i love english language

A Reef of Dead Metaphors – Guy Deutscher

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 10, 2010

Central Point:

The metaphor not only alters the meaning of existing grammatical elements but through its ability to transform content into structure. The metaphor is also involved in creating those grammatical elements in the first place.

Whereas in poetry metaphors turn into empty clichés once they “die” of overuse, in everyday language dead metaphors are the alluvium from which grammatical structures appear.

Metaphors are everywhere not only in language but also in our mind.

Arguing For:

We use metaphors not because of any literary leanings or artisitic ambitions but quite simply because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction.

Arguing Against:

The convential idea/ image of the metaphor being purely used as the “language of poetry”, the summit of the poetic imagination.

Example One:

“At the cabinet meeting, ground-breaking plans were put forward by the minister for tough new legislation to curb the power of the unions.”

This extract from a report can be accused of many things but not of being poetically inspired and yet the paragraph that this sentence is taken from is jam-packed with metaphors.

“ground-breaking” is something you do with a shovel not with a plan.

“tough”  is an attribute of materials like fabrics, metals or meats. “Tough” has been transported out of it’s original environment in the physical world of materials and carried across to the abstract domain of ideas.

These two metaphors and the many more in the passage all “flow” in one direction from the concrete to the abstract. In every one of them concrete terms have been transferred from their original habitat to more abstract domains.

Thus showing that even the most tedious prose is ridden with metaphors.

Example two:

Suppose during an election campaign you read: “ critics derided the new election manifesto as nothing more than a soufflé of promises”

Although you may have never heard such a metaphor before  it does not strike itself to be something out of the ordinary.

This is because the metaphor: “ a soufflé of promises” belongs to a larger context which is familiar.

You will have certainly encountered many similar images that use food terms to describe abstract ideas, thoughts and emotions for example People speak of troubles: “brewing”, “simmering”, “fermenting” etc.

So there is a well –established link in our minds between the two domains which unites all the individual images into a broader conceptual metaphor: “ideas are food”.

This shows that most metaphors even new metaphors used in said texts and language are familiar on a deeper level leading to our lack of realisation that they are even metaphors.


Example three:

In theory there is no reason why graphs shouldn’t be drawn with “down” meaning “more” and “up” meaning “less” like this chart below:


The diagram may look odd but there is nothing wrong with from a logical point of view.

They only appear to be strange because they go against the “more is up” convention.

This example highlights how the conceptual metaphor: “more is up” has taken over much more than just language and has become so deeply entrenched in our minds that it even influences how we plot graphs.

Example four:


“Goes back to an old English verb “thryllian” which originally meant pierce.

The current sense of “thrill” must have started out as a metaphor with some shock value: “I’m thrilled to bits” must have been a graphic equivalent of today’s “it’s killing”.

But as the image became familiar and established the metaphor was bleached of its vitality and died and eventually the original sense fell by the wayside so that today “thrill” is only a skeleton that betrays no trace of its metaphoric origin.

This highlights that almost every word was one a thriving image or metaphor.

Example five:


We have “hands and legs”, we have “dandruff and the flu” and we have “family and friends”

We all think that “have” is not some fancy optional component to a sentence but a necessary basis of the basic formation.

It is difficult to imagine even having the most basic of conversations without the use of the word “have” somewhere.

And yet even though “have” is the “bread and butter” of formations it is an abstract notion quite unlike physical activities such as “kicking something”.

What do we actually have when we “have” something?

This shows that the metaphor is as rife in the plainest day to day chit chat as it is the most highfaulting prose.

Other theorists:

Jean Paul – language is nothing but “a dictionary of faded  metaphors”

Agrees as whilst in poetry, metaphor which have expired through over use are dismissed as faded clichés, ordinary language is not so prodigal.  The death of metaphors in no way detracts from their usefulness as they simple add more means to our vocabulary.

But he also believes that even Jean Paul’s radical characterization does little justice to the role of the metaphor as it turns out that the metaphor is not only a chief supplier to our store of words it also provides the raw materials for the structure of language itself.

For example:

The “Encyclopaedia Britannica” begins its article on the concept of “space-time” in Einstein’s theory of relativity with the following declaration: “In physical science, single concept that recognizes the union of space and time, posited By Albert Einstein in the theories of relativity. Common intuition previously supposed no connection between space and time.”


Whilst physicists may not have identified the relation between space and time in their theories until a century ago, everyday language proves that “common intuition” has recognized this link for many thousands of years.

Even if we are not always aware of it we invariably speak of time in terms of space and this reflects the fact that we think of time in terms of space.

Ie if we consider some of the simplest words we use to describe spatial relations : “in”, “at”, “by”  all reflect such a notion.

Space                                                                  Time

“from London to Paris”                                    “from Monday to Friday”

All the above prepositions originally denoted spatial terms and all of them were metaphorically extended into the domain of time.

The link between time and space is so entrenched in our cognition that it is extremely difficult to extract ourselves from it and appreciate that time cannot literally be “long” or “short”. Time cannot go “forwards” or “backwards” – time doesn’t actually go anywhere at all.

However as these concepts are so deeply rooted in our cognition it is hard for us to even think that such prepositions are metaphors at all.



Important Quotations

“They have firmly established themselves as the stock trade in ordinary language”

Metaphors hold a significant position in our everyday language they are not just literary devices but form the basic structures of what we speak and are constantly in use.

Backs up his claim that “the metaphor is not only a chief supplier to our store of words it also provides the raw materials for the structure of language itself”

“Like Monsieur Jourdain, who all his life has been speaking prose without knowing it, we all speak and think in metaphors. In ordinary language, we trample on the relics of metaphors all the time, and hardly even pay them a moments thought”

Metaphors have integrated into our language to the extent in which we don’t realise we are using them.

For example: We do not think when we are using the infinitive verb “have” that we are in fact using a metaphor.

Robert Lowth would agree: “the principle design of a Grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that Language”

When we learn language (our mother tongue at least) we are not concerned what each element is i.e. this is a metaphor but more how it will help us to communicate more successfully.

“The truth of the matter is that we simply have no choice but to use concrete-to-abstract metaphors. And when one stops to think about it, this is not surprising, since after all, if not from the physical world, where else could terms of abstract concepts come from?”

Metaphors are vital in language and it is clearly obvious that they shape language so much for the only way we can develop a name for something we do not know is by taking it from something we do.

“’Pointing metaphorically’ is both extremely common in language, and has all the point in the world to it, for it helps to maintain coherence over long stretches of discourse, and allows us to refer to people and objects concisely and efficiently”

“Pointing Metaphorically”-

Looking in a shop window: “Do you like that?”

“That” refers to something which can be pointed at

But in this conversation….

“Darling, do you have any idea where my blue Marks and Spencers shirt is?

“Oh, I chucked that away ages ago”

“That” is used as physical pointing as you can not point at a shirt that is no longer there.

We use metaphors for convenience – it is easier to say “that” then “Oh, I chucked the blue Marks and Spencers shirt away ages ago”

“Like a reef, which grows from layer upon layer of dead coral skeletons, new structures in language can rise from the layers of dead metaphors deposited by the flow towards abstraction.”

From old metaphors comes language as we know it today. Essentially all language is just the remains of the past.

Jean Aitcheson would agree: “We in the twentieth century are the direct descendents of this eighteenth-century puristic passion”

Our language today is the result of our ancestors.







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