Mixing Memory

Idioms, Metaphors, and Lakoff, Oh My!

Sometimes I forget that not everyone who happens upon this blog today has been reading it from day one (I mean come on, why haven’t you?). It surprises me, then, when people tell me they’ve seen no evidence that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s conceptual metaphor theory is, well, wrong. I guess I think that since I’ve been posting about such evidence for two years, and I remember those posts, everyone else must as well. Once I realize that not all of you have been reading Mixing Memory from day 1, I think, “I should write some more posts on the evidence,” but then I remember something else: I’m lazy. So instead of writing a new post, I thought I’d give you one from the old blog on some really interesting work by Boaz Keysar and his colleagues. It was posted on the old blog on November 9, 2004. Enjoy.

Idioms, Metaphors, and Lakoff, Oh My!

Now that the election is over, it’s safe to talk about Lakoff and his theory of metaphor, but before I get to that, I want to talk about idioms. Idiomatic expressions are interesting because in many cases the connection between them and their meaning is not always obvious. Take the idiom “kicked the bucket.” What does kicking the bucket have to do with death? There are all sorts of folk etymologies constructed for these sorts of idioms (e.g., kicking a bucket on which one stands to hang oneself), but for the most part, the real phrase-meaning connection remains elusive1. For practical purposes, it might seem as though these connections don’t matter; convention has established a meaning for idiomatic expressions, and people are able to learn them even when the expressions are opaque, as is “kicked the bucket.” However, it turns out that the tendency to search for the connections between idiomatic expressions and their conventional meanings is in fact imporant for both practical and theoretical reasons. To demonstrate why, I’ll quickly describe some experiments on idiom comprehension. Afterwards, I’ll talk a little about the implications of this experiment, and some others, for Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory.

Keysar and Bly 2 gave participants unfamiliar idioms3 in contexts that implied one of two meanings for the idioms. Half of the participants read the idiom with one meaning, and the other half with another. Afterwards, participants were asked to rate how likely it was that the idioms could have another meaning. Keysar and Bly found that after exposure to one meaning, participants; ratings of the likelihood that the expression could have another meaning were much lower (than another set of participants who read the idioms without being given a meaning). This effect grew stronger the more participants were exposed to the first meaning of the idiom. Furthermore, participants spontaneously constructed explanations for the meanings of the idioms. For instance, when given the idiom “the goose hangs high” in a context in which it meant that things were going well, participants might interpret it as meaning “there is a freshly-killed goose hanging in the larder, and so there will be plenty of food.” When asked how likely it was that “the goose hangs high” meant things were not going well, participants who had been given the “things are going well” meaning rated this as very unlikely. Thus it appears that because people assume that there is a connection between the expression and its conventional meaning (and even construct explanations for this connection), and that people have a difficult time believing that the idiom could have another meaning once they’ve given it an interpretation.

While plausible, peoples’ inferences about the literal meanings of the idiomatic expressions in the Keysar and Bly experiment were not based on any real evidence. Instead, they were “best guesses” based on the expression itself and the meaning it was given. One of the motivations for this experiment was to argue that this is the sort of thing that appears to be going on in cognitive linguistics when people like Lakoff and Johnson interpret conventional expressions such as those that use the language of war to talk about arguments (e.g., “The debate teams battled hard”). According to Lakoff and Johnson, such expressions are instantiations of conceptual metaphors (in this case, the “argument is war” metaphor). When people interpret these conventional expressions, they are making conceptual mappings between the domain being discussed (e.g., arguments) and a base domain (e.g., war). Under this view, this how we understand these expressions each time we hear them (i.e., we have to make the mappings for the expressions to make sense). Keysar and Bly argue that at most, these interpretations (specifically Lakoff and Johnson’s interpretations) of conventional expressions are post hoc inferences like those the participants made about the meaning of “the goose hangs high.” Instead of making the conceptual mappings implied by Lakoff and Johnson’s intepretations of such statements, people (including Lakoff and Johnson) may build these interpretations after comprehension. The metaphorical mapping between arguments and wars is not actually part of the meaning of the expression itself, but merely a spontaneous explanation of that meaning. Here’s a further explanation of the differences between the two views, from Keysar et al.4:

To point out the difference between the two alternatives, consider Lakoff and Johnson’s claim that “it is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments [. . .] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.” Our alternative claim is that we usually do “just talk” about arguments using terms that are also used to talk about war. Put more simply, the words that we use to talk about war and to talk about arguments are polysemous, but systematically related. Just as a word such as depress can be used to talk about either physical depression or emotional depression, words such as win or lose can be used to talk about arguments, wars, gambling, and romances, with no necessary implication that any one of these domains provides the conceptual underpinning for any or all of the others. The bottom line is that conventional expressions can be understood directly, without recourse to underlying conceptual mappings. Thus, when we say that an argument is right on target we do “just talk” about arguments using terms that we also happen to use when we talk about war–and music, art, literature, journalism, film criticism, and any other human activity in which something can be more or less on target. (p. 578)

Things get still worse for Lakoff and Johnson when we consider more empirical evidence. The fact that people spontaneously produce post hoc interpretations of the meanings of conventional expressions calls into question Lakoff and Johnson’s own metaphorical interpretations of such expressions, but it doesn’t show that people aren’t actually making the conceptual mappings Lakoff and Johnson say they are. However, other findings make it clear that people really aren’t making these sorts of conceptual mappings. For instance, in one set of experiments, McGlone5 asked participants to paraphrase conventional metaphorical expressions like those about arguments that use terminology from the war domain. Participants produced paraphrases that were consistent with the meaning of the expression (e.g., a long lively argument), but rarely produced paraphrases that said anything about the base domain (e.g., talk about war), implying that no mappings had occurred.

