Volume III, Number 1, Spring 2007

"Studying American Culture through its Metaphors: Dimensions of Variation and Frames of Experience" by Zoltán Kövecses

Zoltán Kövecses is Professor of Linguistics at the Department of American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Email: zkovecses@ludens.elte.hu

What I would like to do in this paper is to show that metaphor is a potentially important tool in the study of American culture (and, of course, in that of any culture in general). I will introduce two notions related to metaphor that seem to me to be especially promising in this task: dimensions of metaphor variation and metaphoric frames of experience. The usefulness of the former is in revealing distinct patterns of thought within American culture and society, whereas the main value of the latter is in reflecting alternative ways of seeing the “same thing.”

Dimensions of metaphor variation

Like any complex society, American society is structured in a large number of ways. Americans are members of groups that have more or less social power; they belong to different ethnic groups; they live in geographical regions that leave their mark on the groups of people inhabiting the region; they pursue similar jobs with many other people; they observe certain customs and conventions in particular situations in which they communicate with others; and, of course, they all have their own idiosyncrasies as individual human beings. These divisions of the complexities of social and cultural life are well known to sociologists, anthropologists, and others. They are also well known to sociolinguists who study variation in the use of language. All of these scholars point out that languages reveal a great deal of variation according to these and other divisions of society. They also tell us that languages vary because the experiences of the people divided by these dimensions of experience vary. So if it is true, that metaphors reveal and, in some cases, constitute human experience (see Kövecses, 2005a), then we should expect metaphors, both of the conceptual and linguistic kind, to vary according to these social divisions. Indeed, this will be my hypothesis in the present paper. I will suggest that an obvious place to look for variation in metaphor in American culture are the social, cultural, stylistic, individual, etc. dialects and varieties that have been identified by sociolinguists, linguistic anthropologists, and other researchers of language variation in a social and cultural context. I will call these various divisions of social and cultural life “dimensions”—either social, cultural, regional, etc. dimensions, or, correspondingly, dimensions of metaphor variation.

The social dimension

Social dimensions include the differentiation of society into men and women, young and old, middle-class and working class, and so forth. Do men, the young, or the middle-class in American society use different metaphors than women, the old, or the working-class? At present we do not have the relevant studies from a cognitive linguistic perspective. But we do have some indication that some of these social factors might produce variation in metaphorical conceptualization.

One example of this is the men-woman dimension. This dimension seems to be operative in several distinct cases: the way men talk about women, the way women talk about men, the way men and women talk about women, the way men and women talk about the world in general (i.e., not only about the other). In (American) English, it is common for men to use expressions such as bunny, kitten, bird, chick, cookie, dish, sweetie pie, and many others, of women. These metaphorical expressions assume certain conceptual metaphors: WOMEN ARE (SMALL) FURRY ANIMALS (bunny, kitten), WOMEN ARE BIRDS (bird, chick, hen-party), and WOMEN ARE SWEET FOOD (cookie, dish, sweetie pie). However, when women talk about men, they do not appear to use these metaphors of men, or use them in a more limited way. Men are not called bunnies or kittens by women. Neither are men characterized as birds or chicks, but they can be thought of as LARGE FURRY ANIMALS instead, such as bears. And women are more commonly viewed by men as SWEET FOOD than men are by women, although women can also sometimes describe men as FOOD, especially in a sexual context.

Men’s and women’s metaphors may also differ when they conceptualize other aspects of the world. In two fascinating books, Annette Kolodny (1975, 1984) shows us that American men and women had significantly different metaphorical images of the frontier in the period between 1630 and 1860 (I’m indebted to Enikő Bollobás for drawing my attention to Kolodny’s work.) Men thought of the frontier as a virgin land to be taken, whereas women as a garden to be cultivated. Based on her careful examination of hundreds of literary and non-literary documents in the period, Kolodny concludes:

Later, they [the women] eagerly embraced the open and rolling prairies of places like Illinois and Texas as a garden ready-made. Avoiding for a time male assertions of a rediscovered Eden, women claimed the frontiers as a potential sanctuary for an idealized domesticity. Massive exploitation and alteration of the continent do not seem to have been part of women’s fantasies. They dreamed, more modestly, of locating a home and a familial human community within a cultivated garden. (Kolodny, 1984: xiii)

In light of the massive abuse of the North American continent today, we may note, together with Kolodny, that one wishes that the metaphor of the frontier that characterized women’s writing had had more influence on shaping the policies that have governed or regulated the relationship between people and the environment in the North American continent.

The general point of these examples is this: A language community may employ differential metaphorical conceptualization along a social division that is relevant in that society. As we saw above, the particular division of members of a society into men and women may be reflected in various ways of differentially treating men and women in metaphorical language and thought. We can perhaps hypothesize that the more varied these ways are, the more important or entrenched the particular division is. Furthermore, it makes sense to believe that when a particular metaphorical conceptualization is linguistically obligatory for all the participants of the division (e.g., both men and women), the more deeply entrenched it is likely to be.

