Lakoff on the Pervasiveness of Conventional Metaphor

George Lakoff may be the world’s most influential expert on the subject of metaphor. His book, Metaphors We Live By, and his renown paper, The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor (1992), offer profound insight into how central metaphors are in language, opening our eyes to the fact that they are perhaps the most fundamental building block of how we communicate with each other.[1]

We’re all familiar with metaphors like this one.

And this one…

These are what Lakoff describes as “novel metaphors.” This is when someone creates a metaphor that is not yet ubiquitous and uses it to communicate something (poetically, artistically, or otherwise).

These types of metaphors are not controversial. Lakoff’s research is on another type of metaphor, called “conventional metaphors,” that reside in everyday language.

These metaphors are so common to the way we communicate that we don’t think of them as metaphors. We think of them as literal language when they are not.

The goal of Lakoff’s research is to disprove the following beliefs.

All everyday conventional language is literal, and none is metaphorical

All subject matter can be comprehended literally, without metaphor

Only literal language can be contingently true of false

All definitions given in a lexicon of a language are literal, not metaphorical

The concepts used in grammar of a language are all literal; none are [sic] metaphorical

To demonstrate this, Lakoff introduces the pervasive metaphor of “Time as Motion.”

We often use motion, such as getting closer to an object, or moving forward, or moving backward, to describe the progression of time. This way of speaking is so ingrained that it takes a moment to realize that described Time as Motion is not a literal expression of time. The “the cat is on the mat” is a literal expression. If I were to say, “going forward, I’m going to make sure the cat does not sit on the mat,” the expression of time is metaphorical. What I’m really saying propositionally is, “in the future I resolve not to let the cat sit on the mat.” We don’t often think of the “going forward” expression as metaphorical in the sense that we think of “love is a rose” as a metaphor. But it is a metaphor, as are many of the other ways we express our relationship time.

Lakoff gives the following additional examples of the Time as Motion metaphor:

There’s going to be trouble down the road

He stayed there for ten years

He passed the time happily

We’re coming up on Christmas

I’ll be there in a minute

This way of speaking is universal, so much so that we struggle to explain time resorting to the idea of Time as Motion.

Similarly, we use Motion as a metaphor for Progress in many other ways.

For example, to say that Success is Reaching the End of the Path:

We’ve reached the end

We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel

We have only a short way to go

The end is in sight

He needs some direction

To say that Lack of Purpose is Lack of Direction

He’s just floating around

He’s drifting aimlessly

He needs some direction

To use references to Horses as a metaphor for Control of a Situation

Get a grip

Don’t let things get out of hand

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Keeping a tight rein


The main thrust of Lakoff’s research is to show that a far higher percentage of our conventional language is metaphorical than we might presume.

Many intellectuals downplay the robustness of metaphors to express complex and serious ideas. But according to Lakoff certain metaphors are universals; they’re an inextricable part of the human mechanism of communication. They’re not to be dismissed as a less serious way to express our ideas, but rather a fundamental tool to map our understanding of reality. And only by understanding the way we use metaphor can we understand the full shape of the linguistic maps we use to chart our understanding of our inner worlds.

[1] See what I did there?