Most people are surprised when they find out how much of our everyday language is filled with metaphors.
To get a bit technical, words themselves are metaphors, for the ideas the words represent.
Just like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, one of the widely learned metaphors in human history, the word “dog” has as many different meanings as there are listeners.
The origin of some metaphors are easy to figure out. “The ties that bind,” for example clearly describes two ideas or people that are bound together by something like an idea or a commitment. You can see how that particular metaphor was constructed.
But how about “kick the bucket,” or “buy the farm”? We know what they mean, but how the heck did kicking some kind of bucket or purchasing some land with decent soil mean dying?
One particular category of metaphors that fascinate me category metaphors for using intangible nouns.
For example, we say we are “in” a meeting. Now, a meeting isn’t a real thing. Sure, there are some tables, chairs, people and some guy going on and on about the latest sales figures, but no meeting.
So why do we use the preposition “in”?
Because, according to George Lakoff, a world famous linguist and student of Noam Chomsky, whenever we use an intangible noun, we have to use it “as if” it were a tangible noun. And in order to use it “as if” it were a tangible noun, we have to figure out what “kind” of noun it is.
So a meeting is some kind of a container, and linguists say that “meeting” uses the “container metaphor.”
There are others.
For example, why do we say “on” the team, but “in” the club? Well, considering them as objects, a club “meets” like a meeting, and the focus is usually inside the “club” so it’s more like a container.
Team, on the other hand, is always out traveling around, fighting with other “teams” So “team” uses the “vehicle” metaphor.
And since language (and our brain circuitry that creates it) predates mechanized travel, we always think of “on” when we’re “on” any kind of vehicle.
That’s why we use “on” when we’re “on” the train or the bus or the plane, even though we’re “in” those things.
We say “in” our car, because it’s more of a personal space, like on homes, but we do say “on” the way somewhere.
There’s some other interesting things that Lakoff notes.
Anytime we have an argument, we use the “war” metaphor. Fighting with somebody, defending your position, attacking your opponent.
Problems use “obstacle” metaphors. Get around this, get over this.
An interesting one is “love.” We are “in” love, so obviously “love” uses the container metaphor. But how do we get there?
You go to a meeting, and then you’re in the meeting. It’s a container that is in a known location.
But love is something mysterious, and we never know when it’s going to show up.
That’s why “fall” in love. Like you’re walking down the street, staring at your iPhone, and you fall into one of those fountains.
OK, so maybe that’s not a good metaphor for the “love” metaphor, but you get the point. Oh, “point,” another metaphor. I could go on and on. “Go,” hmm, the “traveling” metaphor.
I’d better stop.