Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Metaphors We Live By (Updated)

More than 40 years ago, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a book that (in the accurate words of its publicity blurb) “changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind.” The book was Metaphors We Live By, and it documented how metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of the mind that enables us to learn and classify objects and experiences by relating them to things we already know.

Lakoff and Johnson’s work was a welcome expansion to everyone’s understanding of metaphor, especially if your last contact with it was in primary school, where you learned that a simile was a comparison using like or as, and a metaphor accomplished the comparison without these words. That shorthand version seriously shorts the understanding of metaphor. We do indeed live by them and we do not pass a day without metaphor somehow coming to the aid of our understanding.

Thanks to the vast collections of English text available online, researchers have samples of English from the earliest days of print (the 1500s) to the present day. For any given point on English’s long timeline, there is enough text available for us to draw samples and measure usages statistically. The Google NGram Viewer is the most readily available tool for this kind of research.

I used the NGram Viewer and then a number of time-stamped corpora to look at examples of an expression we use to signal that we have a metaphor cued up: the phrase “It was like a _________,” where the blank is filled in with a noun phrase. It’s a common formula; in a contemporary corpus I find more than 37,000 examples of it. So the next step is to sort them by frequency and see what comes out near the top.

When do you say “It was like a _________”? To me it’s an expression for describing an experience whose straightforward description doesn’t adequately convey its intensity, unexpectedness, or shock value. This fits with our intuitive notion of when we use a comparison: to facilitate learning and understanding by drawing an analogy with what our listeners or readers already know.

Some of the complements of “It was like a _________” are so common that they amount to clichés, first among which is It was like a dream, which in turn has its own variations, namely:

  • It was like a dream come true
  • It was like a bad dream

To the latter we can add the semantically similar variation It was (like) a nightmare. The common theme here is to suggest that a real-life experience has qualities so unexpected that it feels more like a dream (where we know that the unexpected or incongruent is the rule, not the exception).

The frequency of the dream metaphor has changed little over time. Experiences that seemed like a dream are also common in texts from an older corpus (specifically, the English Historical Book Collection, which collects books printed from the 16th to 18th centuries). We can conclude that the comparison of a real-life event to something in a dream has probably been going on since the time that people developed the words to cast this formula.

Surprising to me is the fact that (It was) like a dream come true is surprisingly modern. It’s hardly a blip on the Google NGram radar before 1900, when it starts to rise in usage and then really takes off in the 1970s. Does this expression exist in other languages? It’s not in the languages I know, but if you know of its equivalent in another language, please say so in the comments.

Comparison with dreams represents an unusual continuity from the oldest to the newest examples of English. Dreams aside, much earlier users of It was like a _________ made frequent comparisons to phenomena that are uncommon today. In the same historical corpus I searched on both It was like a _________ and It was like unto a __________. Folks of yore called on items for comparison that seem odd today, such as:

This Yron was reasonablie long, and great, and square at the end, the which entred so whotte into his mouth, as it was like unto a burning coale.

It was like unto coriander seede, and the tost [taste] of it was like unto wafers made with honey.

The people went about and gathered it, and ground it in milles, or bet [beat] it in morters, and baked it in a cauldron, and made cakes of it, and the taste of it was like unto the taste of freshoyle.

HOW great was the joy of Ossian, when he beheld the distant sail of his son! it was like a cloud of light that rises in the east, when the traveller is sad in a land unknown.

In all of these, it’s probably only clouds that would strike us as an object familiar enough to merit a general-use source of metaphor today.

We moderns aren’t likely to call on burning coals or honey wafers in our metaphors, but ranking very high with us are scenes. Unlike our distant forebears, we have the common experience of scenes from books, television, and films; these so permeate our experience that they are a regular go-to when we need a metaphor.

It is surely the mark of cultural success when a particular book, film, or TV series becomes a basis of metaphor, such as these from an early 21st-century corpus:

I started tutoring him in math at home, but it was like a scene from the Exorcist most of the time (i.e. my head spinning, not his)

Our world stopped! It was like a scene from 'The Matrix'. I was a spectator, watching my life crash around me.

It was like a scene from Monty Python. Jekelius goes to Berlin to ask Hitler for his sister's hand; he is met by the Gestapo, shipped off to the Eastern front, and snapped up by the Russians.

Although it once would have seemed like a scene from The Jetsons, drone delivery could be used to save time and money with an air-borne supply chain dispensing with actual human employees.

Other cultural icons that figure frequently as scene-setters include Hitchcock, Dante’s Inferno, James Bond, Jaws, and Dr. Seuss. All of these references represent cultural memes in the classic and original sense of meme: a cultural unit that spreads through a population via language and imagery.

It strikes me that cultural literacy is a very different thing for us today than it was for our forebears: they probably had to eat only one honey-flavored wafer to nail comparisons to it. We must subject ourselves to hours of on-page or on-screen entertainment to develop our metaphor material.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.