The Beating Heart of Language: James Geary on How Metaphor Shapes our World


“Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.”

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All around us, there are remnants of the frenzied work of the oft-hidden metaphor, a diet staple of fiction writers. Metaphor is something that lends itself to another, possibly the most hard-working words we have. And it’s time to see them as something other than words, argues writer James Geary (1962–) in his book I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary estimates we use a metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words.

“Even the simplest, most unassuming words are capable of bewildering variety of metaphorical mutations. Take ‘shoulder’ for instance. You can give someone the cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder to be constantly looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, stand shoulder to shoulder with your friends or stand head and shoulders above the rest.”

Yet, despite its oft-humble anchoring to otherwise banal words, it is the application of metaphor that becomes so powerful: by conjuring something it is not, it extends our comprehension and indeed consciousness beyond words. This is where metaphor has always found a home, from Shakespeare’s “Juliet was the sun” to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the beginning of which has two metaphors: “our fathers brought forth” and “conceived in liberty.”

When words are unrestrained to their usage, we have poetry. In fact, poetry might well be considered entirely metaphor: “A poet,” stated French poet Arthur Rimbaud, “makes himself a visionary through long, boundless, systematic disorganization of all the senses.” Geary deepens this connection between illusion and poetry:

“Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things—jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike—and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.”

Metaphor is not without its detractors, however; most are found, not surprisingly, during the Age of Reason. Thomas Hobbes famously called metaphor an “abuse of speech” and equated their use with deception:

“We use words metaphorically; that is, in another sense than what they are ordained for; and thereby deceiving others … Reasoning upon [metaphor] is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt.”

John Locke adumbrated the pitfalls of ghastly metaphors:

“If we could speak of things as they are, we must allow that all art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats.”

“Metaphors,” Geary argues in return, “are astonishingly precise. Nothing is as exact as an apt metaphor. Even the most mundane metaphors contain finely detailed descriptions, hidden deposits of knowledge that a quick dig into a word’s etymology will turn up.” This poetic relationship between word and meaning thrives, as long as we recognize its existence. Although research suggests that not only do humans not forget the original meaning of a word (a condition of cognitive psychology known as the Stroop Effect) when they see a metaphor, it also suggests they do not forget the metaphorical meaning. There is a conflicting interpretation, an etymological cloudiness, that can, although it elevates the language itself, distance us from those with whom we are communicating.

The weakness in metaphor is we forget it exists and, yet, increasingly call on them to perform basic functions of communication.

Many of us have felt awash in metaphor lately with the unfolding political drama. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, never one praised for his policy specifics, descends into very unsatisfactory vagueness in his Presidential victory speech when he addresses the wave of anger, animosity, and division in America with: “Now it is time to bind the wounds of division.” That sounds aspirational, but what does it mean? Probably, like most politicians, Trump doesn’t know himself, and the words are placeholders. He continues to talk about “rebuilding America,” an equally vague term. As it is in politics, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. (One of my favorite British metaphors that means “real value should be judged from results, not appearance.”)

We all expect and accept metaphor in politics—it’s the nature of rhetoric, after all. And there is much hope and possibility conveyed in political metaphors. But in other areas, metaphors can remove us from truth with harmful effects. This obfuscation was the essence of Susan Sontag’s seminal Illness as Metaphor, in which she suggests metaphors are so conceptual (i.e., far from literal) they lead people to perceive illnesses as conceptual, too; not biological or pathological but something patients brought upon themselves due to abstractions like personalities or moods. This applies to depression as well: metaphors such as “depression as a battle” fall short of conveying exact, and therefore easily-understood meaning.

The same metaphor that Lincoln (and every politician, subsequently) used to elevate our concept of nation to the realm of something sublime, spiritual, is a device that ignores the precise reality of illness and suffering. The danger lies, Geary argues, not in metaphor but in people. He separates metaphor into three categories: active (illusion is real, delightful, interesting), dormant (we recognize the metaphor but it’s become a cliche and thus impotent), and extinct (we cease to recognize the non-literal meaning altogether—indeed, it becomes a way of thought, not words).

So has metaphor run amok? Have we abandoned truth in the pursuit of poetry?

Hardly. Speech is as lush as ever, and it is our ability to transform it, reconfigure it, that makes it so supple, vibrant, and effective. That being said, I recommend we remember Sigmund Freud, an individual who developed an entire medical specialty predicated on the fact that almost everything signifying something else reminds us that “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

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Fiction is rife with metaphor. Before the realism movement of the late 1900s, metaphor was perhaps more obvious, consider The Scarlet Letter or Frankenstein compared to the almost oblique – but still present – metaphor of writings of John Cheever or Raymond Carver.  Art itself is merely different methods to convey humanity’s subtext, metaphor is the tool artists use. For example, I used metaphor recently in The Gift, or The Language of Water, stories ostensibly about banal everyday life. Except, of course they aren’t at all. When we forget metaphor is metaphor, we are in danger of allocating human-like qualities to non-human entities and absurdity results, something I explored in my short fiction The Weird Dating Habits of Crows.


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