Document 4

Metaphors we liveD by

Author(s): Prof Christian Kay

Copyright holder(s): Prof Christian Kay


Metaphors We LiveD By: Pathways between Old and Modern English

University of [CENSORED: placename], Postgraduate Seminar, 23/2/00

[CENSORED: forename] [CENSORED: surname], Department of English Language, University of [CENSORED: placename]

i. First of all, I should explain where I'm coming from. My main research interest is the Historical Thesaurus of English, a large and as yet unfinished research project at Glasgow University. Since I can't give you copies of this, I've given you the URL at the foot of the list of books. What we're doing on this project is creating a semantically organised thesaurus of English from OE to the present, on same principles as Roget's Thesaurus. The user of our thesaurus will be able to explore lists of words for concepts such as Food, or more narrowly Bread or Shortbread, over the historical span of written English. As an offshoot of this, we have produced a separate Thesaurus of Old English, which some of you may be familiar with. This was both a pilot project for the main thesaurus, and an interesting project in its own right, opening up new research opportunities in OE. In terms of the health of OE studies, I'm happy to be able to tell you that the first edition has just sold out, and that publishers have been competing to take on the second.

1. The title of this paper is a fairly obvious tribute to one of the most influential books of recent years, Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Indeed, I've put the D in my title in bold to emphasise the fact that it is a tribute, and not simple plagiarism. The book, generally referred to as Lakoff and Johnson, was first published in 1980 and followed up by various other works on the same subject, notably Lakoff’s wonderfully titled Women, Fire and Dangerous Things - the man has a genius for titles.

The effect of Lakoff and Johnson’s work has been to take the study of metaphor from the fringes of literary criticism into the core study of semantics - and note the metaphors in that sentence; it’s simply peppered with them. If you listen carefully, you will hear many other significant metaphors as I proceed, not because of any great literary qualities in my style but simply because I am discussing abstract ideas using the English Language.

Basically, Lakoff and Johnson distinguish two types of metaphors. The first of these is the creative literary metaphor, where a concept in one area of meaning is expressed and made more vivid by words taken from another domain. Often such a metaphor may start life as a simile, since the establishment of likeness is implicit in any metaphor. An example:

“And if any notion of the comic book fat man remained, it stopped when you moved up from the body to that great granite head which looked like it could carve its way through pack-ice on a polar expedition.”
Reginald Hill, Asking for the Moon, HarperCollins 1994, 6

Here we see a metaphor developing. Presumably the first stage is something like:
“His head was like (a block of) granite”. Faced with this metaphor, the reader or listener has to decide in what respect the head resembled granite - that is, to compare the known properties of granite with those of heads. In order to do this, the reader thinks of granite in its most typical form; in semantic terms, of the prototype of granite. For me at least, the prototypical features of granite are that it is hard, dark grey in colour and comes in large angular chunks. Reading on to the fact that the fat man’s head looked as if it could carve its way through pack-ice, we assume that hardness and angularity are indeed the qualities which link it to granite. (This is in fact reinforced later on when the same character’s head is compared to those of the statues on Easter Island.)

This particular metaphor has not, as far as I know, progressed any further in the language. We can comprehend the expression “granite head” but we cannot make a complete transference from one field to another, i.e. we cannot say things like:
*“He stood there thoughtfully scratching his granite”, although this may come. The ability to understand this fairly unusual metaphor is, however, assisted by the fact that there are plenty of parallels to it in other metaphorical expressions for head which focus on its shape and hardness, eg. dome, coconut. Equally, other properties of heads can be focussed on in metaphorical expressions. Thus when we assert a proposition such as “Her head was pure concrete” we are focusing not so much on the literal hardness of the head as on another property associated with hardness and impenetrability, that is stupidity.

