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Why Metaphor?

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A Definition

A metaphor is an implied analogy that imaginatively equates one object (or person) with another and ascribes to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second. A familiar literary example is “My love is a rose.” A well-known political example is Ronald Reagan's famous sound bite: 'welfare queens.' This combination of words or frames, 'welfare' and 'queens' implies a little story that suggests that everyone on welfare is acting like a queen, at the taxpayer's expense. For more, see the sections on metaphor in Selected Sources and Links

Metaphor and Political Communication

Metaphor has long been the core of everyday American political communication.
How many times have you heard a politician say, 'We must level the playing field about x,' or 'We need a war' on (poverty) (drugs) or (you name it)'? The Metaphor Project takes its name and its mission from this reality. American sports metaphors are probably the most common ones in actual political speech, with journey metaphors a close second. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has also explored the different 'nation is a family' metaphors Americans use in Moral Politics.  In Don't Think of An Elephant, Thinking Points, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics,and The Little Blue Book, he has gone on to explain how metaphors (sometimes called 'frames') can work to help progressives and liberals reach the American public.

Professor Lakoff's research provides powerful new evidence about the role of everyday metaphor in the way we think and communicate about everything. Biologist E.O. Wilson explains why this is so in Biophilia: metaphor provides a way for our brains to process large amounts of information at survival speed. Mentally classifying one thing in terms of another helps us sort our experience into familiar categories so we can quickly decide how to respond in new situations.

A good example of this process was the national debate in 2001 about how to frame 9/11: was it an act of war, a crime, or the symptom of a disease? The choice of metaphor is always a choice about what story to believe and how to act, because a metaphor is a highly condensed mini-story about something. In the case of 9/11, the choice of metaphor has carried fateful consequences. 9/11 seen as 'an act of war' has led us to the 'war on terror' and to actual war in Iraq.

Metaphor is also the key to genuinely inspired political leadership. For example, back in the 90's, former President Clinton urged us to build a 'bridge to the 21st Century.' Anti-GMO activists use novel metaphors like 'frankenfood' (Frankenstein + food) and 'terminator seeds' (the Terminator + seeds) to get attention and signal big trouble ahead in our food system.

Some Ways Metaphors Appear in Sentences

Metaphors appear in speech or text via normal sentence structure, the way 'tax relief' does, springing from the verbs, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions combined with other words. For example, in regard to climate change, if you say 'What's up with the Earth?' you are suggesting that the news is good. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown in their first book on this subject, Metaphors We Live By, 'up' is usually associated in the U.S. with good stuff. If you say 'What's going on with the Earth?' it could be something bad, as 'going on' is usually felt to be more sinister than 'up.' 

Visual Metaphor

Although almost all verbal metaphor works by calling up visual images in our minds, today's shift to a more visual culture means new interest in metaphor created by fusing two images to suggest a new idea. My favorite contemporary example of this kind of visual metaphor is THE EARTH IS A FRIED EGG on the cover of TIME magazine for April 9, 2001. The  image is a visual metaphor of the Earth as a fried egg inside an iron skillet, re global warming. To see the image, try the following link:


To find more information about Visual, Pictorial and Multimodal Metaphor:

Search Google Images for 'Visual Metaphor' and Google Web for 'Visual Metaphor' and 'Theory of Visual Metaphor.'

YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/  is an increasingly rich source of visual metaphor as well. Search for: visual metaphor. See also: