Metaphors We Live By

I recently read Metaphors we Live by, a seminal work in the field of metaphor research. Written by George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, the book incorporates both fields in an argument for metaphor’s importance in our lives. The authors make the case that metaphor allows us to apply our physical and social experiences to make sense of many other subjects. By this definition, metaphors structure our understandings of so many concepts in our lives (from arguments to time perception), and consequently shape our perceptions of and actions regarding those concepts.
While I do subscribe to their thesis, the most what struck me most when reading this work that I have so often read about was the observation that they were talking about embodiment without referring to it as such (probably because the term wasn’t yet in use). In a way, it seems to me, Lakoff and Johnson are hipsters, advocating for embodied cognition before it became trendy.
One example of this is their recurrent discussion of the general metaphor “happy is up,” (as are “good” and “healthy” – and their opposites are down). This is evident in metaphors like:
  • I’m down in the dumps
  • That speech was uplifting
  • Cheer up
  • My spirits rose
Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically. Image: idiomeanings.com
Down in the dumps, literally and metaphorically.
Image: idiomeanings.com
Crucially, they argue, metaphors are systematic, not arbitrary. So if happy is up, we could never introduce a new metaphor into our language in which something like “he dropped down a level” meant that he got better in any way. Embodiment comes in when we realize that when we’re healthy and happy, we physically stand taller. We hold our heads higher and we look UP. Because in our personal experiences, “good” and “up” really do correlate, our metaphors reflect that. Then the metaphor becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as our subsequent actions may also be shaped by the metaphors which are first based in experience.
I think that if Lakoff and Johnson, or any of us, want to make the argument that our linguistic practice of equating “good” and “up” is rooted in our physiology, we should look at other languages. Do speakers of other languages have the same systematic metaphors? The presence of metaphors in which “down” and “good” are equated in any language would make me rethink this argument. They write that “not all cultures give the priorities we do to up-down orientation. There are cultures where balance or centrality plays a much more important role than it does in our culture” (p.24). I was eager to read elaboration on this, and maybe some examples… but that was all they wrote.Thus, for now, I’m on board with the idea that our bodies have systematically shaped our metaphors.
Some other interesting tidbits:
  • In addition to “up is good,” we also systematically express the unknown as up (i.e., that’s up in the air; I’d like to raise some questions; let’s bring it up for discussion). When we ask questions, presumably regarding something that’s  unknown to us, our intonation rises – not a coincidence, the authors claim.
  • The authors bring up the idea that in language (not just English), more form equals more content. So when we say “he is very very very tall,” we get the impression of a much taller man than one described as, “he is very tall.” Many languages use reduplication, the repetition of one or two syllables, to evoke more content as well. In some languages, reduplication applied to a singular noun makes it plural, or applied to a verb makes it continuous. These practices demonstrate another metaphor we live by – that a linguistic expression is a container and its meaning is the contents of that container. By adding more language to the container (expression), we add more content.
Some parts of the book were a little tough to get through (for me, that would be the philosophical parts), but overall my experience of reading the book was one dotted with a number of hm-I-never-thought-of-that moments. As a tribute to the importance of metaphor, I’ll close with the final paragraph of the afterword, an apt summary of the whole work:
 But metaphors are not merely things to be seen beyond. In fact, one can see beyond them only by using other metaphors. It is as though the ability to comprehend experience through metaphor were a sense, like seeing or touching or hearing, with metaphors providing the only ways to perceive and experience much of the world. Metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious.
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