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Journey to the Center of a Metaphor

In a commercial for Weight Watchers that debuted on Christmas Eve, Oprah Winfrey – who had bought a 10 percent stake in the company in October 2015 – speaks feelingly about her past weight losses and gains, and invites her listeners to give Weight Watchers a try. Or, to quote the title of the ad, to join her on a "new Weight Watchers journey," a trip with a vaguely defined destination and a sentimental soundtrack.

Oprah fans may recognize the central metaphor of this message from dozens of "weight-loss journeys" – her own and others' – featured on Oprah's long-running (1986 to 2011) television show. Or maybe they'll have encountered it somewhere else: when I searched for "weight-loss journey" I found more than 26 million matches.

And that's only the beginning of the journey journey. Over the last 35 or so years, journey has become one of our culture's dominant metaphors, a handy stand-in for experience, ordeal, process, test, investigation, story, and series of events.

"An amazing journey": sign on a construction site at Children's Hospital, Oakland.

Salespeople, for example, refer to the customer journey from awareness to engagement to purchase. (And yes, there are maps for that journey.) Software developers speak of the user journey: a series of steps that represent the way a person might interact with the thing being designed. A weight-loss app called Rise congratulates users on "completing another week of your diet journey." The package containing National Geographic's Geno 2.0 ancestry test compares DNA research to a journey.

National Geographic Geno 2.0 package, in which "journey" substitutes for "story."

Or consider some recent political headlines: The Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, has spoken of his evangelical Christian faith journey. After losing the Iowa caucuses to Cruz, Donald Trump told his supporters that the campaign had been an amazing journey. A 2013 biography of former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is titled The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power. And headline writers have found it hard to resist the rhyming charm of Bernie's journey when writing about Clinton's opponent, Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont.

None of these usages hews to the original and literal sense of journey: a defined course of travel over land (as opposed to voyage, which takes place on water). When journey entered English from Old French journee, in the 13th century, it meant both a single day and a single day's travel: jour is French for day. By the 1400s it could be qualified: a three-day journey, the Sun's daily journey. (A synonym, trip, also comes to us from French; it originally meant only "a light movement of the feet"; not until the late 1600s did it signify "a short voyage or journey.")

The metaphorical sense of journey – what the OED defines as "the 'pilgrimage' or passage through life" – is also very old. The dictionary's earliest citation for this sense of journey is from around 1225, in a guidebook for nuns: "The pilgrim in the world's way ... many things may hinder him on his journey." English translations of the Bible use journey almost exclusively literally, to mean travel, but in his Sonnet 27, published in 1609, Shakespeare writes of a (figurative) "journey in my head." In the late 19th century, English translators rendered the words of the classical Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (6th century BCE) as "The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step" – advice clearly meant to be interpreted symbolically.

For many years the metaphor was used sparingly: My 1980 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains only a couple dozen journey citations (including, from 1956, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night). As it happens, 1980 represents a turning point in journey's journey: the year the metaphor began pervading popular discourse.

Nineteen-eighty was the year George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, published Metaphors We Live By, which explained how figurative language reflects and shapes our thinking. Journey figured prominently in the book: Our words reveal that we think of love as a journey ("we're at a crossroads," "the relationship isn't going anywhere") and that, like our medieval ancestors, we also think of life as a journey ("a good start in life," "he'll go places"). Metaphors We Live By was and remains hugely influential in academic circles and beyond.

The advent of New Age philosophy around this time, with its Eastern influences and its focus on mind-body harmony, also encouraged journey-ing. The earliest citation I found for "the cancer journey" is in a 1979 issue of the literary magazine Saturday Review ; today, a search for "cancer journey" turns up tens of thousands of matches. "The Breast Cancer Journey" is a primary section of the Susan G. Komen website. Under the influence in part of The Healing Journey, a 1983 book by Claudio Naranjo – a Chilean-born psychiatrist who has written widely about spiritual practices – journey became attached to non-cancer afflictions as well. See, for example, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction (2009); The Journey from Abandonment to Healing (2014); and The Journey of the Heroic Parent (2016).

Then there are the corporate journey-ers who like to portray their dealings as a grand adventure. One of the first to do so was Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was fond of saying (but almost certainly did not coin) "The journey is the reward." The phrase was even used as the title of a 1987 biography of Jobs. Today Silicon Valley is abuzz with journeys, most often invoked when a business goes bust. Last December, for example, when the ride-hailing app Sidecar, based in San Francisco, ceased operations, co-founder Sunil Paul told the world: "This is the end of the road for the Sidecar ride and delivery service, but it's by no means the end of the journey for the company."

