The ‘Ideas are Food’ Conceptual Metaphor

George Lakoff and his collaborators have identified scores of what they call “conceptual metaphors,” figurative phrases that describe fundamental abstract concepts using the language of physiology and physical experience. Expressions like “Your claims are indefensible” and “He shot down all of my arguments,” for example, are instances of the conceptual metaphor ‘argument is war’; “This relationship is a dead-end street” and “We’ll just have to go our separate ways” are examples of ‘love is a journey’; “This plan is half-baked” and “Let me chew it over for a while” exemplify ‘ideas are food’.

Without conceptual metaphors like these, Lakoff and other advocates of conceptual metaphor believe, we would have no way of talking about—or even thinking about—abstractions like love, beauty, suffering, and joy. According to Lakoff and Mark Turner, another cognitive scientist: “Basic conceptual metaphors are part of the common conceptual apparatus shared by members of a culture . . . We usually understand them in terms of common experiences. They are largely unconscious, though attention may be drawn to them. Their operation in cognition is mostly automatic. And they are widely conventionalized in language, that is, there are a great number of words and idiomatic expressions in our language whose interpretations depend upon those conceptual metaphors.”

A fun illustration of the pervasiveness of the ‘ideas are food’ metaphor comes from this poem by Phil Isherwood, a research student in cultural and creative studies at the University of Bolton:

Food for Thought

Chewing on the half-baked.
Had to suck it and see.
What I couldn’t digest
only ate away at me.

Years of stodgy literature,
chewing on the cud,
snuffling for morsels
buried deep in mud.

I tried the candy floss
of fluffy inspiration, so
sweet to get your teeth into
but leads to constipation.

Best aphorism appetizers
before a poem or two.
Fully fed with metaphors
I can leave my mind to stew.

Metaphor and ‘Jumping the Shark’

On The Kathleen Dunn Show yesterday, on Wisconsin Public Radio, a caller expressed consternation about apparently incomprehensible metaphors. He complained in particular about sports metaphors, specifically the use of ‘Hail Mary pass’ in political speeches, and cited “jumping the shark” as an example of a metaphor he had often heard but never understood. I had never heard “jumping the shark” so I found it incomprehensible, too. Fortunately, another caller knew that the metaphor refers to an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie, dressed in leather jacket and swimming trunks, actually jumps over a shark on water skis. The stunt was seen as a desperate attempt to come up with fresh plot lines for the show. Arguably, the writers failed in this case and “jumping the shark” became a metaphor for the point of no (or diminishing) return in TV or, indeed, any creative endeavor.

Here’s Wikipedia’s pretty comprehensive explanation of the “jumping the shark” metaphor: “an idiom used to denote when a particular production effort has surpassed its relevance and reached a point of decline in quality that it is incapable of recovering from. It refers specifically to the point in a television program’s history where the plot spins off into absurd storylines, unlikely characterizations, and adding or replacing characters. These changes were often the result of efforts to revive interest in a show whose audience had begun to decline.”

The Wikepedia entry goes on to provide a similar metaphor, this time applied to films: “nuking the fridge.” This metaphor, according to Wikepedia, is “an allusion to a scene early in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In the scene, Indiana Jones is hit by the blast of a nuclear weapon while hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator in a desperate attempt at survival. The refrigerator is hurled a great distance through the sky and tumbles hard to the ground, while the structures surrounding it are utterly obliterated. A relatively uninjured Jones emerges to witness the mushroom cloud miles away … Some moviegoers found the absurdity of this event disappointing and reflective of the decreased quality of the series.”

I can’t speak to the decline in quality these scenes may or may not represent, but both these metaphors are fantastic and reflective of the endless inventiveness of the metaphor-making mind.

Metaphor, I.B.M.’s Watson, and Jeopardy

It’s funny how the things that turn out to be important are somehow never the things you thought would turn out to be important, like the importance of a Jeopardy-playing computer program to what it means to be ‘human’. Tomorrow, the face off between I.B.M.’s Watson computer and the two best human Jeopardy players will be broadcast—and Watson is expected to win. This is technologically a big deal, as explained brilliantly in this Mashable article,  because of the awesome computing power needed to get computers to parse the puns and allusions characteristic of Jeopardy answers. It’s humanistically a big deal because, until tomorrow (maybe), playing Jeopardy was one of those things that only humans were thought to do well. Before Watson, only homonids were thought to be any good with homonyms.

