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Pablo Neruda: [after reading the poem "Ode to the Sea"] What do you think?
Mario Ruoppolo: I felt seasick, in fact.
Mario Ruoppolo: I can't explain it. I felt a boat tossing around on those words.
Pablo Neruda: Do you know what you've done, Mario?
Mario Ruoppolo: No, what?
Pablo Neruda: You've invented a metaphor. Yes, you have!
--Il Postino[1]
The Bouba/kiki effect (1929)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. Metaphor is a type of analogy and is closely related to other rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance including allegory, hyperbole, and simile.

One of the most prominent 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

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



From Latin metaphora, from Ancient Greek μεταφορά (metaphora), from μεταφέρω (metapherō, “I transfer, apply”), from μετά (meta, “with, across, after”) + φέρω (pherō, “I bear, carry”)

Historical theories of metaphor

Metaphor as style in speech and writing

Viewed as an aspect of speech and writing, metaphor qualifies as style, in particular, style characterized by a type of analogy. An expression (word, phrase) that by implication suggests the likeness of one entity to another entity gives style to an item of speech or writing, whether the entities consist of objects, events, ideas, activities, attributes, or almost anything expressible in language. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph, the word "viewed" serves as a metaphor for "thought of", implying analogy of the process of seeing and the thought process. The phrase, "viewed as an aspect of", projects the properties of seeing (vision) something from a particular perspective onto thinking about something from a particular perspective, that "something" in this case referring to "metaphor" and that "perspective" in this case referring to the characteristics of speech and writing.

As a characteristic of speech and writing, metaphors can serve the poetic imagination, 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 one's life to a journey.

Viewed also as an aspect of speech, metaphor can serve as a device for persuading the listener or reader of the speaker or writer's argument or thesis, the so-called rhetorical metaphor.

Metaphor as foundational to our conceptual system

Conceptual metaphor

Cognitive linguists emphasize that metaphors serve to facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain, typically an abstract one like 'life' or 'theories' or 'ideas', through expressions that relate to another, more familiar conceptual domain, typically a more concrete one like 'journey' or 'buildings' or 'food' Food for thought: 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, cook up explanations, hoping they do not seem half-baked. Theories as buildings: we establish a foundation for them, a framework, support them with strong arguments, buttressing them with facts, hoping they will stand. Life as journey: some of us travel hopefully, others seem to have no direction, many lose their way.

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. Thus, for example, we have coherently organized knowledge about journeys that we rely on in understanding life.

It was Lakoff & Johnson (1980, 1999) who greatly contributed to establishing the importance of conceptual metaphor as a framework for thinking in language. In recent years many scholars have investigated the original ways in which writers use novel metaphors and question the fundamental frameworks of thinking implicit in conceptual metaphors.

When considering the role conceptual metaphor plays in the worldview of the community, the problem becomes twofold. From a sociological, cultural or philosophical perspective, the question becomes, 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)?

Though cognitive scholars have made some attempts to take on board the idea that different languages have evolved radically different concepts and conceptual metaphors, they have on the whole remained tied up in the somewhat reductive concept of worldview which derives from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The true source of ethnolinguistics and the thinker who contributed most to the debate on the relationship between culture, language and linguistic communities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Humboldt remains, however, little known in English-speaking nations. Andrew Goatly, in his 'Washing the Brain' (John Benjaminns 2007)does take 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.

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. But Underhill's studies are situated in Czech and German, which allows him to demonstrate the ways individuals are both thinking '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. French is a treasure, for example. English is a 'tool' for liberating minorities engaging in debate in the global world. Underhill continues his investigation of the relationship between worldview and lanuage in 'Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: truth, love, hate & war' (Cambridge UP 2012).

Metaphor in philosophy

metaphor in philosophy

According to Nietzsche, we are in metaphor or we are metaphor: our being is not derived from a Platonic, eternal essence or from a Cartesian thinking substance but (in as much as there is a way of being we can call ours) is emergent from tensional interactions between competing drives or perspectives. We customarily hold truth to be a relation of correspondence between knowledge and reality but, Nietzsche declares, it is in fact ‘a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms’ due to the fundamentally metaphorical nature of concept-formation, a series of creative leaps from nerve stimulus to retinal image (first metaphor) to sound as signifier (second metaphor). Our categories, and the judgments we form with them, can never correspond to things in themselves because they are formed through a series of transformations which ensures that ‘there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression’ connecting the first stage (the stimulus) with the last (the concept).

See also


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