In another set of experiments, Keysar et al. had people read scenarios that contained either no mapping, an implicit mapping (i.e., they used language that Lakoff and Johnson argue involves the instatiation of a conceptual metaphor, but the metaphor itself was not made explicit in the sentences), or an explicit mapping (same as in the implicit condition, but with the metaphor itself as one of the sentences in the scenario). Example scenarios from the “love is a patient” metaphor are below (from Keysar et al., Table 1):

No mapping “Love is a challenge” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is in trouble. How can we have an enduring marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

Implicit “Love is a challenge” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is on its last legs. How can we have a strong marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

Explicit “Love is a patient,” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is on its last legs. How can we have a strong marriage if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

At the end of each scenario was the same target sentence, which referenced the conceptual mapping. The target sentence for the “love is a patient” scenarios was, “You’re infected with this disease.” Keysar et al. measured reading times for this target sentence, and compared them across conditions. If conceptual mappings occur during the comprehension of the implicit or explicit mapping scenarios, then it should be easier to comprehend the mapping-related target sentence, and therefore reading times for these sentences would be shorter in the two mapping conditions (the literal scenario was included as a manipulation check). If people don’t spontaneously conduct the mapping, but do so when prompted to, then the difference in reading times should only show up in the explicit mapping scenarios. If people aren’t making mappings, then there should be no difference between the no-mapping and mapping scenarios. This last possibility is what Keysar et al. actually found. Reading times did not differ across the three conditions. Thus it appears that people weren’t making the mappings when interpreting statements that should, according to Lakoff and Johnson, require conceptual mappings in order to make sense. They didn’t even make the mappings when they were prompted to by sentences making the mappings explicit. In fact, the only time in which they did appear to make the mappings Lakoff and Johnson say they should occurred in another experiment, in which novel (rather than conventional) metaphorical statements were used. For example, the following is a novel scenario derived from the “love is a patient” metaphor (from Table 1):

Novel “Love is a patient,” said Lisa. “I feel that this relationship is about to flatline. How can we administer the right medicine if you keep admiring other women?” “It’s your jealousy,” said Tom.

When given this scenario, participants did read the target sentence faster than in the no-mapping condition, as well as the implicit and explicit mapping condition. Thus, it appears that novel metaphors do require mappings, while conventional expressions do not.

Where does all of this leave conceptual metaphor theory? Well, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty safe to start treating it as a result of the illusory transparency of conventional expressions, rather than as a good theory of everyday thinking. The evidence overwhelmingly indicates that people simply aren’t performing the conceptual mappings that the Lakoff and Johnson conceptual metaphor theory requires. Fortunately, outside of the cognitive linguistics circle, this is how Lakoff and Johnson’s theory is already viewed. However, Lakoff has bipassed the cognitive science world, and taken his theory straight to the public in the form of his framing analysis of political discourse. This is unfortunate. If we try to do framing the way Lakoff tells us we should, we’re going to quickly run into problems. Lakoff’s entire analysis of the conceptual metaphors underlying the two poles in American politics is probably nothing more than a misguided (and painfully bad) attempt to explain the meaning of “the goose hangs high.” If we try to use these conceptual metaphors to explain and sell the moral underpinnings of our political views, we’re simply not going to activate the desired mappings, as the Keysar et al. experiments show.

1 I’ve heard that “kicked the bucket” has its origins in pig-slaughtering techniques, but I’m not sure how reliable that etymology is either.
2 Keysar, K, & Bly, B. (1995). Intuitions of the transparency of idioms: Can one keep a secret by spilling the beans? Journal of Memory and Language, 34, 89-109.
3 They were actually really, really old idioms that were completely unfamilar to the participants.
4 Keysar, B., Shen, Y., Glucksberg, S., & Horton, W. (2000). Conventional Language: How Metaphorical Is It? Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 576-593.
5 McGlone, M. S. (1996). Conceptual metaphors and figurative language interpretation: Food for thought? Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 544-565.


  1. #1 Joshua
    November 1, 2006

    It’s good to see that my intuition about Lakoff is actually based on something after all. 😉

  2. #2 Joshua
    November 1, 2006

    Now that I’m commenting on it, though, the final result mentioned is pretty interesting. That is, that novel metaphors do produce a mapping. Do Keyser et al. suggest an explanation or has anyone examined how this might affect attempts to create framing?

