Metaphors and human cognition

from The secret life of words by Anne Curzan, Lecture 5: New word meanings

Metaphors seem to be fundamental to the ways in which we categorize the world. As we experience the world, we look for similarities, and that’s one of the ways that we group things together, and those similarities can be quite metaphorical.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a book called Metaphors we live by, and they talk about this idea of a conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor is a more global metaphor that structures the way we talk about something. It’s the abstract concept, and then we have lots of phrases that support that conceptual metaphor. Let me give you an example.

Argument is war. That’s the conceptual metaphor. The ways we talk about the argument then support that. You attack someone’s position. You mount a defense of your own position. You call someone’s ideas indefensible. So you shoot them down. You have targets, you use ammunition, and in the end you win or you lose, or maybe you call it a draw. You can see that this kind of conceptual metaphor is very natural for us, and we can say arguments really are war, but of course they’re not war.

We can have a different conceptual metaphor, like argument is dance. I step forward, you step back. We move about as we do this. You might say “Oh but that’s artificial”, but of course argument is war is also artificial.

Often these conceptual metaphors allow us to talk about cognitive processes through physical experiences of the world. So another conceptual metaphor is understanding is seeing. Anytime that I say “oh I see”, of course I don’t literally see what you mean, I am metaphorically see what you mean. I say oh that’s clear, your ideas are transparent, or perhaps as they are opaque. That’s me talking about understanding as seeing.

We also talk about, for example, ideas as food. I chew on them, perhaps I swallow them. When my students take the test today my feel that they have to regurgitate ideas or knowledge. And we may say that idea is half-baked.

[this was a digression from this discussion of metaphorical extensions]

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