Instruction on Metaphors

As I have progressed through Metaphors We Live By, I have been continuously considering how what I learn will influence my writing. To put it simply, it has been a struggle. Lakoff and Johnson bring up many interesting points, but I think most of them are meant to inform readers about what they are doing instead of trying to convince them of what they should do in the future. Yes, metaphors are a part of the English language that is formative to how we all think, feel, and live. However, Lakoff and Johnson also stress that metaphors are ordinary. They are normal parts of the language that we already use. In this way, learning about metaphors is like learning how to diagram sentences. It’s great to know what an adjective is and where it will most likely appear, but it’s not like a writer wouldn’t use one if he couldn’t state the definition of an adjective or point one out in a sentence.

In spite of these observations, my intention is not to devalue the discussion about metaphor use. It can be academically fulfilling to learn about what something is instead of just how to do something. As a writer, however, I am currently primarily interested in improving my skills instead of being told what I am already doing without conscious consideration. My search for instruction among the observations has yielded two main results thus far: an understanding of how certain metaphors can strengthen or weaken impressions and an understanding of the power of creating new embedded metaphors.

Lakoff and Johnson describe the CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT metaphor as a powerful tool that can strengthen and weaken meaning in language. One of their examples is the difference between saying someone is “not happy” and describing someone as “unhappy.” Unhappy clearly means that the person described is sad, while not happy could just mean that the person is not particularly pleased but not sad either (Lakoff and Johnson 130). Through a variety of other complex and diverse examples, the point is made. When words are closer together, like the use of a prefix instead of a different word to indicate negation, a stronger and more meaningful connection is made. Therefore, a writer can intentionally manipulate the structure of a sentence to create the desired results. I am sure I was already utilizing this tool to some extent, but its more intentional use may still have a subtle impact on my writing.

A far more difficult way to use knowledge of metaphors to great effect would be to craft new metaphors to be subsumed into the use of the English language. Lakoff and Johnson write that “Many of our activities (arguing, solving problems, budgeting time, etc.) are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality” (145). Popularizing a new metaphor to the extent that it would be adopted into common usage is very unlikely. Nevertheless, the thought that it is possible to integrate new metaphors into a written work and in doing so alter reality is a very interesting one. A writer capable of such a feat would be in a position to glean a lot from learning about the use of metaphor.

The few practical writing lessons that I have managed to retain from Metaphors We Live By thus far have been useful and interesting, but I remain unsatisfied. The half of the book I have read thus far seems more akin to a dry grammar textbook than an engaging nonfiction book to aid writers. I can’t decide if I am missing something engaging and particularly helpful, if the beginning of the book is providing an extended amount of background information, or if the entirety of Metaphors We Live By will be equally dense and observational. My hope is that my readers can offer a different perspective on the content seen thus far or identify with my own interpretation so that I may have a better grasp of the utility that others have found in the book.



2 thoughts on “Instruction on Metaphors

  1. erinmolsberry says:

    Hi Nathan, this is Erin, and I’m joining this reading group.

    I greatly admire your ability to create such extensive posts during the last semester of your senior year.

    It seems that many of us have been questioning the applicability of this text. Here’s hoping that Lakoff and Johnson will openly tell us their thoughts on the relevance of this book to writers at some point, although I doubt this situation is likely.

    Your post makes me wonder precisely how a writer would go about trying to create a cultural metaphor. If writing a work of fiction, he or she might invent a culture therein which widely differs metaphorically from ours, and trace the characters’ patterns of thinking while hoping the patterns spread in some small amount to the book’s reader. In a work of nonfiction…I suppose the writer would have to argue a more direct case for why readers should try to implement a proposed cultural metaphor (a paradigm, perhaps) into their own thinking…an endeavor which, if successful on a massive scale, would indeed allow the proposed metaphor to permeate society.

    It just now strikes me that both situations happen all the time. New texts reflect ever-changing cultures, but also undoubtedly spark and propel changes in thinking as ideas are argued and shared both informally and formally.

  2. kjnicholas says:

    Hey Nathan,
    I must say that I appreciate the way you find very tangible ways of implementing the information in Lakoff and Johnson’s work into everyday usage for writers. It would be pretty easy to dive into a rabbit hole of philosophical thought and you’re making a great deal of an effort to avoid that and make use of the book in a very practical, here’s what we do with this, sort of way. Thank you for that.

    I concur with your feeling of dissatisfaction. While the book appeals to my love of finding interesting facets of the English language I too find that I’m unsure how to use it as a textbook for writers. While the title does not imply that it will teach us how to use metaphors, I’m still hoping it will.

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