Rochelle Kopp, a consultant to Bay Area and Japanese companies who is writing a dictionary of Silicon Valley jargon, told me that this usage of journey "pairs well with the Silicon Valley penchant to glorify failure as a way to grow" and suggests "that even though things have not gone well, it's just a setback on the longer journey, which will ultimately lead to your desired goal."

(Kopp, who is fluent in Japanese, also noted she's unable to translate this metaphorical journey. To use a Japanese word for trip or travel in a figurative sense, she said, "would be completely nonsensical.")

Finally, there's the pop-culture journey embraced by media stars like Oprah and those who aspire to stardom. The English rock band The Who were pioneers, performing the song "Amazing Journey" in their 1969 rock opera Tommy (the journey of the title is a psychedelic one); Amazing Journey is also the title of a 2007 documentary about the band. "It's been an incredible journey" is often the parting summary of rejected contestants on "reality" shows like The Bachelor, which first aired in 2002 and is still going strong. "Once rare and remarkable,"observed Stacey Woods, who writes about language for Esquire, "incredible journeys have become incredibly commonplace. Most people are either on one, have just completed one, or are between them."

Most incredibly of all, as recently as a few decades ago we managed to live, love, and compete without calling those activities journeys. To borrow a phrase from those veteran voyagers the Grateful Dead: what a long, strange trip it's been.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 25th 2016, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great account of journey's journey. When I lived in the UK I noticed that 'journey' was used far more prosaically (e.g., for rides on the Underground) and did not have the slightly adventurous connotation that it has in American English. I wonder if British writers and copywriters have exploited it in the same way that Americans have.
Thursday February 25th 2016, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Monette B. (College Park, MD)
Yes and amen! I almost hurt myself rolling my eyes each time I hear about yet another series of events in a person's life described as an "amazing journey". I realize that our beautiful language changes with time. I get a little sad, though, when I see it lose some of its luster.
Friday February 26th 2016, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Jan P.
Lakoff and Johnson point out, in their chapter on "Time," that most cultures use spatial metaphors to help embody ideas and experiences of time: the future (in most cultures) is in front of us, the past behind. "Don't go there," is a warning that you could veer off the forward track of a conversation, onto an unauthorized tangent.

The "journey" metaphor seems an extension of the spatial metaphor, applied to experience as a narrative. In the "journey" narrative the narrator (or narrators, in the case of testimonials) urge the purchase of a product or the embrace of an ideology. Whether religious or commercial, the narration of any journey other than the physical kind is evangelistic. The implication is that, if you can't embrace the ideology or refuse to purchase a product, you are not on the journey and are lost in space, misdirected, or going nowhere.
Friday February 26th 2016, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Jan P.: Thanks for your interesting and insightful comment!
Saturday February 27th 2016, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fascinating, and so well documented. I don't often use "journey" in this metaphorical sense, but when I do, or when a fiend uses it, it does seem a helpful way to think of one's life, a way that feels calming.
Saturday February 27th 2016, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Hong C. (Northfield, IL)
A journey is a process / trip that ends up to be a big surprise A nation building journey is one from an incident, to an idea of an ideal, to develop a good infrastructure of a concrete realization environment, a slow integration of diversified ethnics, and finally a universal favorable new institution.
Monday February 29th 2016, 11:56 AM
Comment by: William W. (San Angelo, TX)
Love the article -- never noticed the "jour" in journey --> au jour le jour. Stephen Pinker picks up on Lackoff's metaphors with lots of related insights in Laws of Thought, and the Language Instinct. It is fascinating that Japanese cannot translate the "journey" metaphor easily. Movement through space and time -- navigation or travel -- is such a powerful metaphor I find it hard to believe it wasn't used more often in the past.
Monday August 15th 2016, 3:34 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Thanks for the survey - and for the extra insight brought by Jan P. I think a lot has to do with targets, objectives, purposes, as well. We don't like errors (errare meaning wandering around, without a purpose) or labyrinths, we love projects (looking ahead, to things in front of/ pro us) and problems, because - so I think - thus we reduce our difficulties to things in front of us, things we have externalised, as things in front of us, set apart, that we can treat like objects, deal with, solve, whereas we are very often part of the problem...

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