Metaphor – A Solid Argument


Even in the most commonplace discourse, it is hardly possible to venture a few steps without treading on dozens of metaphors. – Guy Deutscher


In chapter 4 of his book The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher posits that the bulk of the words in human languages are metaphors.1 He proposes that the earliest human words described simple, solid concepts – particularly, parts of the body.1 From the location of body parts came descriptions of space: to be at the head of an army means to be in front of it; to be in the heart of something is to be located at its center.1

With spatial concepts squared away, Deutscher says, humans were free to extend the meanings of our words to include concepts of time.1 Prepositions used to describe space – “at the door”, “within the prison” – became markers of time: “at noon”, “within a year”.1

Finally, says Deutscher, these temporal terms acquired even more abstract meanings, and could be used to describe such things as causes and reasons.1 Therefore a meeting can be held at the town square, at one o’clock, at the request of the mayor – or in the treehouse, in an hour, in secret.

In order to convince us, Deutscher notes that nearly any word in any language can be traced to a simpler, more concrete predecessor.1 “Discover”, for example, initially meant to remove the cover from something.1 Similarly, one does not literally tackle a chore, devour a book, or deflate someone’s ego.

Another way to spot the prevalence of metaphors is to look for groups, or frameworks. Deutscher points out that there is often a link between conceptual domains, showing where the switch from concrete to abstract was made.1 Thoughts, for example, are discussed with the same terminology we use for food – Deutscher mentions sweet dreams and trouble brewing, and that one could digest a half-baked idea.1 This is the jump from concrete to abstract: time is discussed in terms of space, and thoughts are discussed in terms of food. “When we hear a phrase like ‘souffle of promises’,” says Deutscher, “the image does not sound so surprising, because it fits neatly into this familiar frame.”1 Why do humans make this jump from concrete to abstract? Deutscher’s answer is simple: “Metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction.”1 Humans create metaphors to extend our range of expression. Then we use them over and over, often until the original meaning is lost and forgotten.

Deutscher’s argument is a strong one. He is correct in stating that “Even the most tedious prose is teeming with metaphors.”1 For example, here is a word mentioned often in modern-day news: “candidate”. The metaphorical nature of this word is not obvious; it does not immediately appear to describe anything. Some digging, however, reveals the story: in Rome, those seeking election to political office would often dye their robes dazzlingly white in order to stand out from the crowd.2 The Latin word for “whitened” – candidatus – slowly became synonymous with those running for office, thus passing on to us our modern word candidate.3

It reflects well on the metaphor theory that it holds for multiple languages. The Japanese “arigato”, meaning “thank you,” derives from words meaning “to be” and “difficult”.4 The original combination, “arigatashi”, refers to something that is “difficult to be”, therefore something that is rare and special – something for which one is grateful.5 Alternatively, it describes the state of the grateful person: so overwhelmed that they find it difficult to exist with the emotion inside them.4 The ubiquitousness of such metaphors complements Noam Chomsky’s concept of universal grammar – that the human mind is designed to construct an infinite number of sentences from a finite number of rules.6 In this case, the rule is that concrete descriptors can be applied to abstract concepts. “Metaphor,” says  Deutscher, “is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us.”1  He even suggests that the process of transforming nouns such as “back” into prepositions such as “behind” is responsible for creating grammar in the first place, though he leaves the full explanation for another chapter.1

The idea of Deutscher’s that the transfer of meaning often occurs in specific frameworks also holds up. Along with “ideas are food”, he mentions the common “more is up, less is down” image, which originally came from such observations as rising water levels, but was transferred to describe such intangibles as productivity and self-esteem.1 Another example of a framework for transfer is found in descriptions of social approval. Popularity is often measured in terms of temperature – the more extreme the temperature, the more desired is the trait. While less concrete descriptors such as “rad”, “groovy”, and “tubular” fall by the wayside, “cool” is still a compliment, and it is desirable for one’s physique or ideas to be considered “hot”. It is not hard to imagine the term “icy” catching on, since it fits into the “familiar frame” of concepts.

A similar concept framework for popularity is that of “in” and “out”. Many people desire to be “on the inside” of a group, so as to be “in on” the group’s plans and knowledge. To do so, they may take advantage of the style of dress, speech, or decoration that is currently “in”. Failure to do so might result in getting “kicked out”, becoming an “outsider” and remaining “out of the loop.” Again, these frameworks reinforce the idea of a universal grammar: concrete can be transferred to abstract in specific ways that are common to all human beings. “The correspondences are by no means coincidental…there is no known language where spatial terms are not also used to describe temporal relations.”1

The most convincing argument for the construction of language from metaphors is the fact that it can be observed. Take, for example, the current evolution of the word “legit”. Legit is short for legitimate, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as: 1. being in compliance with the law, 2. being in accordance with established or accepted patterns and standards, 3. based on logical reasoning, 4. authentic or genuine, etc.7 The Indo-European ancestor is leg, meaning to collect – a derivative is “to speak”, from which came the Latin lex and leg- , meaning “law”.7 Modern people have made a jump from that which is authentic and accepted (a legitimate perspective) and that which is lawful (a legitimate business), to that which they personally like and wish to endorse (“that is really legit!”). That which people think is legit might not necessarily be lawful, signifying a complete transfer of the meaning of the word – the continued evolution of a metaphor.

Deutscher’s seemingly radical idea – that all words come from simpler words – may actually have been around since the time of the Greek philosophers. This makes sense, because if it is true that all humans use metaphor, someone must certainly have discovered it earlier. Socrates in his discourse with Hermogenes analyzes the origin of words.8 He appears to agree with Deutscher that abstract words are descended from other, more concrete words. “Remember,” he says, “that we put in and pull out letters in words, and give names as we please and change the accents.”8 As one example, Socrates suggests to Hermogenes that the word anthropos (man) comes from anathron a opopen (one who looks up at what he sees), and that the original phrase differentiated people, who “look up at” (consider) what they see, from animals, who do not ponder or consider things.8

It makes sense that people should seek to explain abstract concepts with something a bit closer to home. Even today, when attempting to describe an unfamiliar experience, humans must compare it to something that is already understood. It stands to reason that the same burst of abstraction ability that allowed us to create the first simple words could then be used to turn concrete words into metaphors. The recurrence of Deutscher’s framework pattern and the fact that most every word in existence has a traceable, concrete history confirm his idea that “metaphor is endemic within the structure of language”.1


  1. The Unfolding of Language; Deutscher, Guy; 2005; Holt Paperbacks; 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
  2. The Origin of Italian Words; Casa Italiana Language School;; last modified 3/17/2013, accessed 3/17/2013
  3. Candidate – Definition; Merriam-Webster Dictionary;; last modified 3/17/2013; accessed 3/17/2013
  4. Origins of Arigato; Lewis, Jonathan; LINGUIST List issue 12.1871; 2001;; last modified 01/28/2005; accessed 3/17/2013
  5. Japanese words of Portuguese origin; Wikipedia;; last modified 26 February 2013; accessed 3/17/2013
  6. A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior; Chomsky, Noam; Language, 35, No. 1 (1959), 26-58.
  7. American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition; Houghton Mifflin Company; 2000; 222 Berkely Street, Boston, MA 02116
  8. Cratylus; Plato; PDF provided by Kim Andersen for Honors 380


by Katharine MacDonald
Running Start Student, 3rd semester
Intended Major: Civil Engineering (Hydrology)
Hometown: Colfax, WA