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Language Awareness

What is metaphor?
How do metaphors work?
Metaphors we live by
Idioms and similes
The Metaphor Boxes in the Macmillan English Dictionary
Sets of metaphors
   • Metaphor and emotion
   • Metaphor, thought and knowledge
Metaphorical ideas
   • Place and position
   • Journeys and travelling
   • Up and down
Metaphors in other languages
Some practical activities
Other metaphors
Further reading

Metaphor is very common in English and other languages. People often think of it as being a typical feature of poetry and literature. But, in fact, many familiar words and phrases have metaphorical meanings, although we do not usually realize this when we use them.

What is a metaphor?

Look at these three sentences:

She flew past me on her bicycle.
Turing was the father of the modern computer.
He gave me a cold look.

In all these sentences, the word in bold type is not used in its basic or literal meaning – it is used in a metaphorical way.

A metaphor is a type of comparison: when you use a word or phrase metaphorically, you are using a meaning that has developed from the literal meaning and has some of the same features. For example, if you say someone ‘flies past’ on a bicycle or in a car, they are not really flying through the air, but the speed of their movement reminds you of a plane or a bird. This is a normal part of the way word meanings develop, and when a word has several meanings, some of those meanings are usually metaphorical.


How do metaphors work?

Every metaphorical word or phrase contains a ‘key idea’. This is the connection or similarity between the literal meaning and the metaphorical meaning. Sometimes the same key idea is expressed in several different words and phrases.

For example, when we talk about illness, we often use words and phrases whose literal meanings are to do with fighting or war:

A good diet will help your body fight disease.
The virus attacks the immune system.
Jean died on Sunday after a long battle with cancer.

The key idea in this case is that trying to recover from an illness is like fighting a war, and many of the words and phrases that we use for talking about illness express this idea. Once we understand this key metaphorical idea, it is easier to understand (and remember) words and phrases used for talking about illness. This is why metaphor is so important.

To help you understand metaphor better, the Macmillan English Dictionary includes more than 60 special Metaphor Boxes, which are listed on the next page. The Metaphor Boxes collect together sets of metaphorical words and phrases like these ones about illness.


‘Metaphors we live by’

Metaphor is so common that it is sometimes almost impossible to talk about particular topics in English without using words that are metaphorical. For example, many common English words referring to responsibilities are metaphorical. In this case, the key idea is that having a responsibility is like carrying a load: the bigger the responsibility, the heavier the load:

I have to bear the responsibility for this.
The responsibility was weighing on my mind.
I don’t want to be a burden to you.

Even though we may not realize that we are speaking metaphorically, the basic metaphorical idea has influenced the way that a particular concept is expressed in English, and this affects the way English speakers think about it. Metaphors that provide us with ways of thinking and ways of talking about things are called conceptual metaphors, and they are the subject of an important book, Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Many other people have written about metaphor, but Lakoff and Johnson introduced the ideas that have influenced the Metaphor Boxes in the Macmillan English Dictionary.


Idioms and similes

Idioms often contain metaphorical ideas: for example, expressions like spill the beans and give someone a hand are metaphorical. Similes are very like metaphors. The difference is that they include words such as like or as, which make it clear that two things are being compared. For example, that man is an animal is a metaphor, but he behaves like an animal is a simile. The Macmillan English Dictionary Metaphor Boxes include idioms and similes if they show the same key idea as other words in the group.


The Metaphor Boxes in the Macmillan English Dictionary

The Metaphor Boxes can be found at the main dictionary entry that relates to the topic of each metaphor. So the Metaphor Box listing metaphors about illnesses is at the entry for illness (not at the entry for fight, which is the key idea). These boxes show many of the main words and phrases that express the key idea. But you may be able to think of other ones that contain the same idea.

Sometimes a topic has two different groups of metaphors, each showing a different key idea. For example, the Metaphor Box at relationship shows that we think of relationships in two different metaphorical ways:

• like a physical connection:
I was very attached to him.
She has split up with her boyfriend

• like temperature or the weather:
They greeted us warmly.
It was a very stormy relationship.

There are Metaphor Boxes at the following entries:
achieve happy power
affect hate problem
aim help proud
angry honest quantity
argument idea relationship
busy illness responsibility
communicate important sad see happy
confused intelligence search
conversation interested secret
crazy knowledge self
criticize language sensible
deceive life simple
difficulty lose see win situation
discover love strange
dishonest see honest method success
effort mind time
enthusiasm mistake tolerance
failure see success money understand
fear nervous want
feeling opinion win
force opportunity  
friendly organization  
guilty people  

Sets of metaphors

As we have seen, metaphor is an important part of communication. It provides us with ways of referring to things that are part of our everyday experience, such as emotions or thoughts and knowledge. We will look at these areas in more detail here.


Metaphor and emotion

English has basic words, such as feeling, love, hate, angry, happy, and sad, to refer to emotions. However, many of the other words and phrases that we use when we talk about emotions are metaphorical. Emotions are internal experiences, but very often they are expressed in metaphor as if they are external, physical experiences. For example, when something has a powerful effect on us, we feel as if we have been hit:

The news has hit him hard.
It had a huge impact on them.

We use metaphors to do with heat and warmth to describe strong feelings such as anger, love, or enthusiasm, and metaphors to do with cold to describe fear or unfriendly feelings:

He has a fiery temper.
The book was received warmly.
I felt a chill of fear.
She treated us with cool indifference.

We use metaphors to do with light and dark, or movement up and down, to explain feelings of happiness and sadness:

The future looks very bright.
The news lifted her spirits.
There’s no point in having these dark thoughts.

And we describe bad feelings such as hate and bitterness as if they are poisons, diseases, or other destructive things:

They were eaten up with hatred.
Mistrust had poisoned their relationship.

To learn more about metaphor and emotion, see the Metaphor Boxes at affect, angry, enthusiasm, fear, feeling, friendly, happy, hate, interested, love, nervous, proud, relationship, self, want.


Metaphor, thought, and knowledge

It is especially difficult for us to describe or explain human thought processes. For example, we may feel as if our minds have a fixed shape and a physical location in our heads, rather than being complicated systems of cells, nerves, and signals; or we may think of ideas almost as if they have physical forms. In English and many other languages, many of the ways in which we refer to thinking and thoughts are metaphorical.

For example, words for talking about mental processes often suggest that the mind is a kind of container or area, and that thoughts move across it or ideas are stored in it:

A few doubts remained at the back of my mind.
The thought crossed her mind that he was lying.
I don’t want to put any ideas into your head.

We think of ideas as if they are plants, growing in our minds; complex ideas and theories as if they are buildings; and facts as if they are physical objects:

I had already planted the idea in her mind.
It was a carefully constructed theory.
Let me know if you dig up anything about him.

There are also many metaphors to do with understanding, opinions, and knowledge, which are based on sight and light:

I see what you mean.
They recognized the fact that they needed to improve.
We want to get a range of different views.
He kept us in the dark about his plans.

To learn more about metaphor, thought, and knowledge, see the Metaphor Boxes at communicate, confused, idea, intelligence, knowledge, mind, opinion, search, self, understand.


Metaphorical ideas

Some basic metaphorical ideas are shared by many metaphors. The most important of these is the very general idea that abstract things are described as if they are concrete, or have a physical existence. For example, in English we describe problems and difficulties metaphorically as if they are illnesses or knots:

Transport was another headache for the government.
This is a really knotty problem.

Lakoff and Johnson believe that many conceptual metaphors originally developed because of basic human experiences, and that is why they occur in so many languages. For example, the key idea ‘up/high’ refers to large quantities because when more things are added to a pile, it becomes higher; and the same idea refers to being powerful, because if two people fight and one of them is physically on top of the other, that person usually wins. Three important metaphorical ideas that have their origin in basic human experiences are:

• place and position
• journeys and travelling
• up and down.


Place and position

Many words used to describe places can also be used metaphorically to describe situations, such as the stage that someone has reached in their career or personal development. Sometimes these words are very common and ordinary:

We are in a situation where there are no real winners.
They found themselves in a very difficult position.

Others are more expressive or informal:

I’ve been caught between a rock and a hard place.
This is a potential minefield for beginners.

There are also several metaphors that contain an idea of being lost or in the wrong place to describe confusion or being tricked:

You’ve lost me. What do you mean?
I really think you’re barking up the wrong tree.
I found out I’d been taken for a ride.

A very basic metaphor uses the idea of place, position, direction, or distance to refer to time, and this occurs in many languages. For example, prepositions and adverbs such as at, back, forward, in, on, past, through; verbs such as approach, come, go, pass; and adjectives such as distant, long, short, can all be used metaphorically to refer to points in time or to time passing:

They met on a rainy day in January.
He lay awake all through the night.
This week’s gone so fast.
One day, in the distant future, I might go and live abroad.

More descriptive words include metaphorical meanings of verbs such as: crawl, drag, fly, slip:

The weeks crawled by until we could meet again.
She didn’t notice the time slipping by.

The Metaphor Boxes at confused, deceive, situation give other examples of words and phrases with metaphorical ideas to do with place.


Journeys and travelling

Several metaphors contain an idea of journeys or travelling. The most important of these is to do with life: we think of our lives as if they are journeys:

The baby arrived just after midnight.
They remembered the departed in their prayers.
His life took an unexpected direction.

Metaphorical ideas of roads and journeys occur in relation to methods of doing something and to purposes:

What’s the best way of doing it?
I’ve tried being reasonable, and I don’t want to go down that road again.
I haven’t yet reached my goal.

The same metaphorical idea of a journey occurs in words and phrases to do with conversations and discussions:

I’d like to return to what David was saying earlier.
He always says things in a roundabout way.
The conversation drifted towards the subject of money.

