Metaphor is a powerful tool which depicts situations or circumstances that would otherwise be difficult to put into words. It embraces emotions, feelings, dynamics and perceptions and is identified by the fact that the literal meaning of words is not usually the intended meaning. There is instead a figurative meaning which must be established by deduction from the context of the statement from cultural understanding and from an individual’s encyclopaedic knowledge.
The inspiration for this article came from a conversation with one of my clients earlier this week. We were conversing in French and I noted that his language was awash with metaphors as he attempted to explain how badly he needed to gain a particular qualification. Metaphors are used in most, if not all cultures to aid explanation and facilitate comprehension. We all use metaphors and generally have an understanding of it as used in our culture. If we hear someone say: It was raining cats and dogs we don’t peep outside expecting to see cats and dogs falling from the sky.
As an individual of an artistic orientation, I have always found metaphor fascinating. I can see how it can help us develop our creativity and our understanding and appreciation of life. Not every situation can be literally interpreted and for those who do not share our cultural backgrounds, metaphoric scenarios can be difficult to comprehend. Metaphors have been in use from time immemorial and many religious books including the Bible have their fair share of them. Some passages of the scriptures should not be interpreted literally and I cringe in awe as some of my Christian friends attempt to do this and justify their narrow understanding. In writing this article I conducted a short survey aimed at ascertaining the views of individuals as to the identity of the apple that Adam and Eve shared. No one I asked thought it was a Granny Smith Apple, a Gala Apple or any other agricultural produce.
We use metaphor without thinking. It has made its way into our lives and buried itself deeply into our subconscious, becoming a way of life. In heated discussions, debates or games we may say: “I’ll wipe you out”, or “you are dead”. In the same breath we may use terms like: “you are right on target”, or “they attacked his credibility”. A life without metaphor would be dull and lack lustre, as metaphor adds flavour to language.
What do we mean when we call someone a “dog” or a “snake”, for example? Does the meaning change depending on geography? I have heard on American Idol the word “Dog” used in a friendly manner, but never on X Factor here in the UK. Metaphor is subjective - I may think “he’s an angel” whereas you may think “he’s the devil himself”; or “he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. It therefore cannot be used to establish truth.
In his book Animal Farm George Orwell uses animals to represent people. Literary writing is awash with metaphors as creative writers seek to communicate their ideas in an abstract manner to add dimension to their craft. Metaphors are the heart and soul of literary compositions. After the divorce, Jonathan was a tree in the wilderness. That sentence conjures up various thoughts in our minds. The word “divorce” may even be a metaphor in itself. The man is a pig has nothing to do with pigs. It refers to the amount of food he consumes, his manner of eating or his crude behaviour. Contemporary pop music is overrun by metaphors – “take a look at me now, I’m just an empty space”; “Islands in the stream, that is what we are”, “I’m that star up in the sky”, and the list goes on.
What metaphors do you use and what metaphors can be used to describe you? Are you the rock in someone’s life? Are you an eagle or a chicken? Has a situation left a sour taste in your mouth? Are you dragging your feet or are you preparing to soar? Is your heart on fire? Is your head spinning with ideas? Are you shining your light for others to see? How do people perceive of you?
Contemporary organisations can use metaphoric scenarios to obtain information from and communicate messages to their personnel at inhouse staff development seminars. These fora can unearth underlying issues in the workplace and prudent managers can learn a lot from the information gleaned. An employee who perceives his organisation as a “spider web” for example, may be inferring that there is a degree of cohesiveness within the company and its operations are interconnected and efficient. However, further exploration could discover that the employee is frustrated and feels that he doesn’t fit into this entangled web. A web is often used to trap intruders. The employee can feel like an outsider, not truly fitting within the organisation. He may think that his input is not valued and this can lead to stress and adversely affect his performance. The situation worsens when the employee lacks the necessary drive or autonomy to effect change, or where he is operating within an economically depressed culture.
With the advent of the internet and the increased use of online chat, the use of symbols now depicts ideas. It is therefore normal to see a directional “thumbs up” sign denoting agreement or praise, thumbs down to express disagreement or sadness, a symbolic “heart” to express love, “lips” to send a kiss etc. Such metaphorical leanings have a basis in our physical and cultural experience but they are also understood on a global scale.
One of the concepts that I learnt when I trained as a victim support volunteer was that many rape victims felt that they were raped by the interrogation following the physical act and again by the judicial process. The fear of the second and third “rape” often allows perpetrators to escape punishment. When individuals appear in court and find their integrity attacked they feel that they are victims again, being raped by the justice system. The word “rape” is also used to denote territorial plunder – the idea that some countries systematically extracted natural resources from others for their own gains. The concept of rape as metaphor can be stretched in other directions and we can all look into our lives for evidence. For example, as employees are we raping our employers by not pulling our weight, by stealing from them or by not giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage? Are we raping people by exploiting their generosity and using them for personal gain? As employers are we raping our employees by not providing good working conditions when it is our power to do so? Food for thought!
Certain complex situations and difficult concepts are often understood via metaphor. Using metaphors to expound ideas and explain concepts is often automatic as we switch between the roles of orator and audience. Without thinking we employ metaphoric renditions to clarify our thoughts and ideas. Metaphors are not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. Thus we speak of ‘allies’ in politics and ‘friends’ in everyday life. If, however, we were to reverse the use of the words and refer to our friends as “allies”, the connotation would change, inferring that there is some unspoken existing rivalry, rendering a deeper meaning than the word “friends” could evoke.
Culture bears heavily on the use of metaphor. In one culture we say, Time is money. In another that statement may have no meaning whatsoever. Those of us who translate languages are constantly challenged to find equivalence in an attempt to communicate the speaker’s intentions. In the absence of native cultural knowledge, a successful rendition is often found after arduous research and in-depth analysis. The metaphoric expression “many rivers to cross” cannot be translated literally as it would lose its meaning entirely, and worse, it would totally confuse target readers. An equivalent rendition could be “many challenges I face”. The target reader would then understand that the orator is not referring to “rivers” but to trials and tribulations.
Metaphoric thought is simply commonplace and inescapable. The use of metaphor paints enormously rich pictures in our thoughts, adding colour, dimension and humour. Life without metaphors would be dull and lack lustre, mere words without soul. Metaphors are essential building blocks of human communication. They help us convey our beliefs, ideas and convictions. They are the essence of our attempt to describe our world. By recognising and using metaphor, we can better appreciate and enrich our world.