedrich shows a tree with contorted, barren limbs. Looking at the painting, we imagine our limbs in a similarly contorted and barren shape, evoking a feeling of strain and distress. Nonlinguistic metaphors may be the foundation of our experience of visual and musical art, as well as dance and other art forms.

In historical onomasiology or in historical linguistics, a metaphor is defined as a semantic change based on a similarity in form or function between the original concept and the target concept named by a word.

For example, mouse: small, gray rodent with a long tailsmall, gray, computer device with a long cord.

Some recent linguistic theories view all language in essence as metaphorical.

Friedrich Nietzsche makes metaphor the conceptual center of his early theory of society in On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense. Some sociologists have found his essay useful for thinking about metaphors used in society and for reflecting on their own use of metaphor. Sociologists of religion note the importance of metaphor in religious worldviews, and that it is impossible to think sociologically about religion without metaphor.

As a characteristic of speech and writing, metaphors can serve the poetic imagination. This allows Sylvia Plath, in her poem “Cut”, to compare the blood issuing from her cut thumb to the running of a million soldiers, “redcoats, every one”; and enabling Robert Frost, in “The Road Not Taken”, to compare a life to a journey.

Metaphor can serve as a device for persuading an audience of the user’s argument or thesis, the so-called rhetorical metaphor.

Cognitive linguists emphasize that metaphors serve to facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain—typically an abstraction such as “life”, “theories” or “ideas”—through expressions that relate to another, more familiar conceptual domain—typically more concrete, such as “journey”, “buildings” or “food”. For example: we devour a book of raw facts, try to digest them, stew over them, let them simmer on the back-burner, regurgitate them in discussions, and cook up explanations, hoping they do not seem half-baked.

A convenient short-hand way of capturing this view of metaphor is the following: CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (A) IS CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (B), which is what is called a conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor consists of two conceptual domains, in which one domain is understood in terms of another. A conceptual domain is any coherent organization of experience. For example, we have coherently organized knowledge about journeys that we rely on in understanding life.

Lakoff and Johnson greatly contributed to establishing the importance of conceptual metaphor as a framework for thinking in language, leading scholars to investigate the original ways in which writers used novel metaphors and question the fundamental frameworks of thinking in conceptual metaphors.

From a sociological, cultural, or philosophical perspective, one asks to what extent ideologies maintain and impose conceptual patterns of thought by introducing, supporting, and adapting fundamental patterns of thinking metaphorically. To what extent does the ideology fashion and refashion the idea of the nation as a container with borders? How are enemies and outsiders represented? As diseases? As attackers? How are the metaphoric paths of fate, destiny, history, and progress represented? As the opening of an eternal monumental moment (German fascism)? Or as the path to communism (in Russian or Czech for example)?[citation needed]

Some cognitive scholars have attempted to take on board the idea that different languages have evolved radically different concepts and conceptual metaphors, while others hold to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt contributed significantly to this debate on the relationship between culture, language, and linguistic communities. Humboldt remains, however, relatively unknown in English-speaking nations. Andrew Goatly, in “Washing the Brain”, takes on board the dual problem of conceptual metaphor as a framework implicit in the language as a system and the way individuals and ideologies negotiate conceptual metaphors. Neural biological research suggests some metaphors are innate, as demonstrated by reduced metaphorical understanding in psychopathy.

James W. Underhill, in Creating Worldviews: Ideology, Metaphor & Language (Edinburgh UP), considers the way individual speech adopts and reinforces certain metaphoric paradigms. This involves a critique of both communist and fascist discourse. Underhill’s studies are situated in Czech and German, which allows him to demonstrate the ways individuals are thinking both within and resisting the modes by which ideologies seek to appropriate key concepts such as “the people”, “the state”, “history”, and “struggle”.

Though metaphors can be considered to be “in” language, Underhill’s chapter on French, English and ethnolinguistics demonstrates that we cannot conceive of language or languages in anything other than metaphoric terms.