The ethnic dimension

Metaphorical conceptualization appears to vary from ethnic group to ethnic group in American society (and this factor can also possibly combine with various social factors, such as men-women, working class-middle class). One would expect that variation along the ethnic dimension should especially be noticeable in societies with highly segregated ethnic groups. Another interesting aspect of the ethnic factor is to see whether and how the metaphors that have been created by a particular ethnic group become integrated into another group, and why. The answers to these questions could be used as the first steps to a sociology and sociolinguistics of metaphor in the cognitive linguistic paradigm. The ethnic factor may play an important role in creating “speaking styles” that are highly metaphorical. One such speaking style is “playing the dozens” in the Black English Vernacular. The following is a sample from a more extended conversation (taken from Kochman, 1981: 55):

Pretty Black: “What’chu laughing ‘bout Nap, with your funky mouth smelling like dog shit.”
Nap: “Your mama motherfucker.”
Pretty Black: “Your funky mama too.”
Nap (strongly): “It takes twelve barrels of water to make a steamboat run; it takes an elephant’s dick to make your Grandmammy come; she been elephant fucked, camel fucked and hit side the head with your Grandpappy’s nuts.”

Playing the dozens is a competitive conversational situation in which the participants attempt to outdo each other. The example demonstrates the social relevance of metaphorical creativity. The success of the participants depends on verbal and conceptual skills in producing metaphorical imagery at the expense of the other. In other words, in this particular speaking style that is characteristic of certain segments of African-American youth culture metaphorical creativity is emphasized and is a precondition for success.

The regional dimension

It seems that regional varieties of the same language also reveal metaphor variation. Regional varieties can be national or local dialects. One would expect certain differences of metaphorical patterns in both. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no work done on the issue in local varieties. There has been some work done on national varieties.
We can observe differences in metaphorical conceptualization in national dialects. This has several aspects: the choice of expressions reflecting the same conceptual metaphor might differ; conceptual metaphors might differ for the same target; one national dialect may influence metaphorical conceptualization in another; and so on. For example, Americans use a metaphorical expression for anger that is a low-level specific variant of the general ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER (or even more generally, of the metaphor THE ANGRY PERSON IS A PRESSURIZED CONTAINER): have a cow, while the British use have kittens. Both expressions are motivated by the same conceptual metaphor, but the actual linguistic expressions differ.

Furthermore, since its emergence as a national dialect in the 19th century American English seems to have had a greater impact on British English in terms of metaphorical conceptualization than British English on American English (see Kövecses, 2000). There are a large number of metaphorical expressions used in British English that originated in American English. The English spoken in Britain was carried to North America by the settlers. The frequently observed “freshness” and imaginative “vigor” of American English have been noted by many authors. Among several others, Baugh and Cable (1983) provide a useful comment:

He [the American] is perhaps at his best when inventing simple homely words like apple butter, sidewalk, and lightning rod, spelling bee and crazy quilt, low-down, and know-nothing, or when striking off a terse metaphor like log rolling, wire pulling, to have an ax to grind, to be on the fence. ... The American early manifested the gift, which he continues to show, of the imaginative, slightly humorous phrase. To it we owe to bark up the wrong tree, to face the music, fly off the handle, go on the warpath, bury the hatchet, come out at the little end of the horn, saw wood, and many more, with the breath of the country and sometimes of the frontier about them. In this way, the American began his contributions to the English language, ... (p. 365)

Many of these and other metaphorical expressions in American English owe their existence to the new landscape the settlers encountered, the many new activities they engaged in, and the frontier experience in general.

The style dimension

By “style” I mean linguistic variation according to the communicative setting, subject matter, medium, audience, etc. It is an open question whether metaphors are used differentially along these dimensions or factors. Some examples seem to suggest that some, or maybe most, of the factors can be regarded as dimensions along which metaphors vary.

Let us take subject matter or topic as our illustration of the point. Jean Aitchison (1987) noted that it commonly occurs that in newspaper articles and headlines about American football games the names of the teams may select particular metaphors for defeat and victory. Here are some examples from Aitchison (1987: 143): “Cougars drown Beavers,” “Cowboys corral Buffaloes,” “Air Force torpedoes the Navy,” “Clemson cooks Rice.” These are headlines from American newspapers describing American football games. Metaphors used in these sentences are selected on the basis of the names of football teams. Since beavers live in water, defeat can be metaphorically viewed as drowning; since cowboys corral cattle, the opponent can be corralled; since navy ships can be torpedoed, the opponent can be torpedoed, too; and since rice can be cooked, the same process can be used to describe the defeat of the opponent. The metaphors in the above sentences indicate that the target domain of defeat can be variously expressed as drowning, corralling, etc., the choice being dependent on the meaning of the sentences’ constituents (or, loosely, the subject matter or topic).

The subcultural dimension

Subcultures often define themselves in contradistinction to mainstream culture and, often, they can in part be defined by the metaphors they use. And sometimes the self-definition of a subculture involves the unique metaphorical conceptualization of important concepts on which the separateness of the subculture is based. Some of the most obvious subcultures consist of closely-knit religious groups. The tight cohesion of the group often assumes the acceptance of core values and key ideas that are based on particular conceptual metaphors. Let us briefly examine one of these groups as described by American anthropologist Victor Balaban (1999).

In mainstream American society people are taken to be “agents with coherent intentions” (Balaban, 1999: 130). If they behave in ways that do not suggest this notion of agency, they are regarded as mentally and emotionally unstable. The notion that a person must exhibit agency with coherent intentions in his behavior leads to an understanding of mental illness: People who lack agency with coherent intentions are mentally unstable or deranged. Now some religious subcultures in American society work under the communicative pressure of reducing their agency by reason of being members of the subculture. However, if they do that, they are branded by mainstream society as being mentally unstable.

