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Metaphors and space


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > Metaphors and space

Form | Relative position | Containment | Movement | See also


One thing that is peculiar to humans is our ability to deal and work with concepts and ideas outside of our everyday existence. This, however, gives us a problem in how how share understanding of things that we cannot touch or see.

A solution to this problem is a very deep embedding of space into the language, whereby our everyday words around many concepts casts them into three dimensional space. In doing so, this allows us then to share ideas as their form and position are subconsciously shaped.

Putting an object into space makes it a thing. A thing exists in three-dimensional space. It has a form, size, shape, texture. These attributes can be used as descriptors and vehicles that convey attributes of the subject being described.

Things can also move in space, relative to other things. The can have position, locus, speed, acceleration.


There are many attributes of basic form that may be used to form a metaphor. Here are but a few.


The surface of an object gives a tactile sense to an object, playing to the sense of touch. It can have hardness or softness. It can be shiny or dull, rough or smooth, reflective or matt.

He's a hard nut.

She's a real softie.

That's a pretty hairy idea.

Let's smooth out that plan.


An object and hence a metaphor may be flexible, ductile, malleable or brittle. Something that can change shape is often considered to be adaptable. That which does not bend may considered strong.

I'm ready to flex arrangements.

He was her oak tree, her fixed mark.

I can make it at a stretch.

It won't make it like this -- we need to morph.


Size is an attribute that has particular significance in describing goodness, with large usually meaning better and smaller somehow being less desirable.

He's big-hearted.

That's not car, it's a little bag on wheels!

In assessing size, we often make a relative to some other reference object.

They are making a bigger offer than you.

We also use ourselves as a size reference. Thus a fly is small but an elephant is big.

Mammoth sale! Mouse prices!


When a thing exists in three-dimensional space, it has mass. Things which are heavy indicate difficulty, like something that hard to move. Heaviness also indicates power.

Heavy, man!

And so I decided to weigh into the argument.

She's weighed down by the problems at work.

Interestingly, a thing which is light also borrows from the fact that 'light' also means the opposite of dark. Light connotes ease, goodness.

Tripping the light fantastic.

Light-fingered Joe.

He's just a lightweight.

An ounce of help is worth a pound of pity.

Relative position

An object can be compared with other things and found similar or different in one or more ways. It can be found good and bad, useful and worthless. Things also exist in space relative to other things. They can be near or far, above or below.

Above all, I want to be a rocket scientist.

Besides that, what else do you want?


Height is often used as a metaphor for goodness. If I am above you, then I am better than you. If I am beneath you, then I am not as good as you, whilst when we are side-by-side, we are equals.

He thinks he's above the law.

That is beneath contempt.


Distance is used to indicate similarity and association. Things which are close are somehow more alike, whilst things far away are different from one another. You can also stand on one thing and look at another. The one that is closer is clear and every detail can be seen, whilst the distant one is small and unclear.

That's a long way from what I want.

We're close friends.

I'm getting down to work now.

Distance can also be associated with time, where long way means a long time.

Long ago and far away.

It's nearly time to go.


Many conceptual metaphors are worded as containers -- that is, they are used to hold something in or keep something out.


Containers can be organizations, concepts and others elements.

I'm in the army.

I got there in time.

In fact that's not true.

He's one of the 'in' crowd.


If something can be in a container, then outside the container also has particular significance. Where the container is a defining category, then a thing outside the container is, by definition not in that category.

Engineers are not leaders.

That's not in fashion any more.

'In' and 'out' are often used to denote good and bad, with 'in' usually indicating the desirable state.

He's out of touch.

It's out of order.

She's an outcast.


Containers also include the concept of edge, of the defining line between in and out.

You are on the brink of disaster.

The day, edged in darkness.


With the vector of time and movement, the metaphor of transition between in and out becomes significant. Transition can be a very significant human activity, for example transition to adulthood,

He is on the journey to adulthood.

They have joined the company.

She has passed away.


A thing that exists in space can also move in space. It can thus have a vector that has can change in terms of direction as well as speed. The movement also traces out a potentially useful locus.


The basic element that movement adds is direction. This implies pointing at and reaching some goal or destination.

We're on the road to agreement.

He has left-wing tendencies.

Speed and acceleration

Movement includes change of location with time, and thus has speed or velocity. When the speed changes, this can be acceleration or retardation.

She's a fast woman.

He's slowing down.

Stop it!


Movement has locus, a path that is traced out through space.

Corners are associated with change,

Driving me around the bend

Faced with the choice, she did a U-turn.

We're just going around in circles here.


A vector can also be used to give you height that provides a position of superiority. The movement thus provides a concept for the process of gaining superiority.

Climbing the career ladder.

One up for me.

That's a step in the right direction.

Other spatial metaphors

There are many other metaphors that use space and form to explain a concept. Here are a few more.

I'm holding up my end of the bargain.

She's taking charge.

Everything's up in the air.

He was deeply in love.

See also

Metaphors and touch, The Psychology of Height


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