2. Here we begin to approach the second type of metaphor, those which Lakoff and Johnson (and many others - there is now a large literature in this field) call root or conceptual or systematic metaphors. These occur when one domain of language is consistently mapped on to another, so that a definite link is established between the two domains and can be exploited in further metaphors. Thus, to express the abstract idea of stupidity, we consistently draw on the more tangible domain of texture, ie. the texture of material objects. Thus we talk about a head made of concrete, impenetrable stupidity (which nothing can pierce through); we refer to a person as being thick, dense, cloth-headed, wooden-headed, or even, in the vernacular, as thick as two short planks. If the metaphorical pathway is well enough established in the language, then a new metaphor following the same path will also be understood. (In the case of the fat man above, it would have been misunderstood, but aficonados of Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels are helped by the fact that Dalziel is known to be far from stupid.)

When the pathway is established, the metaphor can be expressed as a proposition, or at least as a pseudo-proposition. These are usually expressed in the form seen on your handout: Stupidity is close texture. In propositional terms, this will have a truth value for a language community; more generally, understanding this connexion will be part of the linguistic competence of a particular group of speakers. Famous examples of this type of metaphor from Lakoff and Johnson are the proposition Time is money - we spend time, save it, waste it and even borrow it, though it’s difficult to say from whom. Similarly, Argument is War - we attack our opponents, cross swords with them in the cut and thrust of debate, vanquish or defeat them, and so on. The more one is aware of this sort of metaphor, the more one finds it popping up in the language. If you go through any page of non-literary prose you are bound to find some; as I suggested at the beginning, it's just not possible to express onself in English without them, assuming you want to go beyond the stage of simply commenting on the material world.

Given that such metaphors exist, it is interesting to speculate on their effect on a language. At the very least one might suggest that the root metaphors of a language will reveal something about the preoccupations and social context of its speakers. Some would go further and say that such metaphors may even dictate our behaviour; if we grow up speaking a language that tells us that time is money, we will act accordingly, desperately hoarding and husbanding it. Equally, if our central metaphor in English was not Argument is War but, let's say, Argument is Ballroom Dancing, our behaviour might be changed in a more peaceable and graceful direction. This kind of speculation is interesting when examining a particular period of a language. By the same token, differences between languages, or between different chronological stages of the same language, may also be revealing.

Root metaphors of this kind are not of much literary interest; they are so deeply entrenched or buried or rooted in the language that they don’t really illuminate or enlighten or shed, cast or throw any new light on the recipient field. Thus, the metaphor I’ve just used, the proposition that Understanding is Light, is so much part of the semantic system of English that the metaphor is effectively lost or dead. People use such metaphors without appreciating or caring that they are doing so. Such everyday metaphors lack the property of the creative literary metaphor, which is to startle people into seeing things in a new way and making new connexions.

However, just because they are so basic and apparently unremarkable, such metaphors are of considerable linguistic interest. Many of them involve a transfer of meaning from a concrete, or at least a visible field, such as Texture or Light, to a more abstract one, such as Intelligence or Understanding. Thus, in order to talk about the world of abstractions, we draw on the world of physical experience, building up a shared vocabulary of consistently derived metaphors in order to communicate our thoughts and feelings. This is reflected in our classifications for both TOE and HTE. If you look at TOE, you will see that it starts from the world of physical experience, the earth, the seas and the sky, the plants, animals, people. From there is progresses to abstract ideas, such as thinking and feeling, and finally to social ideas, how families and larger units are organised. HTE proceeds in the same general direction. This structure is based on an unverifiable but common-sense assumption that early stages of languages, way back beyond OE into the mists of time, must have been concerned with describing and managing the physical world.

In this movement from concrete to abstract, the overall structure of the two thesauri resembles that of many individual words. In their cases, however, the assumptions can be verified by examining the etymologies. A former postgraduate of mine, [CENSORED: forename] [CENSORED: surname], wrote a thesis on the way phonaesthesia affects the way words develop, arguing that certain clusters of sounds gradually became associated with certain meanings. There is, for instance, quite a large group of words in English (and in French, from which most of them were borrowed) which originally meant physically stunned, but which now carry a meaning of mental stunning - these include words like astonishing, astounded, stupified and stunned itself, all of which contain the /st/ cluster. Our word stupid originally belonged to this group. Like so many other words, it entered early modern English in a variety of closely related meanings, but later lost both the physical and mentally stunned senses, though one still occasionally comes across the phrase “stupid with grief". Thus, for this particular word, one metaphorical pathway has reached a dead-end, to coin a metaphor, but at the same time another metaphorical pathway has opened up.

