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Beyond Milton: Discover the real magic of metaphor

Introductory Articles

by Judy Rees, February 2007

Are you and your clients missing out on the true magic of metaphor? If you still think that metaphor means telling stories to change people, it’s time to think again.

There’s a whole other world of metaphor for you to explore.

Linked to latest work in cognitive linguistics, it amounts to a new way of thinking about the way people think. And it opens new realms of possibility for personal change and growth.

Why metaphor?

Try this. Take a handful of coins from your pocket, and take a look at them. Notice their different shapes, colours and weights. Notice the jangling sound they make. What do they mean to you? The price of a cup of coffee?

Now take those same coins and arrange them to represent you and your family or closest friends.

Take a moment to write down what principles you used to do this. How did you choose what coin represented what? Is the size of the coins significant? The colour? And what about the spatial arrangement?

Now imagine that, for reasons beyond your control, you have to take one of them away.

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What just happened?

Notice that you had no difficulty representing people using coins. That is, that you used the coins as a metaphor for people.

And notice that, once they had taken on that representation, taking one away had emotional significance, at least to some degree.

This simple exercise hints at a point of crucial importance.

We easily and naturally tend to think of one thing in terms of another: that is, we think in metaphor.

The metaphor revolution

Like me, you probably learned in school that metaphor was just an interesting twist in language, something the best writers used to spice up their work.

But in the last 25 years or so, the way leading experts think about metaphor has been transformed, following the revolutionary book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

And their conclusion, since supported by a mass of evidence across the cognitive linguistics field, was that metaphor is at the heart of the way we think. They observed: “Metaphoric thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious.”

Metaphoric language was simply a side-effect of metaphoric thought.

It’s as if we cannot think of ‘things’ directly, but tend to think of one thing in terms of another. We think of love in terms of warmth, time in terms of space, and so on.

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