Metaphor and Meaning (Introduction to Semiotics Part 6)

Jun 06 2012

Rosalind gives Orlando a chain in As You Like It (Emile Bayard)

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances”  - William Shakespeare
Metaphors and life
Shakespeare was a master of metaphor, and ‘all the world’s a stage’ is one of his most famous and widely used, linking back to the Roman persona (read more here) and the modern ‘dramaturgical’ age as written about by Erving Goffman and others. It’s widely used because it makes so much sense as a description of our lives.
Many argue (and I believe) that analogy (of which metaphor is the most widely used example) is the basis of all human thought. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a whole book (or books) on the topic (see Metaphors We Live By), and it is the driving idea of Douglas Hofstadter’s thinking on a wide range of subjects from computers to music (see I Am A Strange Loop). As Lakoff & Johnson wrote, ‘… metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
They open their book with the example of ‘argument is war’ to show how a concept can be metaphorical and also how it can influence everyday behaviours. They cite many expressions, including ‘your claims are indefensible’, ‘he attacked every weak point in my argument’, ‘her criticisms were right on target’, ‘I demolished the argument’, ‘okay, shoot!’, ‘the argument was shot down’ etc etc. As they say, we don;t just talk about arguments as war, it’s something we either win or lose, we argue with an opponent, we defend our ground, and so on. It structures the language and behaviours we use when arguing with someone, and is deeply embedded in our thinking. [Read more about the structures of meaning here.]
Similarly, the concept of ‘time is money’ is another deeply embedded metaphor (and the basis of last year’s film In Time). The book is full of further examples.
They summarise that the essence of metaphor is ‘understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another’.
Ways of meaning
Associative structures are the key to how we think and are the basis of rhetoric (going back 2,000 years to Aristotle), through metaphor, metonymy and irony, Metaphor and metonymy are important concepts in semiotics, standing for figurative and literal meanings of signs.
Metaphor uses comparison, association or resemblance to make an analogy between one thing and another (war and argument, or time and money). By contrast, metonymy uses an attribute of something to stand for the thing itself, or point to the thing itself by reference to its effects (smoke and fire, or brass and military officers). Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy where a word for part of something is used to mean the whole (sail for boat, wheels for car, face for person). Irony (not so commonly written about in semiotics) is where words are used to convey a meaning contrary to the literal sense of the words, such as, ‘I love being tortured’ spoken by someone in pain (with a few weird exceptions). [Irony is one of the many reasons for the difficulty of semantic analysis by computers which are, so far, not sophisticated enough to interpret context.]
Metaphor is based on symbolic (arbitrary meanings) and metonymy on indexical meanings to use the language of Charles Peirce (read more here).
Many metaphors are commonly found across different languages and cultures, especially those based on our sensory experience of the world (read more here about the sensory basis of metaphor). Warm, cold and heavy are commonly used across a wide range of applications in language, although differences in context lead to differences in use. For example, ‘hot’ can mean ‘rage’ in Hebrew, ‘enthusiasm’ in Chinese, ‘sexual arousal’ in Thailand and ‘energy’ in Hausa.
Brand meanings
Many brands use metaphor and many use metonymy (even luxury brands). Take a look at the ads for Eternity and Paloma Picasso perfumes below, and see the huge difference in their use of associations.
The Eternity ad is in black & white, uses realistic imagery, has a casual feel showing a girl next door with a maternal and caring relationship (metonymy), whereas the Paloma Picasso ad is colourful, iconic (an element of fantasy), has an artistic and creative feel and a much more formal and goddess-like image of woman (metaphor). These two ads are almost binary opposites of each other (Oswald, 2012). Binary opposition is the subject of the next article in this series.
Similarly, the three whisky advertisements below, show very different ways of creating meaning (and brand value) from symbolic to literal.
Brands use metaphor and metonymy all the time (and generally focus on one or the other), and brand names themselves make use of these ways of meaning. Some brand and product names are more literal (iPhone) and others are more symbolic (Apple).
In fact, many very successful (metaphorical) brand names end up being metonyms for their own product category (which they often helped to create). Think of Coca-Cola, Hoover, Jell-o, Kleenex, Post-It notes, Scotch Tape, Thermos, Vaseline, Walkman and Xerox to name a few which are now commonly used for any product in the category.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980)
The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice by Marcel Danesi (2007)
Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics by Marcel Danesi (2008)
I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (2008)
Marketing Semiotics: Signs, Strategies and Brand Value by Laura R. Oswald (2012)

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