What does this have to do with metaphor? Well, the kinds of things Watson and his human opponents will be parsing tomorrow are the same kinds of things that go into metaphors: loose associations, punning relationships, sidelong and sidereal correlations. Until now, computers have not been very good at making these kinds of intuitive connections, as the wealth of useless information thrown up by the simplest Google search demonstrates. If Watson can do it, though, that is one giant leap for computerkind…

There has been research, usually involving the painstaking compilation of crucial keywords, designed to teach computers to understand metaphors. Watson may well turn out to be the first proof of concept. And there is no reason, theoretically at least, why computers shouldn’t understand metaphors. The one crucial ingredient is context.

You don’t have to look to computers for examples of poor metaphor comprehension. Children are pretty poor at comprehending complex metaphors, too, at least until they reach adolescence. As children’s knowledge of the world grows, though, so does their metaphorical range. The same is true for adults. Any metaphor is comprehensible only to the extent that the domains from which it is drawn are familiar. If you have the context, you can figure out the meaning.

The lack of essential context is what perplexed the crew of the Starship Enterprise when they encountered the Tamarians in the “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The Tamarians speak a language no one has yet been able to fully decipher. The Tamarian tongue is so elusive because it is so allusive, consisting entirely of metaphors from the alien race’s mythology and history. In Tamarian, for example, “cooperation” is expressed by the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” because Tamarian folklore includes the tale of Darmok and Jalad, two warriors who banded together to fight a common foe on the island of Tanagra. Other Tamarian metaphors include “Darmok on the ocean” for loneliness, “Shaka, when the walls fell” for failure, “The river Temarc in winter” for silence, “Sokath, his eyes open” for understanding, and “Kiteo, his eyes closed” for refusal to understand. In comprehending metaphor, context is king. There’s absolutely no reason why a computer can’t do it.

And it’s funny how books you’d almost forgotten turn out to be unexpectedly relevant, like The Body Electric, which, like this piece on Watson in the NYTimes, explores how computers could be considered living things—given the right senses and enough context.

Metaphor and Martha and the Vandellas

I heard Martha and the Vandellas in concert a couple of months ago and they really knocked my socks off. And it just so happens that one of their hits, Heat Wave, is one of the best examples of a metaphor for love, as explained in this Q&A on the Marie Claire website…

7 Strange Places to Meet a Metaphor

“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and one of the most well known metaphors in literature. But metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas. We all use metaphor all the time. They turn up in the strangest places and influence us in surprising and often oddball ways.

Financial commentary
Stock prices soar, climb, leap, and perform all kinds of other superheroic statistical feats—all metaphors implying that stock prices are living things pursuing goals. Exposure to these metaphors leads people to expect the trends they describe to continue. If house prices are relentlessly described as climbing higher and higher, homeowners unconsciously assume the steady rise is unstoppable…

Your physical environment
People holding a hot cup of coffee are more likely to describe someone as ‘warm’ than people holding a cold cup of coffee. People sitting on a hard chair are more likely to be ‘tough’ negotiators than people sitting on a soft chair. People who seal their written recollections of a traumatic event in an envelope achieve greater emotional closure than those who do not seal their memories in an envelope. Metaphors transfer physical experience to psychological experience.

Product design
We evolved to rapidly recognize and respond positively to anything with large, wide eyes and a small nose and mouth—anything that looks like a baby. This instinctive positive emotional response can be transferred via visual metaphor to anything that looks like a face, even a car grill. People rate cars as cuter and more desirable if their front grills have been manipulated to look baby-like.

Military names
An analysis of the names given to Israeli military operations between 1948 and 2007 found that more than 60% of them alluded to either the natural world or the Bible, metaphorical names intended to suggest that the campaigns were either forces of nature or sanctioned by a higher power. Operation Enduring Freedom anyone?

One ad has stuck in my mind since I first saw it in the 1970s: Prudential’s “Get a piece of the rock.” The image of Gibraltar is a powerful metaphor of safety, control, and security. An insurance company is not just an insurance company, but a rock of stability in turbulent times.

