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Metaphorically speaking…

By Anne Curzan


When you think of metaphors, do you think of high literature or poetry? You might be surprised to learn that you use metaphors in your speech every day. And not only do you use them every day, you probably use them every hour of every day.

Metaphors are everywhere in our language.

What do I mean?

Let’s imagine I say: “I see what you mean.” That’s a metaphor. I don’t actually see what you mean. I understand what you mean. But we often talk metaphorically about understanding as seeing. (Another example: Your ideas can be clear or opaque to me.)

Or let’s suppose I say: “I stumbled over my words.” Well, I didn’t literally stumble over my words; they are not bumps or troublesome objects on my speaking path. I metaphorically stumbled over my words, because we often talk about speaking or talking using a metaphor of walking. (If you think about it, we can run on at the mouth, meander when we speak, trip, and “walk someone through an idea” by talking them through it.)

There are at least two major ways that metaphor shows up in everyday speech.

Do you have a favorite metaphor? What about one that makes you crazy? Do tell.

First, we use metaphor as a way to create new meanings for words we already have in the language. Consider what we’ve done with computers and the Internet. We talk about the web, which is a metaphor, as is surfing the web; and we used to talk about the information superhighway (which now sounds old-fashioned, I think). With your computer, you have a mouse, which is a metaphor. (It used to look more like a mouse than it does now: It had a tail, maybe it had little red eyes, and it kind of scurried around.) Computers also involve windows that aren’t really windows, folders, tools, libraries, and much more. Other metaphors you may not notice: a crane in a construction site, which is not a bird but a machine. That’s a metaphor. Or a leaf in a book: also a metaphor.

So that’s one way we use metaphors every day.

The other way is what linguists call a “conceptual metaphor,” an idea that comes from some foundational work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in a book called Metaphors We Live By (1980). Lakoff and Johnson point out that we talk about many conceptual or abstract things using metaphors. The underlying conceptual metaphors provide a basis for the specific words we can use to talk about something. For example, I already told you about the conceptual metaphor “understanding is seeing,” which allows me to say, “I see your point.”

We can talk about time as money (so the conceptual metaphor is “time is money”). We borrow time. We spend time. We invest our time. All of that phrasing relies on a monetary metaphor for time.We sometimes talk about learning by relying on the conceptual metaphor “learning is eating.” I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, but we do it. We chew on ideas, we digest facts, and students will tell you that sometimes they feel like, on an exam, they are being asked to regurgitate information.

Comments after a story are the icing on the cake.

Life can be a journey. We are travelers on that journey. We march forward and look back on past experiences. And when you think about it, the way we talk about our lives has to do with the way we experience the world in our bodies: The future is ahead of us because our eyes are in the front of our heads. The past is behind us as we move forward through time.

I hope that now, when you think about metaphor, you will realize that, in fact, metaphors are all around us. Metaphor is not some special literary device that we use only in poetry or high literature. It’s actually part of the poetry of everyday talk.

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.


  • Mark Worthley - 2003

    I smell what you’re stepping in.


  • Rosalyn Borg

    Time marches on.


  • Tim Bartholow - 1973, 1974, 1979

    The “I see what you mean” construction reminded me of one of the few useful things I ever took away from employer-provided touchy-feely group meetings (for want of a better phrase). How one voices that concept tells something about the speaker. “I see” = visual personality. “I understand”, “I hear”, “I feel”, etc. all provide clues to the underlying personality of the speaker. I’m visual — I’ve known it for years — and an excise as just described provided me an interesting insight. BTW, Anne, I enjoy your columns in The Chronicle.


  • Eli Taub, M.D. - LSA, '62

    Right after listening to the excellent-as-usual segment about metaphors, and the “poetry of everyday speech,” I looked at another email, a true story concerning an academic person who painted himself into a corner by abusing his authority to insult another academic person. (Nothing to do with Michigan.) When this met with a torrent of outrage, the miscreant claimed that it was all a misunderstanding, that he never meant to insult anyone, etc. — this explanation striking many as far-fetched, flying in the face of his own plain words. The attempt to get off the hook and save face was described by a friend of the insulted person as “looking for a ladder to climb down from the tree.”


  • Jim Beck - 1961

    I look forward to and enjoy reading your articles in Michigan Today. This article made me think of the many ways in which thoughts can be described using less than direct words. I suppose it is easier to use whatever word comes to mind rather than struggling to think of a more direct one. Besides metaphors one can use a simile, an analogy, a euphemism, an innuendo, an idiom, etc. We should just say what we mean and stop beating around the bush so we don’t sound like a bunch of clowns. See what I mean?