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Meaningful Metaphorical Messages

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By Megan Fuller

As a new employee at the non-profit where I am now working, I had the opportunity to meet with many of the staff in different departments to get to know agency dynamics. The mission of this agency is to match mentors with youth facing adversity. While speaking to the gentleman in charge of recruiting mentors, he mentioned that there is a shortage of male volunteers and the agency has a list of boys waiting for a match.  He said this problem exists everywhere-this dearth of male mentors. I asked him why he thought that was and what does he do to try and encourage more men to sign up. He explained that sometimes the men are concerned that they will be looked at as a parent rather than a mentor. To combat this fear, the recruiter talks to them about being a coach. Coaches are trusted adults that help kids in more limited and specific areas rather than the all-encompassing responsibility of being a parent. It’s not scary to be a coach, coaches get to be fun. This guy is smart, I thought. He knows that changing the metaphor changes the meaning.

The meaning of so many aspects of our culture is revealed through metaphor. Sure metaphor is a fun literary technique but it is actually critical to our intracultural communication. Our expectations and understanding of behavior in ourselves and others are based on a shared conceptual system which is revealed through metaphor.  Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson write in their book Metaphors We Live By, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5).

One of my favorite metaphors that Lakoff and Johnson discuss as being integral to this American life is TIME IS MONEY. Have you ever noticed that we talk about time and money in the same way? At work I earn time off as well as my pay. We can waste time or save time, spend time or give time, make time, run out of time, budget time, or live on borrowed time. Clearly, we think about time as a limited resource. It seems to be precious and should be properly managed. Isn’t it funny how we think of one person having more time than another, when everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day?

Another common but maybe less obvious metaphor we use is IDEAS ARE FOOD. Food for thought, isn’t it? You might devour a book, sink your teeth into something or put it on the back burner. Let that guy stew in his own juice for a while. Maybe the raw facts will help improve that half-baked idea. Our understanding of ideas doesn’t stop at food though. Ideas are also human-they can spawn or die out; they can be resurrected. Ideas are also referred to as plants (budding concept, fertile imagination), products (generated or re-fined), commodities (worthless), resources (running low on), money (my two cents), fashions (out of style), and cutting instruments (ripped it to shreds).

Remember Pat Benetar singing that Love is a Battlefield? LOVE IS WAR, but it is also magic (she cast a spell on me) and a physical force (I was drawn to him). It could also be a patient in a sick relationship or cause madness as in Madonna’s Crazy for You. Love, like an idea, can be a plant that blooms and grows, or grows apart, or withers and dies. Love can be many things and we can share our experiences or ideas because of metaphor.

So let me just wrap up this homage to metaphor and tie up any loose ends by saying that METAPHOR IS A GIFT. We can package our emotions and experiences to communicate with others. Metaphors offer us the facility to empathize and sympathize, to teach and to learn, to create and to understand. They provide deeper meaning within our everyday lives.


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