Metaphor, from the Greek for "transference," is the use of language that designates one thing to designate another in order to characterize the latter in terms of the former. Nominal metaphors use nouns in this way, as in "My daughter is an angel." Predicative metaphors use verbs, as in "The dog flew across the back yard." In addition to single words being used metaphorically, phrases, sentences, and more extended texts can also function as metaphors, as in the assertion "Bravely the troops carried on" to refer to telephone operators who continued to work during a natural disaster. Sometimes a metaphor can be recognized because it is literally false. When a proud father says, "My daughter is an angel," no one believes that she has wings. But a metaphor need not be literally false. The opposite assertion -- that one's daughter is no angel -- is literally true; she does not have wings. Yet this is not likely to be the speaker's intended meaning, nor is it likely to be a hearer's interpretation. In each of these two cases, hearers must go beyond the literal meaning to arrive at the speaker's intention -- what the hearer is intended to understand (see PSYCHOLINGUISTICS and PRAGMATICS).

Does the need to go beyond literal meanings imply that literal meanings have unconditional priority? The standard pragmatic theory of metaphor assumes that literal meanings are always computed first, and only when a literal meaning makes no sense in context are alternative, metaphorical meanings derived (Searle 1979). If this is so, then metaphorical meaning should be ignored whenever a literal meaning makes sense. However, people cannot ignore metaphors. Whenever metaphorical meanings are available, they are automatically processed, even when there is no apparent need to do so (Glucksberg, Gildea, and Bookin 1982). Furthermore, metaphors are no more difficult to understand than comparable literal expressions (Ortony et al. 1978), suggesting that literal meanings do not have priority.

Metaphors have traditionally been viewed as implicit comparisons. According to this view, metaphors of the form X is a Y are understood by converting them into simile form, X is like a Y. The simile is then understood by comparing the properties of X and Y. This view has been challenged on both theoretical and empirical grounds. One finding is particularly telling. Metaphors in class inclusion form, such as "My lawyer is a shark" take less time to understand than when in simile form, such as "My lawyer is like a shark" (Johnson 1996).

That metaphors can be understood more easily than similes argues that metaphors are exactly what they seem to be, namely, class inclusion assertions (Glucksberg and Keysar 1990). In such assertions, the metaphor vehicle (e.g., shark) is used to refer to the category of predatory creatures in general, not to the marine creature that is also named "shark." This dual reference function of metaphor vehicles is clear in metaphors such as "Cambodia was Vietnam's Vietnam." Here, the first mention of Vietnam refers to the nation of Vietnam. In contrast, the second mention of Vietnam does not refer to that nation, but instead to the American involvement in Vietnam, which has come to epitomize the category of disastrous military interventions. That intervention has become a metaphor for such disasters, and so the word Vietnam can be used as a metaphor vehicle to characterize other ill-fated military actions, such as Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. More generally, metaphor vehicles such as Vietnam can be used as names for categories that have no names of their own (Brown 1958). With continued use, once-novel metaphors become frozen, their original metaphorical meanings become literal, and their senses become dictionary entries. The word "butcher" is a case in point: It can be taken to mean a meat purveyor, a bungler, or a vicious murderer, depending on the context.

Thus, while metaphors can suggest a comparison, they are primarily attributive assertions, not merely comparisons. To say that someone's job is a jail is to attribute (i.e., transfer, in the original Greek sense) salient properties of the category jail to a particular job (Ortony 1979). That particular job is now included in the general, abstract category of jail, and as a consequence of that categorization is now similar in relevant respects to literal jails (Glucksberg, McGlone, and Manfredi 1997). Predicative metaphors, in which verbs are used figuratively, function similarly. The verb to fly literally entails movement in air. Because flying through the air epitomizes speed, expressions such as "He hopped on his bike and flew home" are readily understood, just as nominal metaphors, such as "His bike was an arrow," are readily understood. Arrows are prototypical members of the category of speeding things; flying is a prototypical member of the category of fast travel. For both nominal and predicative metaphors, prototypical members of categories can be used as metaphors to attribute properties to topics of interest.

Why are metaphors used instead of comparable literal expressions? Often there are no comparable literal expressions (Black 1962), particularly when metaphor is used systematically to describe one domain in terms of another. Perceptual metaphors enable us to describe experiences in one sense modality in terms of another, as in bright sound. Theories can be described in terms of structures, with correspondences between the blueprints and foundations of a structure on the one hand, and those of a theory on the other. Once a target domain (e.g., theories) has been described in terms of a source domain (e.g., buildings), then new correspondences can be introduced, as in "The theory's superstructure is collapsing of its own weight." Whether such systematic correspondences constitute conceptual knowledge per se or are primarily a means of describing and transmitting such knowledge remains an unresolved issue (see COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS and METAPHOR AND CULTURE; Lakoff and Johnson 1980; McGlone 1996; Murphy 1996; Quinn 1991).

