How often do you think about metaphors? Not as often as you use them, I’ll bet. According to James Geary’s I Is an Other, “We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words.”
Generally associated with poetry, metaphor infiltrates every area of our lives, turning up in advertisements, political rhetoric, the evening news reports, and even in dry economic summaries. In fact, metaphor is such a common conversational device, we’d be hard-pressed to get through a paragraph without it.
Consider these examples:
In addition, Geary asks us to include similes in the pile, because “…a simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up” as well as symbols which are simply non-verbal metaphors. It seems we are drowning in a sea of I that is Other.
- Cool as a cucumber
- Shoulder to cry on
- Down in the dumps
- Chip on his shoulder
- Skeleton in the closet
But why should we care? If we aren’t writing descriptive prose and we have no interest in literary intellectualism, can we simply ignore metaphor in all its forms? Does it matter?
It does. Metaphor, whether we recognize it or not, “shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.” It is used deliberately to sway our opinions and influence our purchasing decisions. It changes our beliefs, drives our actions, and determines the success or failure of relationships.
Symbols are particularly insidious metaphors. It turns out that we really are getting subliminal instructions from signs and billboards. Ads that depict food in an exciting and upbeat way prompt us to snack more. Fast-food logos have been shown to cause us to eat more and to eat faster.
It isn’t a new effect, nor is it isolated to America. A study of influencing adjectives such as warm and cold or dull and bright found that the same mental associations are made in almost every language, from ancient Hebrew to Thai and the West African dialect of Hausa.
Star Trek fans will likely recall an episode in which the Enterprise crew encountered the “incomprehensible” Tamarians. It was only when the clever and open-minded Captain Pickard was stranded on a hostile planet with the Tamarian captain that he discovered the key to understanding the species – the Tamarian language was built entirely around metaphor, each word or phrase reminiscent of a literary work familiar to all Tamarians but with no meaning at all for those ignorant of the source.
It isn’t just science fiction, either. Geary points out that such a challenge exists for people with Asperger’s syndrome, for example. “Everything tends to be interpreted in strictly literal terms” and therefore the simplest conversations can be baffling, awkward, and frustrating for those with the disorder. “Let me show you the ropes” is clear enough to most of us, indicating the speaker’s wish to help us get acquainted with how things work in a particular situation. For Geary’s friend Rebecca, a bright young woman with Asperger’s, it is simply a baffling statement; she knows what a rope is and how to use one, so why would the speaker think she needs to be shown them?
I Is an Other turns out to be more than an exploration of a long-forgotten English lesson; it’s practically a guide for getting through life on our own terms. Packed with intriguing research finds and case studies, Geary’s latest work is a page-turner, jam-packed with information. (How many metaphors can you find in this review?)