Metaphor


Again let us have something on the light side.

 

The last project I was working on before leaving my Toastmaster clubs in Canada was a study of metaphor. This followed on from the study of non-verbal aspects of communication. Speeches on gestures, voice, expressions, postures etc. had been given many times with different lengths and emphasis so that I had a family of presentations and many ways to create additional ones. I was starting similar work on the verbal side of communication – metaphor was the first subject I tackled. Below is my last major Toastmaster speech.

 

Alan Kay said, “A picture is worth a thousand words but a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.” Well, I have been thinking about metaphors ever since the truth of that remark settled into my head.

 

So, today we are going to take a journey and see what we can find out about metaphors. There – I used the journey metaphor. Now you can expect a starting point and a destination, a path that is one of many, progress along the path, obstacles along the way, a mode of transport and on and on. I have given you a way to organize what I am saying. On the other hand, I could say that metaphor is the key to understanding many things about language. This is another well-used metaphor, the container metaphor; it implies that something valuable is not available until you have a key to unlock its hiding place. Now you would expect me to explain some new concept about language and how the idea of metaphor helps to illuminate it. Oh, oh, there I have used the light metaphor. Now I am asking you to interpret that I say as if I was shining a light on something that is in the dark. Actually if you really try to speak without using any metaphors, you will find it difficult.

 

Let me give you a little road map for today’s presentation. Our journey will show that metaphor is important in speaking because (1) it gives fast accurate communications (2) it is very effective communication (3) it is natural communication and (4) it is creative communication.

 

First a little definition:  I am not just talking about what is strictly, grammatically a metaphor but all the metaphoric devices or figurative language forms  such as simile, analogy, allegory, comparison, parable and proverb etc. The idea is the same, just size and complexity differ. One thing is described in terms of another.

 

Our first stop is fast and accurate communication. Suppose someone is teaching me something about the way a computer works. They could try my patience with explanations of binary arithmetic, transistors etc. Or they can talk about ‘addresses’. I know that word and I get out my mental map of the postal system. I can understand almost instantly, because I know how letters are delivered, that each piece of information in the computer has a unique named location.

 

If we think of people as having a cupboard filled with maps of this that and most everything, and by and large our maps are similar for the same concept. We can now converse quickly and clearly by both referring to our version of the map we are using. We keep the structure more or less the same but we rename some of the points. It is really difficult to imagine how much time and frustration is saved by using this device of metaphor.

 

When speaking, finding an appropriate metaphor can be the most important thing you do to make the communication work so that the listener goes away with a memory of what you said and a positive attitude. Their patience has not been tried by difficult descriptions.

 

Stop number two is effective communication. What makes people change their minds? They come to see things differently. They start to use a different map. Here is an example. After 9/11 the Americans took to using the metaphor of war for their situation. They saw the ‘war on terror’. The Europeans had had recent terrorist problems (IRA, Red Brigade, etc, etc.) and so they saw the situation in terms of both politics and crime. One group looked outside their societies and wanted protection by their army. The other looked within their borders and wanted protection by the police.  What these countries did with very similar threats was different and the difference was due to a difference in metaphor. If you want to change someone’s mind about something – you have to change the metaphor they are using to think with.

 

Great speeches that have great effects use great metaphors: Churchill’s iron curtain, King Jr’s promissory note, and TC Douglas’ mouse land. What a great metaphor does is to establish rapport with the audience by reference to shared culture, to appeal to the emotions of the audience by the colour and feel of the metaphorical vehicle, and to assist understanding by supplying a conceptual model.

 

If those that believe in legal abortions are ever going to convince those that don’t or vice versa, then one or the other will have to find a new metaphor. The current metaphors just roll off the opponent’s back. The pro-life metaphors do not ring true to the pro-choice side and the pro-choice metaphors do not ring true to the pro-life side. If you want to be convincing and want to be an effective speaker, you need to find metaphors that have the right emotional appeal to the audience, metaphors that work with your audience.

 

Stop number three is an examination of how deeply natural is the metaphor. If you look up the word ‘go’ in the dictionary, there are 35 distinct but related meanings like: depart, travel, point, in harmony, moving etc. Most of these are what is called dead metaphors – metaphors that have been used so often that they became permanently part of the meaning of words. They are no longer metaphoric but they were once upon a time. ‘Go’ is even used as a grammatical helper. ‘I am going to read that book’, has ‘go’ implying a future intention (like the destination of the journey, maybe).

