Metaphor: Cultural and Literary

According to the field of psychology, humans use conceptual metaphor to make sense of their world.  People describe things in terms of other things.  A common use of conceptual metaphor is war imagery when citing arguments.  For example, people “pull out the big guns” when they argue. Or they speak of winning the fight if their argument is superior to their opponent’s. It’s a common theme in language and it is one that people across the globe comprehend.  Some conceptual metaphor is culturally based so less comprehensible to the foreigner.  For example, I live in Japan, and people talk about “speaking from the belly” which is the literal translation of the metaphorical language.  They do not literally speak from the belly; Japanese people, however, use the terms to mean a specific understanding that happens between two people without an exchange of actual words.  If two people are on the same wavelength, they speak from the belly.  This can cause all sorts of issues cross-culturally.  But the metaphor is important to the understanding of the Japanese culture and people in general.  In order to understand a culture, one must not only immerse himself in literal language; one must delve into the realm of figurative language as well.  In psycho-social terms, the conceptual metaphors of a people are the thoughts and ideas that imbue a culture with uniqueness.

Why is this important to a writer, though?

Metaphor is a powerful tool for a writer.  A writer needs a toolbox full of ways to make language come alive without being overly sentimental.  A writer needs a way to touch the reader with the words by touching an image in the reader’s brain either through real or imagined memory or images.  This is a connection and an understanding with the reader.  Touching the reader in this way makes a written work into a dialectic rather than a monologue.  Look at the following examples:

  • The snow was a blanket covering the city
  • The aroma of sautéed garlic assaulted the senses the way a truck rolls over a sandcastle
  • The flame licked the edges of the paper so it gave way to a pile of ash
  • The steady thump thump of the bass beat a rhythm into his brain
  • The taste of the hand-made bread was as if he had come home at long last.

These are not literal feelings. This is the use of metaphor and figurative language.  Writers use words like these mostly because they appeal to the reader’s senses to understand a concept the exact way the author wants him to.  Thus the psychological term of conceptual metaphor blends with the idea of a literary metaphor.  When you close your eyes, you can see the idea of snow blanketing a city.  From that description, you can almost smell that garlic as it sautés.  The writer has appealed to common experience; he is counting on the fact that his reader has experienced the taste of hand-made bread and can associate with the warm feeling of coming home after a long absence.

This is the power of metaphor.  The use of metaphor allows people and especially writers to express themselves in a way that is referential, and indeed, perhaps even reverential to other people.

One thought on “Metaphor: Cultural and Literary

  1. Metaphor conveys on both a psychological level and an emotional level, too, so it actually brings in even more meaning. Looking at your snow example, most people have been under a blanket: it’s cozy, comfy. That shared experience is what communicates the message. Now, if you were to change up the snow metaphor and say it was a wet blanket smothering the city, you’ve created an entirely different feeling with the metaphor. 🙂

    Metaphor is fun! Good post. 🙂

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