Metaphors We Live By

I discovered this book, “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson after an aside by Dr Joan Mulholland during a university lecture sometime in the 1990s – if you’re interested, you might find this book interesting – so I jotted down the name and checked it out in the library.

As a child at school, I was always intensely frustrated by the claim that synonyms mean the same thing.  Of course they don’t or there’d be no reason for all the various words to exist. There is a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, difference in the meaning of each word so they don’t mean the same thing at all. But how does a child explain that to someone who claims to be a knowledgeable authority?

This book finally provided me with the language to explain how the meanings are different, and why that is so important. It talks about metaphor, not as a poetic device that we use to show how clever we are, but as an intrinsic and unavoidable part of language itself.

Think about the description of the people in news stories.  Not just words reflecting their ethnicity, but terms like boy, mother of 2, father of 3, elderly woman, illegal immigrant, unionists. What makes them choose those “synonyms” and what effect does it have on the reader?

Advertising, political speeches and other openly persuasive communication present countless examples as they carefully choose words to imply attributes.  But so, too, does everyday communication – everytime we speak, or write, or email, we use metaphors to shape our message, to persuade, to flatter, to antagonise and insult. Try as we might, there is no neutral or purely objective in language.

So to pass on the favour, if you are interested in language, writing, journalism, media, politics, relationships and communication, you might find this book interesting. Journalists might like to start with a light version just for them, Don’t Think of an Elephant, about how language shapes the agenda in news.

You can find out more on George Lakoff’s website.