Physical experience
Anger is metaphorically described as heat in every culture. “She’s about to blow her top,” “He’s all steamed up,” “She’s a hot head,” and “In the heat of the moment” are all variations on the ‘anger is heat’ metaphor. In fact, the experience of physical heat is processed in the same brain region as emotional heat. Many metaphors piggyback on the language of physical experience.

Historical metaphors
In his State of the Union address, President Obama described the challenge of creating new industries and new jobs as “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” referring to 1957 when the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space. Historical metaphors create associations that influence our decisions, often without our conscious knowledge. So it’s important to carefully choose your metaphors, and to be vigilant about those used by others. There’s a big difference between making a giant leap for mankind and re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

For more on metaphor, check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

I is an Other is published today…

… and here’s a little preview:

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute. Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphor influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways. Metaphor has finally leapt off the page and landed with a mighty splash right in the middle of our stream of consciousness. That impact is making a big splash in the field of psychology, through metaphor therapy.

For the rest of this piece, check out the book excerpt in Ode.

Want more? Buy I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World

Metaphor and Economics

On the Poetry website, Stephen T. Ziliak, a professor of economics at the Roosevelt University and author of The Cult of Statistical Significance, writes in “Haiku Economics: Money, metaphor, and the invisible hand“: “Perhaps it’s the economists who can learn the most from poets about precision and efficiency, about objectivity and maximization—the virtues, in other words, of value-free science.” The essay is about how the emotions and moral sentiments informed much of early economic theorizing, until these were replaced by the strictly rational and utilitarian. Now we’re seeing that trend reversed: the ‘rational actor’ theory of economics is being replaced by behavioral finance, which explores how feelings and irrational motivations prompt our financial decisions. Ziliak quotes the poet Etheridge Knight: “Generally speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out of their basic economy … If somebody lives near the ocean and they fish, their language will be full of those metaphors. If people are farmers, they will use that kind of figure of speech. Metaphors are alive. When they come into being, they are informed by the politics and the sociology and the economy of now. That’s how language is.”

Flick on the business news and you’re in for a smorgasbord of financial metaphors. Gasp in horror as the bear market grips Wall Street in its hairy paws; then cheer as fearless investors claw back gains. Watch in amazement as the NASDAQ vaults to new heights; then cringe as it slips, stumbles, and drops like a stone. Wait anxiously to see if the market will shake off the jitters, slump into depression, or bounce back. Finance and economics are the ultimate numbers games, yet commentators from Helsinki to Hong kong instinctively use metaphors to describe what’s going on.

These and other examples of the figurative language commonly used in economics (boom, bust, or bubble anyone?) demonstrate that metaphor is at work in this seemingly most stolid of disciplines. According to Deirdre N. McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics, “The most important example of economic rhetoric . . . is metaphor. Economists call them ‘models.’ To say that markets can be represented by supply and demand ‘curves’ is no less a metaphor than to say that the west wind is ‘the breath of autumn’s being.’ ”

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8.

Aphorisms via John Gross

John Gross, general all-around man of letters and compiler of the Oxford Book of Aphorisms (1983), passed away last month. Here is a fine appreciation from The Economist.

Metaphor and Military Campaign Names

Another article by the always-interesting Tom Jacobs in Miller-McCune, this time about metaphor and military campaign names. An analysis of the names given to Israeli military operations between 1948 and 2007 found that more than 60% of them alluded to either the natural world or the Bible, metaphorical names intended to suggest that the campaigns were either forces of nature or sanctioned by a higher power. “The basic theoretical supposition is that military naming is a simple and useful mechanism that might be employed to blur undesired aspects—such as the human and economical costs—associated with the respective practices,” writes Dalia Gavriely-Nuri of Hadassah College Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, the researcher who conducted the study. Operation First Rain and Operation Lightning Strike suggests these operations are an “inevitable, natural event, rather than one worthy of public examination.” Of course, this practice is widespread. Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise is “a noble-sounding name for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers,” Jacobs cites Gavriely-Nuri as pointing out. Operation Enduring Freedom anyone?