3. All which background brings me to my current and ongoing project. It started several years ago when TOE was nearing completion. In order to alleviate the tedium of proofreading this work, I set myself the task of collecting examples of words which I thought might exhibit root metaphors, with a view to comparing Old and Modern English. In fact, collecting metaphors while proofreading proved not to be such a good idea, since the metaphors were so much more interesting than the proofs, and progress with the latter slowed down markedly. Instead I simply marked hopeful places with a view to returning to them later.

Basically, there are two ways in which one can collect metaphors. The first might be called the dictionary method, when one looks at individual words and tracks their development from literal to metaphorical. In such cases one is investigating metaphor as a factor in the development of polysemy, i.e. multiple meaning. This kind of search can be done from the index to TOE, or indeed any thesaurus, which reveals the various semantic categories in which each headword appears.

The second method is the thesaurus method, where one looks at a group of words of similar meaning to see whether there are any common metaphors. In such cases it is generally simpler to start off with the abstract field and move back to whatever concrete field is suggested. Most searches, like the stun example above, combine both approaches; in that case, an examination of stupid led onwards and backwards to other words in the group.

So far, these searches have revealed three potentially interesting kinds of metaphors:
(a) Those which seem to have been in continuous use since OE, and probably go back into Germanic, if not further.

As an example of these, one might take the pervasive metaphors derived from the human body: in order to describe and explain other phenomena in the world, people speaking many, if not all, languages have drawn on what is most familiar to them, i.e. themselves. There are many examples of such transfers already established in OE. In Saxon charters, for example, we find references to the head or highest point of a field, hill etc., and we still talk about the head of a valley. We find mouth used of rivers in OE, and that word is also transferred from its animal sense to other openings, such as doors. Lim (limb) and earm (arm) both retain their OE meanings of limbs of trees and arms of the sea.

Such metaphors need not be wholly logical. Thus in both OE and NE, a river begins at its head and ends at its mouth, and in NE at least it runs along its bed to do so. The river is not being compared to the human body in its totality; rather certain properties of certain parts of bodies are being transferred to rivers: the head for its position, the mouth for its function as an orifice, and so on.

(b) Those where the metaphorical pathway has remained but the lexical exponents have changed; usually the OE word has been replaced by an incoming word which has assumed both its literal and metaphorical senses. In some cases, the OE word has been replaced by another native word.

Thus, various words for nose became attached to projecting objects or pieces of land, especially promontories, as does hoh, meaning heel. Nose in the geographical meaning survives only in the variant form of ness, while hoh as a lexeme was replaced by another OE word hela, giving NE heel, and the metaphor disappeared with it, except as a placename element in items like Plymouth Ho. Sweora, meaning neck, is used for narrow strips of land or water, but disappears as a lexical item in Middle English. Interestingly, both its literal and its metaphorical place are taken by hnecca, our word neck, which was rare in OE and is not attested in the transferred sense..

(c) Cases where the metaphorical pathway seems to have come to an end or a new path been introduced. These might be taken to indicate changes in the world views of speakers.

Thus in OE there is a group of metaphors for the body based on the idea of a container: bancofa (chest), fæt (vessel), hus (house), sele (hall). Similar metaphors are found in the way the mind is characterised. As far as I know such metaphors are not present in NE for the physical body, though they flourish for the mind.

Hand, unlike arm, limb etc, has no meaning transferred to the physical world, but metaphorically represents an abstract power or possession. Its OE synonym mund had a well-established metaphorical meaning of protection.

Another interesting set of words showing well-established connexions might be expressed as the proposition: Love is fire. This too is generally regarded as a body metaphor, going back to the literal raising of temperature which occurs in such circumstances. Under the category “Ardour, Strong Feeling” in TOE one finds such examples of this as blæse (firebrand), bryne (burning), hæte (heat) lieg (flame) and wielm (burning). There is a good spread of related parts of speech, which suggests a well-established metaphor. The actual words have variously disappeared or lingered on, but the metaphor itself remains strong.

