Metaphors are Water: The Hidden Power of Thinking in Metaphors by@roxanamurariu

Metaphors are Water: The Hidden Power of Thinking in Metaphors

The Greek word of metapherein, the root word for metaphor, is composed of meta (over, across, higher, beyond) and pherein (to bear or carry) A metaphor carries meaning from one word, expression, or image to another, connecting the two concepts. Metaphors describe how something is something else: love is blind. An argument is a metaphor for an attack, defense and counterattack routine. In that case, the person we are talking to is no longer a participant in the conversation, but our opponent and rival.
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The Greek word of μεταπερειν translates in English as metapherein, the root word for metaphor. Metapherein is composed of meta (over, across, higher, beyond) and pherein (to bear or carry). A metaphor carries meaning from one word, expression, or image to another, connecting the two concepts. Hence, the word metaphor is itself a metaphor. 

The metaphorical language consists of metaphors, similes, analogies, and other literary devices. 

Metaphors describe how something is something else: love is blind. 

Similes tell that something is like something else: “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”, the quote from the movie Forrest Gump.  

Analogies show how something being like something else helps explain both things: blue is to color as the circle is to shape. 

Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. - Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Language is fossil metaphors as well because metaphors are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.  

  • You’re the apple of my eye. 
  • Don’t leave me hanging. 
  • I’m on the fence. 
  • Let me dig into it. 
  • Here is the scoop. 
  • I have to sleep on it. 
  • It was right under my nose. 
  • They have a big mouth.

In their book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that we use metaphors to structure our worldview.

For example, according to idioms, time flies, steals, heals, or time can be killed, lost, kept. However, the most prevalent meaning of time is time = money because wages are paid hourly in industrialized societies. 

spent twenty minutes looking for my keys, and then I wasted one hour in traffic.

  • I had saved half an hour minutes by bringing my lunch. 
  • I don’t have enough time to spare for that. 
  • I am running out of time
  • I need to budget my time. 
  • How much time do you have left
  • I am living on borrowed time. 
  • I’ve spent so much time already in the shops, I have to buy at least something.

And the most conclusive example of seeing time as a commodity, a limited and precious resource: Thank you for your time. 

Another interesting example that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson use to highlight how metaphors shape our thinking is perceiving arguments as war.  

  • take a position.
  • He attacked my point of view.
  • won that argument. 
  • I’ve never lost an argument with him. 
  • Do you disagree? Okay, shoot
  • lost my ground

Discourse structured as terms of war has profound implications. When we link an abstract idea (an argument) to a concrete idea (a battle), our comprehension of the abstract concept is influenced by what we already know about the concrete image.

Suppose an argument is a metaphor for an attack, defense and counterattack routine. In that case, the person we are talking to is no longer a participant in the conversation, with equal rights, but our opponent and rival. Perhaps, in the middle of a heated dispute, we might not fully listen to what other people say as we mentally prepare our counterarguments.

What kind of world would we live in if we perceived arguments through a more peaceful metaphor?

Metaphors are instruments of creativity 

Creativity requires addressing a problem from a different angle. For example, an approach could be thinking in metaphors because new metaphors are born with all kinds of colors, smells, and sounds, and it is almost like we see the world afresh, anew.

To enable metaphorical thinking, we can ask ourselves: can we express our thoughts, ideas, theories, concerns, or problems as metaphors? This activity works because metaphors enable us to understand or explain unfamiliar or complex issues using familiar terms.

Idea generation through metaphors isn’t a novelty as there are plenty of examples in science.

Charles Darwin used the branching tree as a metaphor for evolution: “The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.”  

The German chemist August Kekulé envisioned the structure of benzene as a snake biting its tail. 

Albert Einstein’s thought experiment of imagining himself chasing after a beam of light proved crucial to his theory of relativity. 

When it comes to atoms, language can only be used as poetry. The poet is not nearly as concerned with describing facts as with creating images. - Nicholas Bohr, the father of the quantum theory 

Unfortunately, there are limitations to thinking in metaphors as we might be chasing the wrong metaphor.

As Robert Sapolsky said in his online course, we have been using a straightforward model for thinking about living systems for hundreds of years. If you want to understand something complicated, you break it apart into its pieces. Then, once you know its details and put the components back together, you will understand the complex thing. 

However, the reductionism model is not a good model to explain behaviors.  

Behaviour is like a cloud. And you don’t understand rainfall by breaking a cloud down into its component pieces and gluing them back together.

In essence, metaphors are water. The container determines the metaphor’s shape. Try to understand something new through the lenses of a circle, and the new concept becomes a circle. As they are powerful, metaphors can also become ineffective if using the wrong container.

Metaphors are instruments to express social mental models 

Metaphors are devices for social thinking as metaphorical language can construct or reshape our mental models regarding complex social issues. 

For example, in the 20th-century, the school as a factory metaphor appeared. However, this metaphor worked in a social context where education was mostly linear: get an education, get a job, retire. For the harsh economic realities of the 21st-century, we need a new metaphor for education.   

Another example is how to explain climate change. Perhaps using the boiling frog metaphor: drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it will leap out. Put a frog into a pot of cold water and slowly bring the water to a boil. The pot becomes the kiss of death.  

Note: Scientifically speaking, contemporary biologists will dismiss this metaphor as a frog in a gradually heated pot will jump out. Metaphorically speaking, this cautionary tale shows our inability or unwillingness to react when threats arise gradually rather than suddenly. 

Then, using military metaphors to fight COVID-19 threaten the practice of medicine across countries. The danger to see the pandemic as war is that it creates a belligerent mentality where victors write history and old allies become new enemies.

We are at war with the virus. Doctors and nurses are battling the enemyfighting on the frontline. Rich countries are hoarding vaccines, international signed treaties are sabotaged, and whole countries are kept hostage by the vaccine crisis.

Possibly having a “c’est la guerre” approach, where everything goes, heightened the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Metaphors and biases 

The same information can look more or less attractive depending on its presentation. In psychology, this is known as the framing effect, a cognitive bias that highlights the importance of how we say it, not what we say. 

In 2011, researchers from Stanford University tried to demonstrate the sheer influence of metaphors through a series of experiments. The researchers asked 482 students to read reports about crime in the fictional city of Addison.

In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighborhoods.” After reading this report, 71 percent of the participants called for enforcement or punishment, building more jails, with only 29 percent calling for social reforms.

However, when participants read an alternative text that presented crime as a virus, “crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison”, only 54 percent opted for greater law enforcement, and 46 percent suggested better social reforms. 

Other researchers showed that the design of the 2011 study had left room for further explanations and new questions: which metaphorical frames influence which types of people under which conditions? As it is with science, there are never definitive answers, only more questions. 

Words hold tremendous power, and the way we use them subtly or grossly influences our thoughts, biases, feelings, actions, and decisions. James Gleick said it best in his Chaos book:

You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it. 

Previously published at


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