Thinking in Metaphors

Mixed Metaphor; Getty Images

“Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (2003)

A challenge in the recognition of language as a way of knowing is the use of metaphor in communicative acts.  A metaphor is the substitution of one idea for another to suggest resemblances or common connotative qualities. In this section, you will see that metaphor can also refer more broadly to a wide body of figures of speech that involve comparison, non-real or non-literal association. On occasion a well chosen metaphor is just what is required to convey meaning: at other times, it seems strange to assume that we can gain knowledge or understanding through language that is literally not true. The idea that our way of thinking about the world and expressing our reality is done in metaphor is one you can discuss after reading a couple of the articles in this section:

Class Activity

What metaphors do you use in your daily life? Do you use sports metaphors or war metaphors? Read this article and collect all the examples of metaphors you can find. Discuss what meanings they bring to the text, and whether you think this type of language is characteristic of all such sports writing.

Paper 1 Text Type: Sports Reports


Learner Portfolio

Write a poem or piece of prose (such as a sports report) that gives you an opportunity to use figurative language extensively. Fill your piece with metaphors, similes, idioms, oxymorons, hyperboles, onomatopoeia and personifications.

Body of Work: Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize Lecture

Toni Morrison died on August 5th, 2019 at the age of 88. Morrison’s books changed lives, capturing American life and its history in a peerless way — her works are so loved and resonant that they often (rightfully) eclipse the awards and recognition we bestow upon them. In 1993, Morrison was awarded the most prestigious award on the planet. She was the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import.”

In accepting that award, Morrison, keenly and so eloquently, described the importance of language in our lives. Her lecture is a fable about the power of language to elucidate and cloud, to oppress and liberate, to honour and sully, and to both quantify and be incapable of capturing a human experience. It’s the way humans wield their powerful tool of language that makes any form of expression so magical, Morrison explains.

“We die,” she says. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” 

Perhaps there’s no better way to remember Morrison than how clearly and beautifully she understood the power of language:

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt:

Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

This lecture would make a great non-literary text to use in this assessed activity. The author of the work would be ‘Toni Morrison.’ Depending on the direction of your research, the text could appeal to a number of Global Issues, such as Art, Creativity and Imagination or Beliefs, Values and Education. Extracts from the literary texts you are studying that would make good pairs might be any that also explore the power of language, metaphor or originality, and here are some ideas which may be worth pursuing. As always, speak to your teacher before you start to write in too much detail:

  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – the whole play is a celebration of the power of language, but we see clearly in Act 3 how Liza uses language to affirm her sense of identity and Higgins talks to his mother in the same act about using language to ‘fill up the gap that separates soul from soul.’


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