 

In fact a look through the dictionary shows that dead metaphors are a prime source of word meanings. These metaphors are dead, not because they are no longer used, but because they are used so often that they are not metaphoric any more. We no longer hear the metaphor and therefore we come to feel a literal meaning instead.

 

The importance of metaphor has dawned on linguists. It is not just a few of the 100 or so rhetorical devices used in our languages. The metaphor is one of the most important ingredients of language. To understand language, you have to understand metaphor. There is an explosion of scholarly interest in figurative, poetic, metaphoric language. Why? Because of the continuing interest in computer software that will communicate with humans in natural languages. This great prize has been just around the corner since the 50s (like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). The quest has sparked interest in a great many areas. Now it is the turn of metaphor to be interesting to the scholars.

 

It turns out that metaphor is more than a figure of speech, more than a way in which word meanings are coined, more than an effective communication tool. It is a key to how our minds work. As the scholars put it, “Metaphor is a conceptual rather than a linguistic entity.” We use metaphor to think. Let us take our computer address example. We understand computer retrieval in terms of the postal system. But we originally understood the postal system in terms of the journeys of letters. The address was the destination. But the journey metaphor is just a special case of a very deeply understood idea of movement. A child learns about movement by learning how to do it and then can build on that skill to nest thousands of metaphors. When I say, “we are on the right track here”. You can get out your train metaphor map which was built on your journey map, built on your movement map, which was built on actual movement. In all these related maps: states are locations, changes are movements, causes are forces, purposes are destinations, and means/methods are paths.  All can be traced back to us having intentions and moving to achieve those intentions.

 

If you take the sum total of the metaphoric maps that we share, that is our culture. To communicate, people have to share a language and that means they have to share a culture. They have to share sources of metaphor: Cinderella, income tax, gravity, 1812, Rockies, Bart Simpson, slap shot, the call of the loon, parade, the Good Samaritan and so on. The fewer shared concepts, the more difficult the communication. That is why metaphor is now a hot topic. In order for computers to converse with us, they will have to be given the ability to create and understand metaphor and that means they will have to be given the components of our culture. They need the maps and the skill to manipulate them.

 

Whether we like it or not, we think and we remember and we understand and we communicate in metaphor. The trick is to find the most useful metaphors.

 

Now we come to our final stop, creativity.  We use metaphor in invention and discovery, in fun and entertainment and in poetry and eloquence.

 

One form of joke is the mixed or inappropriate metaphor. “We will not be stampeded into stagnation.” “Solar technology cannot be introduced overnight.” Comedians often use metaphors to point out the ridiculousness of a situation.  They get a laugh.

 

Poets use metaphor. In fact, some say that it is the most identifying aspect of poetry. Frost took the old and maybe overworked ‘journey’ metaphor and made it new and interesting in the Road not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

Metaphors are often called Poetic Language. It is not surprising. Poetry is compact, it is concrete and it has emotional power. These are also the attributes of metaphor. Metaphors have a sharpness of detail and concreteness of expression with layers of emotional context. Poets use metaphor to achieve so much meaning with so few words.

 

Of course orators use metaphor.

 

Many whole books are based on a complex analogy. Again the journey metaphor is the bases of Pilgrim’s Progress, the Odyssey, and countless tales.

 

When we use a metaphor we are sometimes shown new aspects of the situation or of the map we are translating with. Thus a scientist makes an analogue between water flow and electrical current. He understands electricity in a wire as if it was water in a pipe. Later some other scientist is try to understand the hydrodynamics of ship’s hulls, and finds it is easiest if he thinks of it using an electrical analogy. So it goes, new theories and insights often come from using new metaphors, or using old ones backward.

 

To sum up: to be a better speaker – use metaphor, use metaphor and then use more metaphor. Choose your metaphors carefully. Use a metaphor that is easy to follow and comfortable rather than obscure, but not one that is boring and passe. Use a metaphor that really encapsulates what you want to say, one that fits well. Use a metaphor with the right emotional appeal, positive or negative, and which resonates with the audience. Use a metaphor that is entertaining or beautiful -treat your audience to a little inventiveness and not the same-old-same-old. Toastmasters material advises us to use vivid, concrete imagery. One of the best ways to do this is to use metaphor.

 

Now we are at the end of our journey and I would like to hear your comments, contributions and questions.

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