Moments of Impact: Metaphors in Language

Moments of Impact: Metaphors in Language

In our last moment of impact, we discussed “modals,” words that express potential worlds beyond our own. These words beg us to look beyond what is known and fall into a divine dreaming. At least once or twice a day, we should let the shoulds, coulds, and mights hypnotize, empower, and enlighten us.

As much as language is a tool for us to crack things open, it sets limits. Language is, if anything, a compromise. There’s a reason why you understand everything I’m saying: we have all agreed that these words refer to the same thing. You don’t have to fight it, and you shouldn’t; please don’t try to make red into blue, bananas into apples, or your aunt into your dog. There are objects in our world that language needs to capture; otherwise, why would we bother?

Yet there are subtle and insidious linguistic agreements we make that don’t express simply objective truths, but cultural truths. These truths are not necessary to the truths of language. They are ingrained metaphors in our culture that are expressed in language. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson refer to these as “the metaphors we live by.”

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson mention one such metaphor in American culture:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle…It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.1

I was reminded of this when I was out drinking with a friend the other day. We argued quite a bit about a little bit of everything: sports, writing, reading, relationships, gossip, and more. When he apologized for bickering and appeared genuinely ashamed, it was then I realized that for as much hype as competition gets in America, we still view it as a bad thing. It’s a thing to be avoided. It causes discomfort and hostility. It will always position one person against the other.


Argument is war.

I don’t think we need more arguments. Especially the kind we see on CNN or worse, Twitter and other social media platforms. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with setting conflicts in battle grounds. Lakoff and Johnson mention the fact that other languages use verbs like “grasping” or “meeting” instead of “winning” or “destroying” when they refer to arguments (an instance of metaphor variation). The word “argue” a couple of centuries ago used to mean something closer to “make clear” (arg meaning shine, clear, brighten).2

One should tread caution with the metaphors we live by. They define and contain. But once we see them, we can re-frame and liberate ourselves from oppressive cultural yoke in search of clarity and higher moral ground.


1. Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago, 2011. Print.
2. Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to stop-in-your-track moments. It’s when the daily routine becomes jarred, experiences, knowledge, and emotions find a meeting point, producing a revelation that you could sit in your chair pondering for hours like David Bowie in the Labyrinth. I personally hope that I have at least one moment of impact a week. Indeed, this is a weekly series. 

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.