One such group is the people who regularly attend a Marian apparition site. These pilgrims give accounts of miraculous signs that they have experienced. At their meetings, they tell each other about the divine events that happened to them, the miraculous visions and thoughts they had, etc. They give accounts of knowledge that comes from outside their selves; they do not function as agents in the thoughts that they experienced. The knowledge that they possess comes from an outside agent. But they have to face a problem here: A lack of coherent agency indicates in mainstream American society that a person is mentally unstable. For this reason, the pilgrims to the Marian apparition site must conform to two contradictory pressures. In the words of Balaban (1999): “… the pilgrims in Conyers need to assert that their thoughts or feelings come from an outside agent, but at the same time make clear the speaker’s control over his/her own mind” (p. 130). How can this dilemma be resolved? The pilgrims have to use language that simultaneously presents them as nonvolitional speakers (to maintain the view of the divine nature of their experiences) and, at the same time, as reliable sources of authentic knowledge (to maintain the view that they are not unstable). What specific linguistic devices can accomplish this complicated task? Balaban suggests the hypothesis that a very important device that they use for this purpose is nonvisual metaphors for knowledge.

Perhaps the most common metaphor for knowledge among mainstream Americans, and, as we know, for many other cultures (Sweetser, 1990), is KNOWING IS SEEING (as in “I see what you mean” and “This much is crystal clear”). Seeing is a perceptual domain. Other perceptual domains include taste, touch, hearing, and smelling. Why is knowledge predominantly understood as seeing? It is because seeing is “associated with more certain and direct knowledge, while other senses are more associated with indirect and inferred knowledge” (Balaban, 1999: 132). For example, hearing mainly has to do with understanding language and influencing people (as in, “I hear you”) and touch with emotional experience (as in “I was touched”). These verbs emphasize less intellectual ways of knowledge than seeing does. The vision metaphor produces an intellectual kind of knowledge that comes from the active and focused functioning of the visual system. The active agent that is presupposed by this metaphor would be, as Balaban suggests, inappropriate for the pilgrims, who attempt to portray themselves as passive but reliable sources of their divine knowledge. Within the category of nonvisual metaphor Balaban also included what he called biological (nonperceptual) metaphors (as in, “I knew it in my heart”), nonbiological (as in “The doors in my mind opened”), and an unspecified group (as in “I could tell things were changing”). Balaban’s hypothesis is, then, that the pilgrims will use more nonvisual than visual metaphors in the accounts of their divine knowledge, thereby satisfying contradictory demands of both their own group and those of the larger mainstream culture.

To test this hypothesis, Balaban collected 191 narratives from pilgrims in Conyers, Georgia and from the Apparition-list. Four categories of narratives were distinguished: (1) face-to-face religious narratives, (2) face-to-face secular narratives, (3) un-elicited on-line religious narratives, and (4) elicited on-line religious narratives. The metaphors were then analyzed in four types of narratives.

The overall result of the study was that pilgrims in Conyer used substantially more non-visual than visual metaphors, thus confirming the initial hypothesis offered by Balaban. This finding, although not conclusive, shows that pilgrims may employ more nonvisual than visual metaphor in order to meet two different cultural pressures: (a) to present themselves as people who have undergone a major religious transformation in the capacity of nonvolitional and passive persons, but (b) to suggest that they nevertheless have reliable and authentic religious knowledge that distinguishes them from people outside the group.
More generally, the study shows how the use of metaphors by subcultures may depend on sometimes contradictory pressures that influence a social group from the outside.

The individual dimension

It is a fairly common observation that the metaphor usage of key cultural figures, such as presidents and media stars, as well as that of writers and poets can differ markedly from one person to another. A recent illustration of this point comes from Time magazine that lists some of the metaphors that anchorman Dan Rather of CBS used in his 2001 election coverage. Here are some examples of his metaphors from Time magazine (Time, November 20, 2001):

The presidential campaign is
“… still hotter than a Laredo parking lot.”
“has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field.”
“… will be madder than a rained-on rooster …”
“… is sweeping through the South like a tornado through a trailer park.”

We can assume that, among the star journalists and anchormen, these metaphors are fairly specific to Rather’s metaphorical repertoire. The images that are used seem to reflect Rather’s southern upbringing. I do not know whether other reporters who also come from the south use or would use the exact same metaphors to describe the election campaign. The fact that the metaphors were noted and commented on by the magazine shows that there is something unique or peculiar about them and that they are likely to characterize a particular person.

The creative use of metaphor has a great deal to do with individual variation in metaphor. Individuals often have experiences that do not conform to conventional patterns captured by conventional conceptual metaphors. A part of the creative genius lies in the ability to extend the range of particular target domains. One target domain that figures importantly in poetry is that of “life.” There are a number of conventional source domains for this target (see, Lakoff and Turner, 1989; Kövecses, 2005b), including WAR, PRECIOUS POSSESSION, and JOURNEY. However, poets and artists often come up with novel source domains in their various understandings of the concept. A nice example of this is Emily Dickinson’s version of a life metaphor: “My life has stood – A Loaded Gun / In Corners.” This is a novel source domain that extends the range of the source domains associated with the target domain of life.

But it would be a mistake to believe that it is only a select few, a creative elite whose language and thought exhibits individual variation in the use of metaphor. The phenomenon can be observed in perfectly “ordinary” people as well. As a first example, consider the case of one of my former colleagues at an American university who had acquired some reputation for expressing much of what he had to say in metaphors relating to ships and the navy. He described various activities of university life and administrative projects with metaphorical expressions such as the ones below (p.c., Mike Casey, January, 2001): (The following are his actual definitions of the expressions.)

