Hello, I am Jinal Shah. I work at JWT New York. If you’ve seen my bio it says I love metaphors. It is an odd thing to be passionate about but I’ve made some interesting discoveries in my exploration of this subject.
Metaphors exist because as humans we are incapable of thinking about things literally. Metaphors are nothing but stories that anchor our understanding and allow us to approach the world from a frame of reference. As humans, we yearn for figurative language to help us contextualize and make sense of our world.
Unless ofcourse, if you are Spock. In which case this talk will not amuse you. (and I just use you as a metaphor to make a point) But the point is our conceptual systems, our jokes, our national identities to a certain extent are metaphorical. But it is not something we are readily aware of.
As a professional too, metaphors form the basis of what I do. I grew up in India and because we have such a rich mythology and history, we are able to dip into our stories to find metaphors to communicate the value of a brand and connect to our audience.
Learning basic metaphors is essential to participating in culture. You can call it slang or cultural literacy. Either ways. When we think about origin of metaphors they come from every aspect of life. Cooking, eating, foods, local animals, etc. (Characteristic foods are used to label ethnic groups. Krauts, Dhoklas, Frogs, Limeys etc)
But what’s has a profound impact on our culture is transformational inventions or events that become new sources of metaphors and have a lasting impact on how we communicate in thought and action.
One such invention is the clock. Invented in 13 th century, It was a new representation of time. It’s mechanical clockwork came to symbolize pre-ordained regularity and order.
By 18 th century is characterized and defined by clockwork metaphors and mechanistic philosophy. The figure of a clock is commonplace in the period – and the regularity with which it is used to metaphorize the mind. Descartes treatise on man compares our inner-workings (memories, passion and imagination) to that of a clock – mechanical and pre-ordained. Alexandar Pope pictured a clock-work soul in his Essay on man.
But Over time though the thoughts and ideas evolved and now clock remains an expression of an authoritative mind. more closely associated with men. As keepers of time and order. A gentleman’s signature. Time-pieces that are passed down as legacy. That was an example of how an invention became a cultural metaphor.
But perhaps a bit closer to home and something we can relate to is the invention of ship and how its influenced our everyday vocabularies. Even though the industry has changed and even though we’ve forgotten the logic for hundred’s of these borrowed words.
For example, “Show someone the ropes’ is taken from the use of ropes to orient and adjust the sails. With flying colors comes from the time when a ship would surrender by lowering the colors (national flag) the term is now used to indicate a victory But the word I was most taken aback by was, “taken aback!” It describes what happens when wind veers 180 degrees on square-rigged ships; and the ships are suddenly driven straight backwards.
And my favorite, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” referred to a brass tray on which canon balls were stored. The jury is still out on this one and the internet keeps disagreeing – but sailors still use it so it goes.
Another one: the metaphorical devices that we use when we argue. When we argue, we are often “attacking “ our opponents weaknesses to “win” an argument. In some cases, our arguments are “shot down” and we are “wiped out” by our opponent, especially if they are right “on target”. The concept, the activity and the language is structured as a war metaphor.
The biggest invention of our time that has transformed thoguhts and actions has been the internet. But its true impact and the metaphors it has birthed won’t be evident until generations after. I’ve already followed some of you here and by the time we are done, I will have friended some of you. Some of words have found new meaning in our everyday parlanceand made it to Webster. As close to an official seal of approval that we can get but it remains to be seen the kind of impact these inventions and actions will have on the next hundred generations.
As a little exercise, try to pay attention to the words you use in everyday language and business and see if you can decipher which ones are metaphors and where they come from.
Ignite: How metaphors influence culture
How Metaphors shape our culture and daily language
INTRODUCTION TO MORALITY, RITUALS AND A FRAMEWORK FOR OUR INTERNAL COMPASS.