Metaphors We Live By

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action.
Salvador Dalí, Self Portrait

by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphori­cal, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

But out conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.

Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. And we have found a way to begin to identify in detail just what the meta­phors are that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do.

To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept argument and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
H is criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Thought there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counter­attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them dif­ferently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things—verbal discourse and armed con­flict—and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But argument is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of war. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.

Moreover, this is the ordinary way of having an argument and talking about one. The normal way for us to talk about attacking a position is to use the words “attack a position.” Our conventional ways of talking about arguments presuppose a metaphor we are hardly ever conscious of. The metaphor is not merely in the words we use—it is in our very concept of an argument. The language of argument is not poetic, fanciful, or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way—and we act according to the way we conceive of things.

The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical. This is what we mean when we say that the human conceptual system is meta­phorically structured and defined. Metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s concep­tual system. Therefore, whenever … we speak of metaphors, such as ARGUMENT IS WAR, it should be understood that metaphor means metaphori­cal concept. . . .

We have been claiming that metaphors partially structure our everyday concepts and that this structure is reflected in our literal language. Before we can get an overall picture of the philosophical implications of these claims, we need a few more examples. In each of the ones that follow we give a metaphor and a list of ordinary expres­sions that are special cases of the metaphor. The English expressions are two sorts: simple literal expressions and idioms that fit the metaphor and are part of the normal everyday way of talking about the subject.

Is that the foundation for your theory? The theory needs more support. The argument is shaky. We need some more facts or the argument will fall apart. We need to construct a strong argument for that. I haven’t figured out yet what the form of the argument will be. Here are some more facts to shore up the theory. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument. The argument collapsed. They exploded his latest theory. We will show that theory to be without foundation. So far we have put together only the framework of the theory.

What he said left a bad taste in my mouth. All this paper has in it are raw facts, half-baked ideas, and warmed-over theories. There are too many facts here for me to digest them all. I just can’t swallow that claim. That argument smells fishy. Let me stew over that for a while. Now there’s a theory you can really sink your teeth into. We need to let that idea percolate for a while. That’s food for thought. He’s a voracious reader. We don’t need to spoon-feed our students. He devoured the book. Let’s let that idea simmer on the back burner for a while. This is the meaty part of the paper. Let that idea jell for a while. That idea has been fermenting for years.

With respect to life and death ideas are organisms, either people or plants.

The theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous number of ideas in physics. He is the father of modern biology. Whose brainchild was that?
Look at what his ideas have spawned. Those ideas died off in the Middle Ages. His ideas will live on forever. Cognitive psychology is still in its infancy. That’s an idea that ought to be resurrected. Where’d you dig up that idea? He breathed new life into that idea. .

His ideas have finally come to fruition. That idea died on the vine. That’s a budding theory. It will take years for that idea to come to full flower. He views chemistry as a mere offshoot of physics. Mathematics has many
branches. The seeds of his great ideas were planted in his youth. She has a fertile imagination. Here’s an idea that I’d like to plant in your mind. He has a barren mind.

We’re really turning (churning, cranking, grinding) out new ideas. We’ve generated a lot of ideas this week. He produces new ideas at an astound­ing rate. His intellectual productivity has decreased in recent years. We need to take the rough edges off that idea, hone it down, smooth it out. It’s a rough idea; it needs to be refined.

It’s important how you package your ideas. He won’t buy that. That idea just won’t sell. There is always a market for good ideas. That’s a worthless idea. He’s been a source of valuable ideas. I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for that idea. Your ideas don’t have a chance in the intellectual market­place.

He ran out of ideas. Don’t waste your thoughts on small projects. Let’s pool our ideas. He’s a resourceful man. We’ve used up all our ideas. That’s a useless idea. That idea will go a long way.

Let me put in my two cents’ worth. He’s rich in ideas. That book is a treasure trove of ideas. He has a wealth of ideas.

That’s an incisive idea. That cuts right to the heart of the matter. That was a cutting remark. He’s sharp. He has a razor wit. He has a keen mind. She cut his argument to ribbons.

That idea went out of style years ago. I hear sociobiology is in these days. Marxism is currently fashionable in western Europe. That idea is old hatl That’s an outdated idea. What are the new trends in English criticism? Old-fashioned notions have no place in today’s soceity. He keeps up-to- date by reading the New York Review of Books. Berkeley is a center of avant-garde thought. Semiotics has become quite chic. The idea of revolution is no longer in vogue in the United States. The transforma­tional grammar craze hit the United States in the mid-sixties and has just made it to Europe.