Domains for which metaphors seem particularly apt include science, emotions, personality characteristics, and politics (Cacciari forthcoming). Indeed, any domain can be effectively framed by choice of metaphor. Immigration, for example, can be viewed either as an invigorating process ("New blood has been pumped into the city's economy") or as a threat ("The tide of refugees will soon drown us"). Similarly, different interpretations of feelings and interpersonal relations can be effectively revealed and communicated via metaphor in clinical settings (Rothenberg 1984).

Given the importance and ubiquity of metaphor, it is not surprising that the beginnings of metaphorical thought and language appear early in children's cognitive and linguistic development. Infants as young as two months can detect intermodal correspondences (Starkey, Spelke, and Gelman 1983). Such correspondences represent a rudimentary form of metaphorical conceptualization (Marks 1982). Children as young as two years use and understand more abstract metaphorical correspondences, such as between the shoulders of a person and those of a mountain, although sophisticated use of metaphors comes only with complex knowledge of relations among CONCEPTS and facility in analogical reasoning (Gentner and Markman 1977). As children learn to distinguish between figurative and literal language, they use the same "psychological mechanisms" to understand the one as they do the other (Miller 1979; 248). Literal and nonliteral understanding develop hand in hand.

See also

Additional links

-- Sam Glucksberg


Black, M. (1962). Models and Metaphors. New York: Cornell University Press.

Black, M. (1979). More about metaphor. In A. Ortony, Ed., Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 19-43.

Brown, R. (1958). Words and Things. New York: Free Press.

Cacciari, C. (Forthcoming). Why do we speak metaphorically? Reflections on the functions of metaphor in discourse and reasoning. In A. Katz, Ed., Figurative Language and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gentner, D., and A. B. Markman. (1977). Structure-mapping in analogy and similarity. American Psychologist 52:45-56.

Glucksberg, S., P. Gildea, and H. A. Bookin. (1982). On understanding nonliteral speech: Can people ignore metaphors? Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 21:85-98.

Glucksberg, S., and B. Keysar. (1990). Understanding metaphoric comparisons: Beyond similarity. Psychological Review 97:3-18.

Glucksberg, S., M. S. McGlone, and D. A. Manfredi. (1997). Property attribution in metaphor comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 36:50-67.

Johnson, A. T. (1996). Comprehension of metaphor and similes: A reaction time study. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 11:145-160.

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

Marks, L. E. (1982). Bright sneezes and dark coughs, loud sunlight and soft moonlight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 8:77-193.

McGlone, M. S. (1966). Conceptual metaphors and figurative language interpretation: Food for thought? Journal of Memory and Language 35:544-565.

Miller, G. A. (1979). Images and models: Similes and metaphors. In A. Ortony, Ed., Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-250.

Murphy, G. L. (1996). On metaphoric representation. Cognition 60:173-204.

Ortony, A. (1979). Beyond literal similarity. Psychological Review 86:161-180.

Ortony, A., D. Schallert, R. Reynolds, and S. Antos. (1978). Interpreting metaphors and idioms: Some effects of context on comprehension. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 17:465-478.

Quinn, N. (1991). The cultural basis of metaphor. In J. W. Fernandez, Ed., Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 56-93.

Rothenberg, A. (1984). Creativity and psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 7:233-268.

Searle, J. (1979). Metaphor. In A. Ortony, Ed., Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 92-123.

Starkey, P., E. Spelke, and R. Gelman. (1988). Detection of intermodal correspondences by human infants. Science 222:179-181.

Vosniadou, S., and A. Ortony. (1983). The emergence of the literal-metaphorical-anomalous distinction in young children. Child Development 54:154-161.

Further Readings

Black, M. (1962). Models and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Cacciari, C., and S. Glucksberg. (1994). Understanding figurative language. In M. A. Gernsbacher, Ed., Handbook of Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press, pp. 447-477.

Fernandez, J. W., Ed. (1991). Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gentner, D. (1983). Structure-mapping: A theoretical framework for analogy. Cognitive Science 7:155-170.

Gibbs, R. W., Jr. (1994). The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language and Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keysar, B. (1989). On the functional equivalence of literal and metaphorical interpretations in discourse. Journal of Memory and Language 28:375-385.

Kittay, E. (1987). Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ortony, A. (1979). Beyond literal similarity. Psychological Review 86:151-180

Ortony, A. (1993). Metaphor and Thought. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Way, E. C. (1991). Knowledge Representation and Metaphor. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Winner, E. (1988). The Point of Words: Children's Understanding of Metaphor and Irony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.