    In particular, I wonder whether there is any evaluation of the validity of a novel metaphor that mediates the creation of a mapping or whether simply invoking the novel metaphor generates the mapping automatically. Common sensically, one would expect that, on hearing something like “argument is war” for the first time, some mental calculation goes on to decide whether this metaphor makes any sense. But common sense is not always accurate, obviously. It would be interesting to see a study (perhaps one has already been done?) into whether and how the mind calculates the validity of metaphors.

  3. #3 rehana
    November 1, 2006

    “On its last legs” is a strange little expression now that I think about it–as if you have a supply of legs that get used up until you can’t stand any more. I guess it could make sense in a war context: The army is on its last legs.

  4. #4 Jenna
    November 1, 2006

    Have you ever discussed Lakoff with Coturnix?

  5. #5 Chris
    November 1, 2006

    Joshua, the study of when people create mappings, how they create mappings, what those mappings look like, and what they entail (e.g., in terms of the inferences people will make from a comparison) is widely studied. In fact, it’s what I study, and I’ll be talking about it a lot in the next few weeks.

    Jenna, I have talked about Lakoff with him in comments to his posts and mine. At this point, I’m not really sure what Bora digs about Lakoff, but I don’t think it’s the metaphor stuff.

  6. #6 Cayte
    November 1, 2006

    The “love is a battle metaphor” is so stale that it may already be implicit in our network of associations even when it is not invoked. It makes me think of sitcoms where the couple is tossing pillows or smashing plates.

    The “love is a patient” metaphor requires the further clarification of flatline and medicine to make sense.

    A novel but comprehensible metaphor may add meaning that is not yet part of the baggage of a word.
    Using metaphor in politics though can backfire. We all know what “robust interrogation” means so it arouses suspicion in listeners that the politician is not levelling with the public.

  7. #7 Ray Gibbs
    November 2, 2006

    For the sake of accuracy, I think it a terrible injustice to claim that the idea of metaphoric representations is dead within cognitive science. Although my 1994 book,
    “The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and
    understanding” may be “out of date,” the work described there from cognitive psychology and linguistics is indeed
    still relevant. Of course, there are those that disagree with the idea of “metaphoric thought,” but here too, there
    is still a huge amount of evidence from various areas of
    cognitive science to support many of the claims about conceptual metaphor offered by Lakoff and others. To give just one instance, the claim that conventional metaphors are understood “literally” is completely wrong and there is lots of psycholinguistic work to support this position.

    I urge readers of this blog to take a look at my most recent book “Embodiment and cognitive science” for a strong defense of embodied cognition, with some discussion of embodied conceptual metaphors in there as well.

    The reality of the debates over conceptual metaphor theory
    is far more complicated than is seen in the argument between Lakoff and Pinker in their discussion of politics.
    Regardless of whatever readers of this blog may feel about
    that debate, take the time to read more deeply about conceptual metaphor and a more nuanced, positive picture
    of that theory may emerge.



  8. #8 Joshua
    November 2, 2006

    “In fact, it’s what I study, and I’ll be talking about it a lot in the next few weeks.”

    In that case, I’ll be coming back and reading a lot in the next few weeks. 😉

    I think what coturnix and a lot of other liberals dig about Lakoff’s political writing is the implicit assumption he makes that there’s nothing at all wrong with liberal policies and the electoral failure of liberals is entirely due to conservatives winning the framing war. That thinking stands in marked opposition to the other, unfortunately more mainstream idea that liberalism needs to shift towards a “moderate” or “centrist” position to win elections because people inherently prefer moderate candidates.

    I think both positions are wrong, frankly, but that’s rather beyond the scope of what you’re discussing here. (Except insomuch as you’ve attempted to show some of the faults in Lakoff’s framing concept, which informs his recommendations for political manoeuvering.)

  9. #9 Cayte
    November 2, 2006

    Odd. I may have unwittingly provided evidence in favor of metaphor. I misremembered “love is a challenge” as “love is a battle”. Could be challenge and battle are semantically linked.

  10. #10 Jerry Feldman
    November 10, 2006

    Much of this argument is ill formed because it is based on a serial computation, homunuculus based model of thought. People don’t
    “construct” metaphorical mappings – these are activated to varying degrees, depending on conditions. All of the results you mention as well as the priming results (like Gibbs’) that you do not can be accommodated nicely in a theory that takes the computational nature of the brain seriously. You and your readers might want to visit:

  11. #11 Chris
    November 10, 2006

    I think it can be easily accomodated bya computational theory (I see nothing in the data or theory that would be inconsistent with, say, structure mapping theory).

  12. #12 Jerry Feldman
    November 13, 2006

    OK, I have a book that supports my claim. and quite a bit of
    Lakoff’s story. What do you offer that fits all the biological and quantitative behavioral data? We are way beyond the point where being consistent with a qualitative theory is sufficient.

    I hope we can keep this discussion substantive.

  13. #13 Chris
    November 13, 2006

    Well, I do have tons and tons of data: 20+ years of structure mapping research, and 40 years of concept research, backing me up. But I haven’t read your book, so I’ll have to check it out first.

New comments have been disabled.