When we anticipate problems with one of our initiatives, we “stand by for heavy weather.”
When we complain about a lack of strategic vision, we need a “star to steer by.”
When we arrive in the middle of a discussion or debate, we “come in on the mid-watch.”
When we drop a program, we “bail out” or “abandon ship.”
When we commit wholeheartedly to a project, we order “full-speed ahead.”

As can be seen, some of the metaphorical expressions are more or less unique to a person’s individual style. However, some of the other expressions that he had employed are commonly used and well understood by most native speakers of English. What seems to be truly unique to his overall metaphor usage is the heavy concentration of metaphors relating to ships and the navy. In all probability, the reason for this is the fact that he had been an officer in the navy for more than a decade.

It seems to me that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are some of the richest areas for the creation of individual metaphors. As I understand it, one of the key ideas of psychoanalysis is that life history (and especially early childhood experiences) has a profound influence on our mental and emotional health. In a similar vein, some analysts suggest that significant earlier life experiences can function as source domains for significant later life experiences. Since these experiences differ from person to person, we get a large number of, in our terms, unconventional source domains to conceptualize ourselves and our mental and emotional conditions. If this is true, we can regard a large part of the therapeutic and analytic interview as an attempt to recover a source domain (i.e., a coherent knowledge structure that makes sense of a problem), together with its appropriate target domain (the problem itself).

However, this is not to claim that in therapeutic and analytic discourse these individually unique conceptual metaphors that are based on particular life experiences dominate over the conventional ones we find at a more general social level (many of which have been uncovered by cognitive linguists). What type of metaphor—the unique individual or the conventional ones—is more pervasive and more important in therapeutic and analytic discourse is an open empirical question. We do not have (and I feel that at this stage of research cannot have) any statistical evidence to decide on this issue. What we know is that both types are used, and sometimes people use novel extensions of conventional metaphors in the course of therapy. One example for the latter possibility is mentioned by McMullen and Conway (1996). They quote a patient as saying the following: “I felt like I was a stick of dynamite with a fuse about a quarter of an inch long” (McMullen and Conway, 1996, p. 67). What this sentence is based on is the completely conventional conceptual metaphor THE ANGRY PERSON IS A PRESSURIZED CONTAINER, of which the metaphor ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER is a version. In the example, the patient created several novel metaphorical entailments to conceptualize his or her condition. First, he or she viewed herself as a stick of dynamite, an extremely dangerous explosive that can cause severe injury to others, and second, he or she is on a quarter of inch long fuse, which presents emotional outbursts sudden, unpredictable, and dangerous.

Closely related to the use of individual metaphors in a therapeutic context are those cases where people create novel metaphors as a result of unique and traumatic life experiences. The metaphors that are created under these circumstances need not be consciously formed. An interesting example of this was brought to my attention by Helene Knox (p.c., August, 2003) in a recent issue of the magazine A & U (March, 2003). Photographic artist Frank Jump photographs old painted mural advertisements in New York City. He has AIDS, but he has outlived his expected life span. His life and his art are intimately connected metaphorically. The metaphor could be put as follows: SURVIVING AIDS DESPITE PREDICTIONS TO THE CONTRARY IS FOR THE OLD MURAL ADVERTISEMENTS TO SURVIVE THEIR EXPECTEDLIFE SPAN.” At first, Jump was not consciously aware that he works within the frame of a metaphor. In his own words:

In the beginning, I didn’t make the connection between the subject matter and my own sero-positivity. I was asked to be part of the Day Without Art exhibition a few years ago and didn’t think I was worthy—other artists’ work was much more HIV-specific. … But my mentor said, “Don’t you see the connection? You’re documenting something that was never intended to live this long. You never intended to live this long.” [p. 27; italics in the original]

The mentor made the metaphor conscious for the artist. I believe something similar is happening in many cases of psychotherapy.

Breaking down the boundaries of dimensions

Metaphor variation as I have presented it so far in this paper operates along clearly delineated dimensions, such the social, regional, subcultural ones. However, the dimensions along which metaphors vary come together in most cases, exemplifying variation along several dimensions all at the same time. A beautiful illustration of this happening can be found in Elena Semino and Kate Swindlehurst’s analysis of Ken Keysey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. A major character and the narrator of the story is an Indian called Bromden. As Semino and Swindlehurst (1996) note, Bromden has a peculiar view of the world in which he sees the world as a whole as a huge machine room: THE WORLD IS A MACHINE ROOM. In addition, the smaller world of the hospital where the patients are treated is a machine room: THE HOSPITAL IS A MACHINE ROOM. In this world, almost everything functions like a machine:


The “machine” metaphor is not unfamiliar to us. We use it all the time when we think and talk about all kinds of “abstract complex systems” (see Kövecses, 1995, 2002): We talk about “the machinery of democracy,” “the workings of the mind,” “_setting the wheels_ of the economy in motion,” “_throwing a monkey wrench in the works_,” and countless others. These are all highly conventionalized expressions making use of the source domain of machines. The “main meaning focus” of these and other linguistic expressions is the effective functioning of abstract complex systems, such as political systems, the mind, the economy, and so on. In other words, we typically use the metaphor of machine when we are concerned with the issue of whether the system works properly or not (e.g., grease the wheels, working like clockwork, well-functioning, throw a monkey wrench in the works, the wheels are turning now, etc.).

