Metaphorical Confusion

I thought I was finished with my dissertation proposal, but not so.  My advisors pointed out a major weak point in my thesis—I was conflating metaphor and literary device. That being one necessitates being the other, I mean. 

It’s not the first time I’ve had blunders with the term “metaphor” though; in my Masters program, my advisor made what I thought was an over-generalization—that ALL metaphors were cognitive metaphors.  I just said “really?” and got really embarrassed when he looked me straight in the eye and said, “of course they are” like I was Marvin the Martian. 

So, I need to straighten this out and figure out if I can save my thesis from premature death.


Here’s the issue: There are at least two major ways we view metaphor, and in my experience, people who view metaphor one way or the other often make no distinction between these different ways or act as though there’s only one “real” way to refer to metaphor.

Literary metaphor—This is what we are taught in Literature 101.  A literary metaphor is figure of speech that represents something using a non-literal element.  It’s used to make a stark comparison between ideas we typically don’t relate, and usually is very noticeable.  When Keats is talking to a vase, calling it: “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,” that’s a literary metaphor.

Look like a bride to you?

No one (hopefully not even Keats) thinks that this Grecian urn is literally a bride, and the fact that we don’t often refer to urns as brides makes this metaphor stick out, and makes us mentally work to figure out what Keats could possibly mean by making this nutty comparison.  Some say simile is a subcategory, some think that’s dumb, or that similes in general are like metaphor’s crippled cousin.  If you want to separate metaphor from metonymy, either as a subcategory or as metaphor’s evil twin, metonymy is a substitution involving a something related.  An urn is not really like a bride in any noticeable way until we hear Keats’ comparison and try to make out the possible connection so it’s a metaphor.  But calling a group of old men, a “bunch of bald heads,” or referring to the whole US economy as “Wall Street” is substitution involving a related thing—it’s still not a literal comparison, so its metonymy. 

Cognitive Metaphor (Also called conceptual metaphor)—This theory broke out big with Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and holds that in just about every way we speak, we use metaphor.  It underpins all of our language. 

For example, take the very ordinary sentence: “I just got an idea.”  Using “got” refers to ideas as material things, so the underlying metaphor is: IDEAS ARE OBJECTS.  Conceptual/cognitive metaphors reveal how we culturally (or cognitively, or universally) conceive of concepts.   ***Conceptual metaphors also use scary-looking small caps, which for some reason brings to mind the Great and Powerful Oz speaking these words.***



  But back to the idea metaphor, we could very well think of ideas as getting us (which we sometimes do—“this idea captivated me,” or ideas as an event (which is a bit less common, we don’t say “this idea happened”…though I guess we could say “it occurred to me”), or as a place, which would be really wacky “I want to go to that idea.” The fact that we don’t go to our ideas affects not only how we speak but the way we think of ideas.  The fact that we refer to ideas as objects could have to do with the fact that we often treat them as ideas in English-speaking culture—allowing copyright and ownership very like material property.  Maybe if we referred to ideas as places, we would have more emphasis on the upkeep and maintenance of our ideas, as if they were land to be used; instead of calling it “stealing,” maybe we would call plagiarism “trespassing.” 

So, literary metaphor is a literary device (which is another term I have to unpack), but cognitive metaphor is not.  Lakoff and Johnson find cognitive metaphors everywhere in the way we use language, from the actual words we use to the structures of our sentences to the upward or downward inflections.  In my proposal I made the mistake of using cognitive metaphors but then calling what the authors were doing a poetic device…which just made me sound silly.  I guess there’s a reason why we have advisors 😉

3 thoughts on “Metaphorical Confusion

    • Well, sort of. Cognitive metaphor doesn’t seem to always answer the chicken or egg question well–did we start referring to ideas as objects in language because of the cognitive metaphor, or did the metaphorical language cause us to think of ideas as things? Part of a possible answer is the universality of the human body–our heads and eyes are up at the top, and so cognitive metaphors like GOOD IS UP might have an origin in preferring the preservation of our head over our feet. But we’d have to check to see if other cultures used this metaphor also.

      As to the first person to do it, well, they still call it a cognitive metaphor, but a “novel” cognitive metaphor…but I agree that there are some problems with this because part of the way they define and find cog metaphor is that its all around us, part of our conceptual system.

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