The fourth post in a series on metaphor

Humans establish meaning by transferring properties from one object to another through metaphor. But, there’s something odd about this property-transfer action–the fact that it’s unidirectional. Why does “Meghan is a rock” work, while “a rock is Meghan” doesn’t?

The reason is found in the Great Chain Metaphor.

We think of humans as higher order beings than animals, animals as higher than plants, and plants as higher than inanimate substances. With each of these levels, there are higher and lower sub-levels, so that dogs are higher order beings than insects and trees are higher than algae…Thus, where a being falls in the scale of beings depends strictly on it’s highest property.1

This concept is powerful because somehow, humans understand it innately. We understand that a) our species sits at the top of the stack and b) such a position affords us the benefit of containing all of the properties of the levels below us. That’s a ton to unpack, so let’s start with an example like the property of life.

Humans, animals and plants share the property of life, but the “level” of that life varies. While people, cats and geraniums can all grow, eat, age and die, plants live in one location, cats always land on their feet, and people can drive cars. So, although all three share the property of life, animal and plant life is more restrictive than human life.

And while inanimate objects don’t possess the property of life, they still share other properties with their higher order cousins. Consider that all groups (humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects) are built with matter, thus share the properties of elements, molecules, and compounds. Which brings us back to Meghan.

Since Meghan sits on top of the Great Chain Metaphor, she possesses all of the properties of animals, vegetables, and minerals, and thus has the capacity to accept the transfer of any of their properties. She can have the heart of a lion, the flexibility of a fern, or the strength of a rock. However, since lions, ferns and rocks only contain a subset of Meghan’s properties, the ability to transfer her vast set of properties to them is limited.

In other words, metaphoric properties flow up the Great Chain, not down.


1. Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. Kindle Location: 3171 of 4619

Photo Credit: Frees, Harry Whittier, photographer. Planting Time. , ca. 1914. June 24. Photograph.