However, Bromden does not use the metaphor this way. He goes way beyond this conventional pattern of metaphorical thought and, as Semino and Swindlehurst show, sees more or less everything in mechanical terms. Some examples might give a flavor of this “overgeneralized” application of the machine metaphor by Bromden:

I creep along the floor quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.
Hum of black machinery, humming hate and death and other hospital secrets.
Her nostrils flare open, and every breath she draws she gets bigger… She works the hinges in her elbows and fingers. I hear a small squeak. She starts moving, and I get back against the wall, and when she rumbles past she’s already big as a truck, trailing that wicker bag in her exhaust like a semi behind a Jimmy Diesel.
(Examples from Semino and Swindlehurst, 1996, pp. 150-152).

These and numerous other examples indicate meanings far beyond the conventional use of the machine metaphor.

The analysis by Semino and Swindlehurst gives us an idea of how the boundaries of particular dimensions of metaphor variation can often be and are in fact broken down. Specifically, we can observe that Bromden is an individual with very specific experiences of the world around him, which gives his metaphors individual status. Second, we should also notice the creativity and uniqueness of his metaphors that gives them a literary flavor. Third, the metaphors used by Bromden also reveal the mind of a mentally disturbed person, who has a distorted vision of the world. Fourth, the heavy reliance on machinery in Bromden’s thoughts may also be a product of a certain age and place: highly industrialized western society after the Second World War, with a great deal of use of and fascination for machines. In other words, accounting for Bromden’s metaphor usage requires us to pay equal attention to divergent dimensions at the same time, including the individual, stylistic, subcultural, diachronic, and regional dimensions. Taking all this into account, we can see how the dimensions of metaphor variation can jointly influence the metaphors we actually use in particular situations.

Metaphoric frames of experience

Culture can be thought of as a set of shared understandings of the world, where our understandings are mental representations structured by cultural models, or frames. Metaphor can be thought of as the interaction of two cultural models—a source and a target domain, where the source provides much of the structure of the target. It then follows that some of our shared cultural understandings of the world will be based on metaphorical frames; that is, cases where a given cultural frame is structured by another cultural frame, or model. This allows us to study several aspects of American culture by means of “metaphoric frame analysis.”

Interpreting history and the creation of metaphors

Elsewhere I pointed out (Kövecses, 1994) that Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America analyzes American democracy as a highly defective person, whose defects have to be made up for and counterbalanced by external forces such as the legal system. This view of democracy depends crucially on the acceptance of the conceptual metaphor A STATE/ SOCIETY IS A PERSON. The metaphor emerges from the study of hundreds of examples in Tocqueville’s book.

But what is the “person” metaphor like in Democracy in America? We can characterize it by providing the major mappings and entailments, as found by Kovecses:


  • The person engaged in emotional, physical, political, and/or economic interaction with his immediate environment is the democratic society as a whole.
  • The nature and propensities of the person are the constitutive (essential) properties of the democracy.
  • The behaviors of the person are the passions and activities that occur in the democracy.
  • The dangerousness of the behaviors of the person is the harmfulness of the behaviors that occur in democracy to the democracy.


Source:The behaviors are produced by the inherent nature of the person.
Target: The behaviors that occur in the democracy are produced by the constitutive properties of the democracy.
Source: Because the person produces dangerous behaviors, he or she is a defective person.
Target: Because the democracy produces harmful behaviors, it a defective social system.
Source: The dangerous behaviors of the person have to be counterbalanced (controlled, corrected, etc.).
Target: The harmful behaviors of the democracy have to be counterbalanced (controlled, corrected, etc.).

Clearly, this is just one of the many possible versions of the “person” metaphor; we know a great deal about people. And the metaphor of the “body politic” has been around for a long time for the understanding of society. How did this particular version arise for Tocqueville? The question is important because the metaphor must have affected Tocqueville’s thinking about American democracy. It seems that the particular version of the metaphor must have had its source in Tocqueville’s idea of an ideal (free, independent, autonomous) person: This is a person that lives in a small community and engages in a variety of interactions with his or her environment. This community appears to be the township with its municipal institutions. For Tocqueville, the township, especially the New England township, is the “cradle” of American democracy, as the quotes below make it clear:

In the laws of Connecticut, as well as in all those of New England, we find the germ and gradual development of that township independence which is the life and mainspring of American liberty at the present day. (p. 40; italics added)

The independence of the townships was the nucleus round which the local interests, passions, rights, and duties collected and clung. It gave scope to the activity of real political life, thoroughly democratic and republican. (p. 40; italics added)

The main point of these quotes is not to show that Tocqueville considered the township as the mainspring of American democracy, but to show that he was fascinated by the free and autonomous life of people in the township. We can propose that it was this fascination that had possibly led him to conceptualize democracy in terms of a free, independent, and autonomous person who participates fully in the life of a small-scale but full-fledged democratic community.

The cognitive mechanism of arriving at this particular version of the person metaphor is interesting. What we find here is that a phenomenon (democracy in America) is metaphorically comprehended in terms of the cause or origin (the township) of the phenomenon. This occurs commonly in our conceptual system.

But this alone does not explain all aspects of the person metaphor, as used by Tocqueville. In particular, we have no explanation why he laid so much stress on the passionate side of the person. We can suggest that this became a prevalent feature of PERSON as a source domain because of Tocqueville’s exaggerated fear of intense emotions. His book contains a large number of examples that reveal this fear. It can be surmised that this fear was his response to romanticism, which gave a much more positive evaluation of the emotions than we can find in Tocqueville’s work. As a child of the enlightenment, he may have rejected or may have been disappointed by the emphasis that romanticism placed on emotion.

Metaphoric framing

The frames that we use can be based on conceptual metaphors. Particular target concepts are framed by particular source concepts. I will discuss three such target domains in American culture: taxation, war, and morality.

