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Everyday use of metaphor


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > Everyday use of metaphor

Embedded in the language | Shaping and constraining thinking | Clichés and common usage | Escaping common use | See also


Metaphors are not just for poets and politicians -- we use them every day where they enhance our communications and our lives.

Embedded in the language

Metaphors are more embedded in the language than we realize. Words are symbols, little packets of meaning. They are not what they represent, but shapes and sounds that we use to signify what we intend. When shared with others, we can thus communicate.

Whenever we say 'A is B', we are using the principle of metaphor. Thus 'I am happy' uses the idea of 'happy' and applies it to 'I'. This can cause confusion as when 'I' am something then it precludes 'I' being anything else.

The ultimate metaphor, perhaps is your name. When I say 'I am David', I apply 'Davidness' to myself, and all that that means.

Shaping and constraining thinking

Lakoff and Johnson, in 'Metaphors we Live By' (1980) show how metaphors shape our lives. A classic example they use is the way that we use the metaphor of war when we are talking about argument and debate. Thus, for example, we talk about:

  • Taking a position and building a supporting argument
  • Attacking and demolishing their position
  • The thrust of a strong point
  • Winning the argument

The most pernicious effect of this is that the metaphor of war then shapes our thinking. It not only tells us what to think, but also distracts us from alternative ideas. Thus argument for peace appears as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Clichés and common usage

In use, metaphors may run through the gamut of fashion, with some remaining obscure whilst others rising into popular use and eventually becoming hackneyed clichés that 'people in the know' avoid. They may also fall so far into the language that nobody realizes any more that they are metaphor.

Newspapers, television and other media play a significant role in popularizing various sayings, for example in publicizing politicians and where a soap-opera character uses particular phrases.

Metaphors also provide a method for cultures to express their particular identity and ideas, and metaphors easily are used for jargon and secret codes. Teenagers regularly reinvent the language and make much use of metaphor. 'Magic' for example, at one time and in some places was a common superlative and 'That's magic' meant 'That's really good.'

Escaping common use

Yet at heart, metaphors are a wonderful vehicle for escaping common language, of legitimately reaching out and redefining words and concepts in terms of other things. Metaphors let us prod the language into new meaning, stretching and enhancing its usage.

All we have to say is 'That's...' and we can call on metaphors such as 'crazy', 'brilliant', 'rough' and so on to enhance and warm our communications.

See also

Dying metaphor, Dead metaphor


Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press


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