Metaphors are as meta as they come

In the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, the rotund chatterbox Del Griffith (played by John Candy) meets the business stiff Neal Page (Steve Martin) on an airplane and immediately (though obliviously) gets on Page’s nerves. Their relationship begins with Griffith removing his shoes and socks. Upon experiencing his relief from freeing his feet from the confines of his footwear, Griffith says matter-of-factly, “I’m tellin’ ya, my dogs are barking today!

Though Page views the context of this statement as awkward, and probably a little disgusting, the audience may interpret the statement as a metaphor. In the book “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, metaphor is described as “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another (Lakoff et al. 5)” Thus, to convey to Page just how severely his feet are throbbing, Griffith likens them to a pair of dogs causing a ruckus with their barking.

Metaphors such as this abound in the English language, and in different forms. For example, there are orientational metaphors, as in, “I’m feeling under the weather,” which equates sickness with the negative implications of down—ness in our culture. There are also ontological metaphors, which use physical objects to describe abstract concepts, as in “I’m on the clock” means “I’m working” (the speaker is not actually positioned on top of a clock). This form of metaphor is just as prevalent as any other, and we often use it in more ways than we realize.

So, if we can describe basically anything in terms of anything else, what is a thing? Put another way, what is true? What “thing,” physical or ethereal, is constant? Well, the authors assert that there is no absolute truth in language: “There is no such thing as meaning of a sentence in itself, independent of any people (184).” Rather, a person must project meaning onto a metaphor using the only tools available to him or her — their own experiences. Based on context and prior interactions, one constructs truth in the language presented to them.

Therefore, truth differs not just from one person to another, but also across cultures. For example, in western society, we believe in absolute truths; a court of law would rule a bank robber guilty because our society condemns theft. In Japan, however, a judge may consider extenuating circumstances in the thief’s case. Perhaps he stole because it was the only way he could afford to feed his children. This subjective view of truth focuses more on the “why” than the “what,” or the result American culture focuses on.

We discussed the significance of using metaphor in Western culture, using the example of “the war on drugs.” If lawmakers are on one side of the issue, who are they fighting against? The drugs themselves? Those who use drugs? The distributors?

Upon thinking on this level of language further, I realized how similar this give-and-take is to our society’s embattlement in the interpretation of the second amendment of the Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Though the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the second amendment protects the right of individual citizens to own a gun, the debate about the language of the amendment still rages on. Just who were the framers referring to when they used the metonymy of the phrase “people?” Did they intend for the militia exclusively to maintain the right to bear arms, or does “people” refer to all American citizens? The complexity of metaphor demonstrates how vital it is for not just writers, but all those involved in communication, to choose their words carefully to convey their words’ intended meaning.

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Categories: class activities | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Metaphors are as meta as they come

  1. The involvements of metaphors in our daily lives are pretty hypnotizing. The orientational metaphors alone are so mind boggling, yet so true. However, I wonder when we replaced these orientations with action verbs, if we’re getting rid of the metaphor all together? For instance, when we’re getting sick, many people say “I think I’m coming down with something,”. This phrase uses the word “down” as a negative implication of being sick, per Lakoff (p. 15). However, what if I were to say “I think I’m catching something” or simply, “I think I’m getting sick”? In this case, I supposed “catching something” would still be a metaphor, as you’re not actually catching something, yet it doesn’t seem to imply a negative or even a positive connotation. I think by learning about these metaphors it’s made us more aware of the words we write and read in order to analyze them a bit more.

  2. Devon

    I think you definitely make a good point that we must be careful and aware of how we structure our writing because of all the multiple implications of metaphors. Often times organizations, like the government, use metaphors to incite a movement. Your example of the war on drugs demonstrates the use of metaphor perfectly. The idea of a “war on drugs” is abstract, but by giving it a powerful title, the government creates something for us to stand behind. Because it is a “war” on “drugs” drugs are the enemy, even though they are sold by humans. This is a great way of hiding where the blame falls on a complicated issue. The use of the term “war” works for our society because it is something we use as a way to create (or force) change. Like Lakoff pointed out, many of our metaphors are based in war because our society sees it as vital. Therefore, the phrase “war on drugs” works on multiple levels: It creates something for us to stand behind, it puts drugs as the bad guy rather than a specific person or group, and it offers a way to change–or COMBAT the issue–war.

  3. I like that you included the examples from class in your post. As you wrote that truth is conditional across cultures, it is interesting to see how this informs metaphor. Due to different cultural values, the meaning of the metaphor can become lost or corrupted. At that point, the truth the metaphor becomes useless. The inclusion of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles also brought up an interesting point. We do not need to cross cultural boundaries. If we, the receivers of the metaphor are annoyed or upset by the metaphor, then we are less willing to understand the intent behind its use.

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