Metaphor and taxes

Let us begin with one of George Lakoff’s examples that he analyzes in a number of interviews on the internet. It is the phrase tax relief. The phrase is used by the Bush administration to substitute for the expression tax cuts. Although the phrase tax relief looks like a fairly neutral way of talking about taxation, it is not; it is couched in a conceptual metaphor that makes people see taxation in a particular way. People normally talk about “relief” when there is some affliction that causes pain or other damage. The word assumes a frame with a number of elements: the affliction, the person who is afflicted, a person who gives the afflicted person relief, and the action of giving this person relief from the affliction. The frame includes other background knowledge as well. The most important of these is that the person who provides relief is a “good guy” and anyone who tries to stop the reliever from providing relief is a “bad guy.”

Now when we talk about taxation by employing the phrase tax relief, we are talking and thinking metaphorically. On this account, the administration that tries to provide relief from taxes is a hero and those who try to prevent this are villains. The metaphor is based on a frame that makes people see taxation in a new light; namely, that tax cuts are absolutely necessary and the moral thing to do. Choosing and using the metaphor divides politicians and citizens into good guys and bad guys by placing people with opposing views into particular roles in the frame. This is standard procedure in politics and it is achieved through “metaphor-based reframings.”

Metaphor and war

The frames that we employ to understand social events and life in a culture can be either specific or very general ones. Consider the current war in Iraq. Americans conceptualize the events by means of a western philosophical-political frame that emphasizes rationality, as well as political, military and economic interest. This emphasis leads inevitably to a deep misunderstanding between Americans and Muslims. The reason is that Muslims look at the situation in a very different light; they employ a religious frame and a national pride frame to make sense of the events. The application of very different frames to the same situation results in incompatible evaluations and actions.

The same differences in general interpretation were present in the Gulf war in 1990-91, but there are, of course, different specific frames that characterize differences between the two actual situations. One such specific frame that was used in the US during the 1990 Iraqi war was that of the “fairy tale.” Clearly, this is a metaphor-based frame (Lakoff, 1992).

As George Lakoff showed in several publications (Lakoff, 1992, 1996), American politics is largely structured by a variety of conceptual metaphors: POLITICS IS WAR, POLITICS IS BUSINESS, SOCIETY IS A FAMILY, SOCIETY IS A PERSON, and THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IS A RACE. For example, given the POLITICS IS WAR metaphor, American society can be seen as composed of armies that correspond to political groups; the leaders of the armies correspond to political leaders; the weapons used by the army are the ideas and policies of the political groups; the objective of the war is some political goal, etc. These metaphors can be widely found in the media and in the speech of politicians. Most importantly, they impose a particular order or pattern on political activities.

Once people conceive of a nation as a person, it then becomes possible to think of neighboring countries as “neighbors” who can be friendly or hostile, strong or weak, and healthy or sick. Strength corresponds here to military strength and health to economic wealth. This metaphor has certain implications for foreign politics. A country can be identified as strong and another as weak. Since strength is associated with men and weakness with women, a militarily strong nation can be seen as “raping” a weak one when it attacks the weak nation. This was the conceptual metaphor that was used in the Gulf War in 1990 when Iraq attacked and occupied Kuwait. The attack was interpreted in the U.S. as the “rape” of Kuwait (Lakoff, 1992). The U.S. was seen as a hero that rescues an innocent victim (Kuwait) against a villain (Iraq). This interpretation convinced most of the American public that the U.S. had the right to intervene. It thus provided moral justification for the United States to go to war against Iraq.

Metaphor and moral politics

American discourse about morality often involves two foundational conceptual metaphors (Lakoff, 1996): (1) MORALITY IS STRENGTH and (2) MORALITY IS NURTURANCE.


According to this metaphorical system of morality, evil can act on an upright person who can either fall (become bad) or remain upright (remain good). The evil can be either an external or an internal force. External evil may be a dangerous situation that causes fear. Internal evil may be, for example, the seven deadly sins. In either case, a moral person would apply a counterforce in an effort to overcome the force of evil and would be successful in overcoming it. Thus, in this view, moral “strength” is based on the notion of physical strength.


In this second set of metaphors, morality appears to be more of an “other-directed” issue than a “self-directed” one. Whereas in the “strength” metaphor there is only a single moral agent, in the nurturance version there are two—people who need help and people who have a responsibility to provide that help. As Lakoff (1996) notes, it is not the case that the two metaphors exclude each other in the actual practice of morality in everyday life. They are used together on most occasions, but different people may give different priorities to them. For some people, morality is primarily defined in terms of the MORALITY IS STRENGTH metaphor, whereas for others it is defined mostly in terms of MORALITY IS NURTURANCE.

In Lakoff’s (1996) account, the different priorities that people give to the two metaphors explain two conceptions of American politics—conservatism and liberalism. If one considers the MORALITY IS STRENGTH metaphor as more important, this person is likely to be attracted to conservative ideas and ideals in politics. On the other hand, if someone considers the “nurturance” metaphor more important as regards morality, this person is more likely to be a liberal as far as political issues are concerned. Why? The link between one’s moral and political views is provided by a metaphor for the concept of nation mentioned above: A NATION or SOCIETY IS A FAMILY. Society is conventionally viewed as a family with the state as parent and citizens as children. The two views of morality that were briefly outlined above are different conceptions of what a family is (Lakoff, 1996; see also chapter 6). In the “moral strength” metaphor, the family consists of independent and self-reliant individuals, and morality is taught and learned primarily through discipline (to resist evil). Lakoff characterizes this view of the family in an interview as follows (UCBerkeley News, October 27, 2003):

