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Have you been between a rock and a hard place? In a dead end? Have you felt under the magnifying glass and the situation had you fuming?
Our everyday speech is full of metaphors.
As the poet Paul Muldoon said, “The urge to find the similarity between different things is very basic to us.”
But metaphors are not just for poets. They shape our beliefs, attitudes, and actions in ways we don’t even notice.
But what exactly is a metaphor?
Let’s break the ice
In its simplest form, a metaphor is X equals Y. It is sometimes stated explicitly.
But metaphors are often harder to unravel.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” for example, famously ends by saying:
“And so we go on, boats against the current, unceasingly pushed into the past“.
At first glance, we are talking about rowers fighting against the tug of the current.
But the image is confused with time, the past, the power of nostalgia.
Many think that the best metaphors add color and meaning to the everyday.
Author James Geary says that: “By mixing the foreign with the familiar, the wonderful with the mundane, metaphors make the world burn and tingle“.
But not everyone is a fan.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes compared the use of metaphors to “wandering among innumerable absurdities.”
Which, of course, is a metaphor.
If we are trying to express something abstract, metaphors are hard to avoid.
Our hearts break. Your soul breaks. You spend it in the clouds. Your life is an ordeal …
Some metaphors have become so familiar that they almost feel literal.
He’s crazy about her. You feel butterflies in your stomach. And above all, the traditional one: time is money.
What does it say about our society that we will equip time and money in that way?
And speaking of which, if you think about it, the way we think about time is metaphorical.
We are travelers on a path, with the future ahead and the past behind.
The American linguist George Lakoff called these metaphors orientational.
Take the idea from above and below.
The good tends to be up, the bad down.
Sometimes you are in the mood for the soils and suddenly your heart jump of happiness; you touch heaven with your hands but then dogs in depression.
Lakoff also helped develop the idea of the political framework.
The words we choose affect the way we perceive and treat social problems and help decide what becomes publicly accepted common sense.
And the metaphors they play a very important role in that.
Take for example the much talked about battle against cancer.
Perhaps it was created with good intentions, but a 2019 study indicated that military metaphors like that can undermine cancer treatment, making people feel fatalistic about its chances and even implicitly blaming those who do not survive.
After all, a battle is won or lost, and in this case, the “loser” is a loved one who was “defeated by cancer.”
Crime is another area full of metaphors.
We have crime waves. The criminal underworld. Crimes committed in cold blood.
But what effect can metaphors really have?
In 2011, a Stanford study gave a group a pamphlet that described crime as a wild beast that preys on a city.
A second group received a different brochure that described crime as a virus that plagues the population.
When asked how to tackle the problem, the first group was 20% more likely to support stricter surveillance than the second.
So the metaphors we choose have consequences.
Not just in our beliefs, but potentially because of our laws, our policy, and our treatment of one another.
Lakoff and his co-author Mark Johnson put it by saying, “People who come to impose their metaphors on culture can define what we hold to be true.”
In other words (more metaphorical): knowledge (of metaphors) is power.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.