We Use “Good” and “Bad” Metaphorically

The second post in a series on metaphor

Last post, we described how humans use metaphor to transfer the properties of one thing to another. Today we discuss the value-judgments that we make with respect to those properties.

Metaphor works because we all share one thing: the human condition. While today’s zeitgeist is hyper-focused on our human differences, it’s easy to lose sight on the vast similarities that we share as a species. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain how.

“We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by their surfaces. Thus, we also view them as containers with an inside and an outside.”1

We–and I mean everyone independent of race, religion, culture or creed–are autonomous beings, wandering through the world and thus experiencing the same physical phenomena. The sun comes up every morning and sets every night. We go to bed at night and wake up in the morning. When we get out of bed, gravity holds our feet to the ground and the friction between our feet and the floor allows us to propel forward rather than slipping and falling. We breathe in a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. When we touch a hot stove we pull away quickly, yet when we experience the embrace of a warm hug, we pull closer and linger.

We rely on our five senses to navigate through this world through our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. All rely on measuring differences–in light (sight); sound pressure (hearing), flavor (taste), hardness, texture, temperature, weight (touch), and fragrances (smell). Because our senses are built upon determining differences, we make value-judgments and categorize some as pleasant (good) and others as unpleasant (bad).

 

Sight: Without light, our ability to see is rendered useless, thus more light is perceived as better than less light. Since we prefer brightly lit objects in focus to dimly lit blurry ones, we categorize the former as good and the latter as bad. For example, take a look at the following metaphoric properties based on the sense of sight.

  • Bright hope
  • Dim despair
  • Sharp argument
  • Fuzzy logic

 

Sound: Our ears discern differences in sound pressures–the larger difference, the louder the sound. Since loud sounds startle while soft sounds soothe, we associate loud with bad and soft with good. But, there’s some additional subtlety here because not all soft sounds are pleasant. Certain musical notes played simultaneously clash, while others form beautiful harmonies. Consider the following metaphoric properties based on the sense of hearing.

  • Soft-spoken words
  • Loud-mouthed diatribe
  • Harmonious voices
  • Discordant views

 

Touch: Our sense of touch helps determine differences in texture, hardness, temperature, and weight. We associate those that bring pleasure as good (smooth, soft, warm, light), and those that don’t (jagged, solid, hot/cold, heavy) as bad.

  • Rough patch
  • Smooth sailing
  • Hard edge
  • Soft landing
  • Warm hands
  • Cold heart
  • Heavy response
  • Light touch

 

Taste: Our sense of taste helps us discern five different flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. We consider some to be more pleasurable (good) than others (bad), like:

  • Sweet melody
  • Sour note
  • Bitter defeat
  • Salty language
  • Savory victory

 

Smell: Our noses can discern trillions of different scents–some that we enjoy (good) and others that we don’t (bad), as in:

  • Fishy concept
  • Sniff test
  • Love stinks (yeah, yeah)

 

We’re autonomous beings, wandering through the same physical environment with the help of our five senses. We associate properties with the things that we encounter and simultaneously attach the concept of good and bad to them. Finally, we convey new meaning to other autonomous beings by transferring these properties and value judgments through metaphor. 

 

Notes:

Photo Credit: U.S. Lithograph Co, and Chas. H Yale. Chas. H. Yale’s everlasting Devil’s auction. , ca. 1904. Cincinnati ; New York: U.S. Lithograph Co. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014635390/.

1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 2003) Kindle e-book location 521/4362

Storytellers Don’t Underestimate the Power of Metaphor

 

This is the first of a multi-part series on metaphor

Metaphor. It’s both misunderstood and underappreciated. And while most people have an elementary understanding of it–the act of describing one thing in terms of something totally different–they stop there, failing to recognize the fundamental role that it plays in human thought, understanding, and communications. Therefore, it’s finally time to give metaphor the proper respect that it deserves by digging into how it interacts with our cognitive processes.

Greek words metaphora (a transfer) and metapherein “to transfer” offer better starting points because rather than describing one thing in terms of another, metaphors transfer the properties of one thing to another.

We learn new properties everyday. For example, have you ever picked up a stone, stubbed your toe on one, or used one to hold a stack of paper napkins from flying away in the breeze? Each of these experiences helps us ascribe new properties to stones. Over the years we’ve noted that stones are both hard and heavy. They retain temperature, which makes them useful for stone-fired ovens and stone-cold ice cream. Big stones hard to move, but once they get rolling, they’re hard to stop. Stones sink in water, but when thrown at precisely the right angle, they can skip multiple times across a pond. Humans have applied these properties to hammer tent stakes, add ballast to ships, and construct stone buildings.

If metaphor is the root of all human understanding, then properties are the roots of all metaphors. Those who want to share a new idea, make a point, or teach a new concept must first figure out how to transfer the universally-known properties of one thing to something else.

For example, if you wanted to describe your friend’s emotional strength, you might say something like, “Meghan’s a rock.” Of course, you aren’t establishing an equivalence between Meghan and a rock, but rather, you’re transferring properties of rocks (strength and solidness) to represent her fortitude.

There’s also something special to note with respect to this idea of equivalence and transfer. Property transfers only go in one direction. For example:

We can interchange the following statements as equivalent: Twelve is a dozenA dozen is twelve, but, we can’t do the same with: Meghan is a rockA rock is Meghan.

The former defines two things as equivalent. The latter transfers properties one way from an inanimate object to a person.

Metaphor is much more than a creative writing technique. It’s the bedrock of all human understanding. We’ll continue to dive deeper over a series of upcoming posts.

 

Photo Credit: Frost, A. B. , Artist. Man Unloading Stones from Sledge. , None. [Between 1870 and 1928] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010715887/