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

By contrast, in the “nurturance” metaphor the family consists of people who have a moral obligation to help each other to begin with. In this view of the family, morality is taught and learned less through discipline than through nurturance. Again in Lakoff’s words (UCBerkeley News, October 27, 2003):

… the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

Now the priorities given to the two metaphors will have implications for one’s political views because the two conceptions of the family and morality will influence one’s view of the nation as a family. The metaphor-based notion of morality will have different consequences for one’s political views. Morality and politics will fuse into moral politics; hence the title of Lakoff’s book: Moral Politics.
h4. Metaphors made real

Many conceptual metaphors are “realized” in actual social and cultural practice, i.e. not only in language. There are several possibilities for metaphors to be realized in other than linguistic ways. If we take a conceptual metaphor to be a pairing of domains A (target) and B (source), such that “A is B,” then the realization can occur in at least the following ways:

(1) The source domain, B, can turn into social-physical reality;
(2) The entailments of the source domain, B, can turn into social-physical reality;
(3) The target domain, A, can actually become the source domain, B, and, at the same time, turn into social-physical reality.

By a conceptual domain “turning into” social-physical reality, we simply mean that the conceptual domain occurs not only as a concept or as a word but also as a more or less tangible thing or process in our social and cultural practice (i.e., as a social and physical object, institution, action, activity, event, state, relationship, and the like).

I will consider an example of the third case here—the target actually becoming the source and turning into social-physical reality. It can probably be assumed that each culture is characterized by certain central metaphors, or, as Bradd Shore (1996) calls them, “foundational schemas,” which can then be realized as instituted models. Foundational schemas are large-scale conceptual metaphors that organize extensive portions of experience in a culture and may involve several more specific metaphors that are more limited in their scope. I have studied one such foundational metaphor in American culture in some depth (Kovecses, 2005a). It is the metaphor LIFE IS A SHOW or SPECTACLE, or more generally, ENTERTAINMENT.

It can be suggested that the POLITICS IS SPORTS metaphor that is so prevalent in the U.S. is a specific instance of this more general foundational metaphor. However, it cannot be claimed that this metaphor is an American invention. Varieties of the metaphor go back to Greek antiquity and show up in a number of distinct ways throughout the history of western civilization (Turner, 1991). Perhaps the most famous “popularizer” of the SHOW, or PLAY, metaphor was Shakespeare, who wrote these lines in 17th century Europe:

All the world is a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
(Shakespeare, As you like it 2.7)

As Neil Gabler (1998) points out, at this time public life was a performance in Europe, in which one presented a self that one wanted to be perceived. Social intercourse was role-playing.

The widespread use of the LIFE IS A PLAY metaphor in America in recent times is shown by its high linguistic productivity, that is, by the many metaphorical expressions that are based on it in one way or another. Lakoff and Turner (1989) provide a long list of examples:


It’s curtains for him. He always plays the fool.
She’s my leading lady. That attitude is just a mask.
She always wants to be in the spotlight. He turned in a great performance.
The kid stole the show. Take a bow!
That’s not in the script. You deserve a standing ovation.
What’s your part in this? He plays an important role in the process.
You missed your cue. He only played a bit part in my life.
He blew his lines. He’s waiting in the wings.
He saved the show. I’m improvising.
She brought the house down. It’s showtime!
Clean up your act! You’re on!

The metaphor can be found in every facet of American life and popular culture, pop songs being one of the best sources of examples. Elvis Presley sings “Act one was when we met” and Frank Sinatra has the famous line: “And now I face the final curtain.”

The LIFE IS A PLAY metaphor is structured by the following set of mappings:

Source domain: A PLAY          Target domain: LIFE
an actor a person leading a life
fellow actors the people with whom he interacts
the way the actor acts the behavior of the person leading a life
the parts the roles in life
the leading parts the people who play main roles in one’s life
the beginning of the play birth
the end of the play death
the script the story of one’s life as it should happen

Probably the most important correspondence between the two domains is the one according to which parts in a play correspond to roles people “play” in life. This seems to be the main meaning focus of the metaphor. As we saw, this is a very old focus of the metaphor, but it became especially important in early 20th century America. Taking up some ideas from Warren Susman (1984), Neil Gabler explains the shift from a primarily “character-oriented” to a “personality-oriented” culture in the American context:

… the old Puritan production-oriented culture demanded and honored what he [Warren Susman] called character, which was a function of one’s moral fiber. The new consumption-oriented culture, on the other hand, demanded what he called personality which was a function of what one projected to others. It followed that the Puritan culture emphasized values like hard work, integrity and courage. The new culture of personality emphasized charm, fascination and likability. Or as Susman put it, “the social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer. Every American was to become a performing self.” (1998: 197)

The chief representative of this type of character was Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby—Jay Gatz, who, as Gabler remarks, was an invention of himself. He was a symbol of 20th century America. This was a culture of personality in which “playing a role was just as good as being the real person” (Gabler, 1998: 198).

But the PLAY metaphor gradually grew into something much more extensive in 20th century America. The concept of life began to be understood in terms of many different forms of entertainment, and not just in terms of a theater play, such as shows of all kinds, spectator sports, and spectacles. Indeed, life became entertainment in general in many ways, yielding the highly general metaphor LIFE IS A SHOW or ENTERTAINMENT. The process must have been motivated by the spread and popularity of spectator sports, the invention of film-making, radio and television, and the availability and popularity of mass communication (and several other factors).

