If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.
Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.
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Pretty much every metaphor designer is inspired by Metaphors We Live By(1980), by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon. It’s the classic look at how metaphors structure the way we think and talk, and once you’ve read it, you can’t help but agree that, at a conceptual level, life is a journey, and arguments are wars (you take sides, there can be only one winner, evidence is a weapon). However, for the practical metaphor designer, psycholinguistic research turns out to be much more useful than philosophical commentary, because it studies how people actually encounter and process new metaphors.
It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.
Link to the rest at Aeon