Some metaphors to do with teaching and learning contain a metaphorical idea of journeys. The most frequent meaning of the word course now relates to educational courses, but its earliest meaning related to movement:

This term, we will be exploring the psychology of sport.
It is an excellent guide to English vocabulary.
For more information, visit our website.

See the Metaphor Boxes at conversation, knowledge, life, method.


Up and down

Most languages have metaphors that use ideas of going up or down, or being in a high or low position. In English, there are many common metaphors with these ideas, and one of the simplest is to do with amounts and numbers:

This is an area of high unemployment.
They had raised their prices to unreasonable levels.
The temperature had been falling steadily all day.
There was a collapse in the price of oil.

The same idea also occurs in metaphors to do with power, success, and social position. Here are some more examples:

It is the true story of a millionaire’s meteoric rise from poverty.
They were downtrodden and oppressed.
She had never wanted to climb the greasy pole of politics.

The same is true of words and phrases that we use for describing proud people, who behave as if they are better than other people, or for describing humble and unimportant people:

They look down on everyone who isn’t as rich as they are.
They regarded tradesmen as their inferiors.

Many informal words and phrases to do with happiness and sadness also contain ideas of up and down:

I felt as high as a kite.
They seem very down about it all.

See the Metaphor Boxes at happy, honest, power, proud, quantity, success.


Metaphors in other languages

Many of the metaphorical ideas that influence English words are also found in other languages. Some occur only in European languages, but others occur very generally, such as the key ideas of up and down.

Common metaphorical meanings of ordinary words may have direct translations into another language. For example:
English: You’ve hurt her feelings.
French: Tu l’as blessée.
Spanish: Has herido sus sentimientos.
German: Du hast ihre Gefühle verletzt.

However, idioms and phrases are much less likely to have direct translations from one language to another, although there may be expressions that have similar meanings and contain similar metaphorical ideas. For example:
English: to put the cart before the horse
French: mettre la charrue avant les boeufs
(to put the plough before the ox)
Spanish: empezar la casa por el tejado
(to start building the house from the roof )
German: das Pferd beim Schwanz aufzäumen
(to put the bridle on the horse’s tail)
(to reverse the host and the guest)


Some practical activities

This section contains some suggestions for using the information in the Metaphor Boxes.

1. Look at the Metaphor Box at quantity below. It gives several examples of words and phrases that refer to increases and decreases in quantity using the metaphor of ‘moving up’ and ‘moving down’. Can you think of other words and phrases that express the same metaphorical ideas as the ones we have shown? Is it possible to refer to increases and decreases in quantities and amounts without using any metaphorical meanings?

2. Look at the Metaphor Box at secret below. How would you translate these words and phrases into your own language? Are your translations literal, or are they metaphorical? If they are metaphorical, are the metaphors based on similar ideas to the English ones, or on different ones?


3. Look at the Metaphor Box at life. We deal with two metaphorical ideas here, but there are others too, for example, the idea of life being like a war, or like a theatrical performance:

Life at home was something of a battlefield.
They bring down the curtain on their African tour in Cape Town today.

Can you think of other metaphorical words and phrases that fit with these ideas? Are there similar metaphors about life in your own language, and if so, which is the commonest metaphorical idea?

4. We listed groups of Metaphor Boxes in the sections above, where we discuss metaphors to do with emotions, thought, knowledge, and other common ideas. Choose one of these sets of metaphors, look at the different boxes, and notice the various metaphorical ideas used in English for talking about these concepts. How do these compare with your own language?

5. Many metaphors in English come from the field of sports. Think of as many metaphorical words and phrases as you can that have literal meanings in different kinds of sport. Do you do the same thing in your language? If so, are the examples the same as the ones you thought of for English? Are they taken from the same sports? Do you have different ones taken from different sports? If so, why?


Other metaphors

In the Metaphor Boxes we list groups of words and phrases that all share the same key idea. However, there are many other metaphors and metaphorical uses in English that do not belong to groups like these. Some are new metaphors that people create when they want to describe a situation more effectively, and most of these never appear in any dictionary. But there are many others, which are shown in the Macmillan English Dictionary at individual headwords. For example, if you look at the entries for field, line, head, green, or push, you will see that many of the meanings are metaphorical, and that there are connections between their different meanings. Sometimes these different meanings will have different translations in other languages, but sometimes the metaphors will stay the same.


Further reading

The most important book on conceptual metaphor is:

Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson. Second edition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Here are some further suggestions:

Introducing Metaphor, M. Knowles and R. Moon, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005). (A short introduction to metaphor in general.)

Metaphor: a Practical Introduction, Z. Kövecses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). (On conceptual metaphor and Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas.)

Figurative Thinking and Language Learning, J. Littlemore and G. Low (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). (On figurative language in relation to language teaching.)

Next in the series

Next in the Language Awareness series: Pragmatics