Aspects of life began to assume features of entertainment. At first, there was, we could say, only a metonymic—not a metaphoric—connection between the two. Neil Gabler (1998) tells us that even the seemingly mundane activity of shopping was often accompanied by events that chiefly characterize entertainment. In Gabler’s words (1998), “[d]epartment stores had elaborate window dressing, musical accompaniment, art shows, theatrical lighting and playlets to enhance the sense that shopping was just another form of entertainment” (1998: 199-200). The metonymy might be put as ENTERTAINMENT FOR CONSUMPTION. But then the metonymy started to give way to metaphor in which the boundary between entertainment and shopping was lost to the point that the two fused into a full-fledged conceptual metaphor characterizing the megamalls of the 1980s. In this kind of situation celebrities advertised products and by buying something advertised by a celebrity, one became a celebrity as well (Gabler, 1998). In the metaphor of SHOPPING AS A FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT, or A SHOW, the ordinary shopper became a celebrity. Moreover, by means of personification, the products themselves, such as Ray Ban sunglasses and Godiva chocolates, also became celebrities—celebrity products (Gabler, 1998).

Other aspects of life were not spared either. Politics as a target domain was also comprehended as a show. And it was done to an extent unmatched by other countries that have similar political institutions. The election campaign is a prime example. In it, the candidates appear as putative stars; the primaries are like open casting calls; the campaign looks like an audition; the election itself is the selection of the lead; the handlers are the drama coaches, scriptwriters, and directors. In this kind of political atmosphere, it almost appears that the goal of politics is none other than providing good entertainment (Gabler, 1998). Gabler might overstate his case here, but there can be no doubt that in America POLITICS (and especially the ELECTIONS) IS A SHOW. A (for many) sad punch line of this argument is that, after late President Reagan, another actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected the governor of California.

For many American teachers and university professors, the teaching process itself is a form entertainment. Many educators believe that teaching a class without at the same time “putting on a show” is unimaginable or at least much less effective in American schools.

Not only teaching but also dating and romantic relationships are imbued with the vocabulary and conceptual patterns of entertainment, especially those of spectator sports. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) showed, LOVE IS A GAME, in which people sometimes “can’t get to first base,” but at other times “can score touchdowns.”

Not even the beautiful American landscape escapes being viewed as a form of entertainment, especially as theater. Perhaps the most common adjective to describe the California coastline and the Grand Canyon in National Park publications and descriptions to visitors is the word dramatic, as in “the dramatic California coastline.”

But the domain where one would least expect the application of the SHOW or ENTERTAINMENT metaphor is that of warfare. War is usually thought of as the most serious activity people can conduct, and yet in America the ENTERTAINMENT metaphor is one of the chief ways of talking and thinking about war. Surprisingly, even those who are in the “business” of making war think about it this way. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “[o]ne member of the Pentagon press corps even referred to it [the war in Iraq] as ‘the show last night’ during a briefing Saturday” (section A14, Editorials, March 24, 2003). Some Americans find this conceptualization unacceptable or offensive. The same journalist has this to say about the use of the SHOW metaphor: “As transfixed as Americans may be to the TV coverage of war in Iraq, flicking as it does from aircraft carriers to tank battalions in real time, this is not entertainment. The soldiers are real, putting their lives on the line” (section A14, Editorials, March 24, 2003). A few days later, a reader of the New York Times writes this in connection with the coverage of the same war on TV: “Feeding our seemingly unquenchable thirst to get an intimate view, this real-time coverage turns us into voyeurs and war itself into spectacle” (Letters A18, March 26). Clearly, the SHOW or ENTERTAINMENT metaphor is a large part of the way many Americans talk and think about war, and, we could add, also of the way they debate it.

It seems, then, that Americans have a certain predilection to understand their various experiences in life, including business, politics, education, landscape, love and dating, warfare, and several others, in terms of a show, or more generally, entertainment. But this predilection is perhaps most conspicuous in the current fad of reality TV. In reality TV, life as a whole becomes entertainment. The target domain becomes one with the source domain. The parts played by actors in the source turn inseparably into the roles people play in life. It seems that, in it, life loses its goal other than that given to it by a show, which is to entertain people. Life does become a play, a kind of entertainment, and we as spectators watch ourselves living our own lives.


I hope I have demonstrated that the study of American culture can benefit from metaphor analysis. Two notions were offered for consideration: dimensions of metaphor variation and metaphoric frames of experience.

With the help of studying the dimensions of metaphor variation in the American context, we can get subtle insight into the divergent “conceptual worlds” of various components of American society. Some of the main divisions in this regard include the social, regional, ethnic, subcultural, and so on, dimensions. The brief studies gave us a glimpse of some of the distinguishing characteristics of each mindset.

As regards metaphoric framing, we saw how metaphoric frames can be utilized in the study of a number of cultural phenomena, including the interpretation of history, thinking about taxation, war, and politics. These examples showed that the same event or thing may be viewed metaphorically by means of alternative frames. Such alternative understandings divide large segments of American society, and may form the basis of important debates that characterize American society at any given time. In addition, some metaphoric frames may be foundational in cultures and, in fact, may distinguish cultures. We identified one such foundational frame (the “entertainment” frame through which Americans view many aspects of life). The significance of this finding is that it makes coherent seemingly unconnected fragments in American cultural practices.

This new methodology in the study of American culture needs to be made more precise and has to be applied to clearly identifiable sets of data. The improved instrument may place old issues in a new light and it may help us notice and explain issues that we did not see previously.

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