Familiar metaphors can also be seen if one looks at Category 06 Mind, where one finds immediate traces of Michael Reddy’s Container Metaphor, which envisages the mind as a space or container in which thoughts are stored and manipulated. This is shown by an abundance of expressions in NE, such as my head was full of strange thoughts, an idea came into my mind. It might be summarised as the proposition: The mind is a space. In OE we find equivalent phrases: hweorfan (literally turn, metaphorically to turn the mind to), bewindan (literally to wind, wind round, metaphorically to revolve in the mind), cuman/irnan on gemynde/ on mod (to come to mind, occur to one), þurhferan, þurhgan (“go through” with the mind, penetrate), rum, sid (spacious, capacious of mind).

We also find many words transferring from the field of physical vision to that of mental vision: Physical vision is mental vision. These include behealdan, locian, sceawian, beseon, all with a literal meaning of look at, gaze, and a metaphorical one of observe, regard, scrutinise. From here it is an easy step to the metaphor Understanding is Light, as when clear understanding is described as beorht, hlutor (bright) or leoht. Lihting (lighting, illumination), (ge)inlihtan/onlihtan (illuminate) and spearca (spark of light) occur with similar meanings.

Other adjectives and adverbs applied to the mind or understanding indicate different pathways, as scearp (sharp), deope/deoplice/heah (profoundly), þynne (delicate, fine in perception). These last examples neatly illustrate the classification I was proposing earlier: sharp is unchanged in both literal and metaphorical meanings, deep can still be applied to both water and thoughts, but we have a more specialised word profound in the metaphorical sense only, and high has dropped out of the metaphor - high thoughts are now somewhat different. With thin we have preserved the metaphorical pathway but now express it differently through French borrowings - we have a fine understanding of art, not a thin one. In this last example we can see the processes of change of meaning, especially narrowing or specialisation, associated with vocabulary expansion. Once I have time to track down more examples, it will be interesting to see whether this kind of metaphorical replacement occurs in semantic fields where French borrowings were particularly numerous after the Conquest.

While looking at this group of words, I became interested in the fact that the “see” group seemed to go back to a more fundamental metaphor, that of holding/grasping or possession. Thus behealdan presumably follows an etymological path from holding in the hand to holding in the eye (that is seeing), to holding in the mind, that is understanding; locian, interestingly, has another meaning of belong, pertain, while expressions for remembering include (ge)healdan, habban/niman/lettan on gemynde.

This metaphor is particularly strong in the subcategory of Understanding, where, in addition to forstandan and understandan, we find (ge)niman, underniman, ongietan, undergietan, ymbfon, all with a take/hold meaning, as well as andgiet “understanding, intellect”. Indeed, I find it difficult to see why understand should have become the main word in this class, since all it seems to mean is “stand under”, which doesn't seem conducive to understanding. It is an exception in its group, since the holding/having idea is still strong in modern English, in items such as grasp, or the latinisms apprehend or comprehend, or in many colloquial phrases such as to get hold of an idea, seize on something, take it in, catch someone’s drift, or simply, I don’t get it. Perhaps the idea of standing under is some even more ancient metaphor which survives only in this one form.

So that's where I've got to. So far I have gleaned quite a lot of examples of type (a), the continuous metaphors, a few examples of type (b), which might be called relexicalised metaphors, and very few instances of type (c), thus perhaps suggesting that there is more continuity than disjunction in our basic conceptual system, if we exclude such sophisticated modern metaphors as The Stock Exchange is a Game of Squash. However, there is still a lot of work to be done before I can make more definite pronouncements.

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Metaphors we liveD by. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from

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Information about Document 4

Metaphors we liveD by


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Word count 3416

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Prepared text (e.g. lecture/talk, sermon, public address/speech)
Prose: nonfiction
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Author details

Author id 606
Title Prof
Forenames Christian
Surname Kay
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Academic
Place of birth Edinburgh
Region of birth Midlothian
Birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's place of birth Leith
Father's region of birth Midlothian
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's place of birth Edinburgh
Mother's region of birth Midlothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All
Scots No Yes No Yes Work