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A metaphor is a term for a figure of speech or expression in which one thing stands for or substitutes for another thing. In a metaphor, a concrete idea provides a model of another idea. Most people encounter metaphors in literature, usually in school, where they are presented as a form of poetic or rhetorical language, and thus 'not literally true' and as something that requires deeper thought to decipher its meaning. This is not the only way to define metaphor. We can also think about metaphor as a kind of general relationship between words. All languages have words which can be used in more than one sense. What's really hard about learning a foreign language is not learning the words, but learning the ways you can use words metaphorically. Even statments that may seem very literal in one language make no sense in other languages. For instance, in English see can also mean visit (e.g. I came to see you.). In Finnish, the verb for vision, katsoa, is not used idiomatically for visit. So in this sense, metaphor is not exceptional or special; all language and communication involves some degree of metaphor and every language creates its own metaphors to express ideas.
In their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define a metaphor as a structure of thinking in which a concrete idea is mapped onto a more abstract idea. The concrete idea is called a source domain. Attributes of the source domain are selected and projected onto attributes of a target domain, an abstract idea. This gives the abstract idea a form which the mind can grasp, and which also makes it possible to express something intangible in language. While these structures are often never verbalized, they can be inferred from the words and grammatical structures people use to express abstract ideas. One example they give is “LOVE IS A JOURNEY” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 45). For example:
This metaphorical relationship is connected to other, similar structures of thought in Western cultures. School and career are also expressed in metaphors of journey and travel.
Many of the authors we have read in Forms of Families make use of a concept of metaphor. Why is this relevant to their analysis of other cultures?
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.