Metaphors we live by (Part 1)

To frame this introduction carefully given our training focus is in NLP, this book (Metaphors we live by. By GEORGE LAKOFF and MARK JOHNSON.) is not NLP nor does it really mention NLP as far as I have noticed. It is just an excellent book about the pervasiveness of metaphors in our everyday language (English; and there is a Spanish version listed below).

To use the meatphor that a Book is Food, I have been devouring this book with enthusiasm.

The subtle metaphors refered to in this book are similar (in some ways) to the unstated presuppositions in the context of the Meta Model, in that the Metaphor may be unstated, but is the basis for some of the statements and choice of language that the speaker may use.

For example, the statements:

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.
I don’t have enough time to spare for that.
You’re running out of time.
You need to budget your time.

Have an unstated metaphor that might read: TIME IS MONEY.

It is these unstated metaphors that this book is about. In some ways, these metaphors could be considered presuppositions that are metaphors or mataphors used as presuppositions.

An excerpt from the book is here:

TIME IS MONEY, TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, and TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY are all metaphorical concepts. They are metaphorical since we are using our everyday experiences with money, limited resources, and valuable commodities to conceptualize time. This isn’t a necessary way for human beings to conceptualize time; it is tied to our culture. There are cultures where time is none of these things.
The metaphorical concepts TIME IS MONEY, TIME IS A RESOURCE, and TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY form a single system based on sub-categorization, since in our society money is a limited resource and limited resources are valuable commodities. These sub categorization relationships characterize entailment relationships between the metaphors: TIME IS MONEY entails that TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, which entails that TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY.

We are adopting the practice of using the most specific metaphorical concept, in this case TIME IS MONEY to characterize the entire system. Of the expressions listed under the TIME IS MONEY metaphor, some refer specifically to money (spend, invest, budget, probably cost), others to limited resources (use, use up, have enough of, run out of), and still others to valuable commodities (have, give, lose, thank you for). This is an example of the way in which metaphorical entailments can characterize a coherent system of metaphorical concepts and a corresponding coherent system of metaphorical expressions for those concepts.

The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms terms of another (e.g., comprehending an aspect of arguing in terms of battle) will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept. In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept (e.g., the battling aspects of arguing), metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor. For example, in the midst of a heated argument, when we are intent on attacking our opponent’s position and defending our own, we may lose sight of the cooperative aspects of arguing. Someone who is arguing with you can be viewed as giving you his time, a valuable commodity, in an effort at mutual understanding. But when we are preoccupied with the battle aspects, we often lose sight of the cooperative aspects.
A far more subtle case of how a metaphorical concept can hide an aspect of our experience can be seen in what Michael Reddy has called the “conduit metaphor.”‘ Reddy observes that our language about language is structured roughly by the following complex metaphor:




The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a bearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers. Reddy documents this with more than a hundred types of expressions in English, which he estimates account for at least 70 percent of the expressions we use for talking about language. Here are some examples:


It’s hard to get that idea across to him.

I gave you that idea.

Your reasons came through to us.

It’s difficult to put my ideas into words.

When you have a good idea, try to capture it immediately in words.

Try to pack more thought into fewer words.

You can’t simply stuff ideas into a sentence any old way.

The meaning is right there in the words.

Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words.

His words carry little meaning.

The introduction has a great deal of thought content.

Your words seem hollow.

The sentence is without meaning.

The idea is buried in terribly dense paragraphs.

In examples like these it is far more difficult to see that there is anything hidden by the metaphor or even to see that there is a metaphor here at all. This is so much the conventional way of thinking about language that it is sometimes hard to imagine that it might not fit reality. But if we look at what the conduit metaphor entails, we can see some of the ways in which it masks aspects of the communicative process.

First, the Linguistic EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS FOR MEANINGS aspect of the conduit metaphor entails that words and sentences have meanings in themselves, independent of any context or speaker. The MEANINGS ARE OBJECTS part of the metaphor, for example, entails that meanings have an existence independent of people and contexts. The part of the metaphor that says LINGUISTICS EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS FOR MEANING entails that words (and sentences) have meanings, again independent of contexts and speakers. These metaphors are appropriate in many situations–those where context differences don’t matter and where all the participants in the conversation understand the sentences in the same way.



He is high-minded. She has high standards. She is up right. She is an up-standing citizen. That was a low trick. Don’t be underhanded. I wouldn’t stoop to that. That would be beneath me. He fell into the abyss of depravity. That was a low-down thing to do.

Physical and social basis: GOOD IS UP for a person (physical basis), together with SOCIETY IS A PERSON (in the version where you are not identifying with your society). To be virtuous is to act in accordance with the standards set by the society/person to maintain its well-being. VIRTUE IS UP because virtuous actions correlate with social well-being from the society/person’s point of view. Since socially based metaphors are part of the culture, it’s the society/person’s point of view that counts.


The discussion fell to the emotional level, but I raised it back up to the rational plane. We put our feelings aside and had a high-level intellectual discussion of the matter. He couldn’t rise above his emotions.

Physical and cultural basis: In our culture people view themselves as being in control over animals, plants, and their physical environment, and it is their unique ability to reason that places human beings above other animals and gives them this control. CONTROL IS UP thus provides a basis for MAN IS UP and therefore RATIONAL IS UP.

There are a few excerpts and academic reviews that are worth reading, with more quoted text and excerpts from the book:

A journal article The absence of the topic of metaphor in introductory psychology textbooks Twenty-five Years After ‘Metaphors we Live by’: The absence of the topic of metaphor in introductory psychology textbooks.
Christopher H. Ramey (, Department of Psychology, Florida Southern College, 111 Lake Hollingsworth Dr., Lakeland, FL 33801 USA
Elizabeth S. Lee (, Department of Psychology, Florida Southern College, 111 Lake Hollingsworth Dr., Lakeland, FL 33801 USA

From the journal LANGUAGE VOLUME 59, NUMBER 1 (1983) pp.201-7 Metaphors we live by. By GEORGE LAKOFF and MARK JOHNSON. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Pp. xiii, 241. Cloth $13.95, paper $5.95, as reviewed by JOHN M. LAWLER, University of Michigan.

Maglio & Matlock – Metaphors we surf the web by a little old now, but from the earlier days of the Internet and the concepts are very valid – by Paul P. Maglio (IBM) and Teenie Matlock (Cognitive Psychology Program, University of California).

Who is George Lakoff

A look at what the term ‘framing’ means in political discourse, and how it is used to influence people’s perceptions and perspectives on the issues of the day. Why citizens believe what they do about specific issues is often directly related to how that issue is presented to them in the first place. Featured on the program is exclusive USTV coverage of a presentation by professor George Lakoff, director of the Rockridge Institute, and author of numerous books on the topic, including “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” and “Metaphors We Live By” (taped at the Free Press National Conference on Media Reform). The program also discusses some of the specific techniques on how framing actually works and of the influence that private, corporately-funded think tanks have in helping to shape our nation’s populace’s perception of the issues of the day.

Metaphors we live by (Series)

Metaphoric speech, normal conversation, ads, images

Continue with Part 2…

Can metaphors also create limited views?

Continue with Part 3…

Other metaphors to ponder

Continue with Part 4…

Metaphors in a business context

Continue with Part 5…

The Book: Metaphors We Live By

George Lakoff is also author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, and is a UC Berkeley Professor of Linguistics, and Founder of Reframe America.

And for our Spanish speaking friends….
and persistent location ISBN numbers: 0226468011 : 0226468011 (pbk.) 0226468003 0226468011 : 0226468003 :


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