Metaphors book cover and George Lakoff headshot

Metaphors We Live By from the influential 1980 book

Metaphor is integral not just to language but to understanding.

So goes the influential book Metaphors We Live By, published in 1980 by a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The book suggests metaphor is a tool that enables people to use what they know about their direct physical and social experiences to understand more abstract things like work, time, mental activity and feelings.

It is a short and approachable book that nonetheless introduced and spread the idea of just how pervasive metaphor is in human language. It helps writers and editors process our phrase choices.

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

My notes:

  • “Most of our ordinary, conceptual system is metaphorical the nature” not a trivial but major component
  • What if Instead of war we compared arguments to dance?
  • Michael Reddy’s conduit metaphor: ideas are objects; linguistic expressions are containers and so communication is sending
  • “Time is money” and other familiar examples are structural metaphors, and we also have orientational metaphors like “happy is up; sad is down”
  • In 1974, William Nagy produced research on orientation: Unknown is up; known and settled is down; this is strange in comparison to happy also being up but it’s from different experiential bases
  • Ontological metaphor: like inflation is an entity or mind as machine
  • Metonymy: one entity to refer to another, and synecdoche is one example of metonymy in which part stands for the whole
  • Time is a moving object that moves toward us and time is stationary and we move through it
  • “Harry is in the kitchen; Harry is in the Elks; Harry is in love” spatial, social and emotional
  • Prototypical causation: a paper airplane is a different thing than the sheet of paper it was made of
  • Sometimes we use our voices to extend metaphor: we say “he is biiiiiiiiig” to mean really big (morphological)
  • The spacing of words matters in meaning too. For example, the second has less distance between words and so it implies Harry actually knows Greek
    • “I taught Greek to Harry.”
    • “I taught Harry Greek.”
  • Dwight Bolinger: A paraphrase can never mean the exact same because subtle word changes carry meaning
  • “Myth of objectivity”
  • Kant: objectivist in his belief of universally moral rules
  • Authors say their argument that “metaphor “as an agent of subjectivism and therefore as subversive of the quest for absolute truth”
  • Challenges Chomsky’s belief that grammar and linguistics as branch of psychology but independent because meaning is something different
  • Don’t like objectivist but don’t want subjectivist; offer experientialist myth
  • Why do we want to visit a celebrity’s house? Two metaphors: The home stands for the person and physical closeness is personal closeness
  • Love is collaborative art
  • Labor as resource doesn’t distinguish: “for all the labor statistics, there is none on meaningful labor.”

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