I see what you’re saying. It looks different from my point of view. What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I’ve got the whole picture. Let me point something out to you. That’s an insightful idea. That was a brilliant remark. The argument is clear. It was a murky discussion. Could you elucidate your remarks? It’s a transparent argument. The discussion was opaque.

I could feel the electricity between us. There were sparks. I was magnet­ically drawn to her. They are uncontrollably attracted to each other. They gravitated to each other immediately. His whole life revolves around her. The atmosphere around them is always charged. There is incredible energy in their relationship. They lost their momentum.

This is a sick relationship. They have a strong, healthy marriage. The marriage is dead—it can’t be revived. Their marriage is on the mend. We’re getting back on our feet. Their relationship is in really good shape. They’ve got a listless marriage. Their marriage is on its last legs. It’s a tired affair.

I’m crazy about her. She drives me out of my mind. He constantly raves about her. He’s gone mad over her. I’m just wild about Harry. I’m insane about her.

She cast her spell over me. The magic is gone. I was spellbound. She had me hypnotized. He has me in a trance. I was entranced by him. I’m charmed by her. She is bewitching.

He is known for his many rapid conquests. She fought for him, but his mistress won out. He fled from her advances. She pursued him relentlessly. He is slowly gaining ground with her. He won her hand in marriage. He overpowered her. She is besieged by suitors. He had to fend them off. He enlisted the aid of her friends. He made an ally of her mother. Theirs is a misalliance if I’ve ever seen one.

He’s seeking his fortune. He’s flaunting his newfound wealth. He’s a fortune-hunter. She’s a gold-digger. He lost his fortune. He’s searching for wealth.

He’s a big man in the garment industry. He’s a giant among writers. That’s the biggest idea to hit advertising in years. He’s head and shoulders above everyone in the industry. It was only a small crime. That was only a little white lie. I was astounded at the enormity of the crime. That was one of the greatest moments in World Series history. His accomplish­ments tower over those of lesser men.

I can’t take my eyes off her. He sits with his eyes glued to the TV. Her eyes picked out every detail of the pattern. Their eyes met. She never moves her eyes from his face. She ran her eyes over everything in the room. He wants everything within reach of his eyes.

I could see the fear in his eyes. His eyes were filled with anger. There was passion in her eyes. His eyes displayed his compassion. She couldn’t get the fear out of her eyes. Love showed in his eyes. Her eyes welled with emotion.

His mother’s death hit him hard. That idea bowled me over. She’s a knockout. I was struck by his sincerity. That really made an impression on me. He made his mark on the world. I was touched by his remark. That blew me away.

He has a pain in his shoulder. Don’t give me the flu. My cold has gone from my head to my chest. His pains went away. His depression returned.
Hot tea and honey will get rid of your cough. He could barely contain his joy. The smile left his face. Wipe that sneer off your face, private! His fears keep coming back. I’ve got to shake off this depression—it keeps hanging on. If you’ve got a cold, drinking lots of tea will flush it out of your system. There isn’t a trace of cowardice in him. He hasn’t got an honest bone in his body.

She’s brimming with vim and vigor. She’s overflowing with vitality. He’s devoid of energy. I don’t have any energy left at the end of the day. I’m drained. That took a lot out of me.

I’ve had a full life. Life is empty for him. There’s not much left for him in life. Her life is crammed with activities. Get the most out of life. His life contained a great deal of sorrow. Live your life to the fullest.

I’ll take my chances. The odds are against me. I’ve got an ace up my sleeve. He’s holding all the aces. It’s a toss-up. If you play your cards right, you can do it. He won big. He’s a real loser. Where is he when the chips are down? That’s my ace in the hole. He’s bluffing. The president is playing it close to his vest. Let’s up the ante. Maybe we need to sweeten the pot. I think we should stand pat. That’s the luck of the draw. Those are high stakes.

In this last group of examples we have a collection of what are called “speech formulas,” or “fixed-form expressions,” or “phrasal lexical items.” These function in many ways like single words, and the language has thousands of them. In the examples given, a set of such phrasal lexical items is coherently structured by a single metaphorical concept. Although each of them is an instance of the life is a gambling game metaphor, they are typically used to speak of life, not of gambling situations. They are normal ways of talking about life situations, just as using the word “construct” is a normal way of talking about theories. It is in this sense that we include them in what we have called literal expressions structured by metaphorical concepts. If you say “The odds are against us” or “We’ll have to take our chances,” you would not be viewed as speaking metaphorically but as using the normal everyday language appropriate to the situation. Nevertheless, your way of talking about, conceiving, and even experiencing your situation would be meta­phorically structured.

Source: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980.


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