Shipwrecked on a Metaphorical Reef



In Chapter Four of his book, The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher discusses how a large portion of our modern language is built out of metaphors.  Words change their meanings, sometimes multiple times.  According to Deutscher, this is how words for abstract concepts originated.  We see this in many of our words today, and we are constantly creating new metaphors to suit our needs.

Deutscher defines a metaphor as something which “transfer[s] concepts from one linguistic domain to another” (Deutscher 117).  Examining its etymology, we find that its root, the greek ‘meta-phora’ means to carry across, making itself a metaphor.  By this definition, a metaphor is some word or phrase whose meaning has evolved to something other than its literal definition.  One example would be the word ‘clear’.  This word can be used to describe ideas, or statements.  If someone asks “Do I make myself clear?”, they are checking to see if you understood.  However, the literal definition of the word ‘clear’ is ‘transparent’, or ‘translucent’.  They are not asking if they have turned invisible; the meaning of ‘clear’ has evolved.  If something is clear, you can see through it, so if someone’s statement is clear, you can perceive its meaning.
In this chapter, Deutscher explains that metaphors are how we are able to comprehend abstract concepts.  In fact, he says that metaphor is “an indispensable conceptual mechanism which allows us to think of abstract notions in terms of simpler concrete things” (Deutscher 142).  Even what appear to be the most common of words are, in fact, metaphors.  In his TED talk, Metaphorically speaking, James Geary discusses how humans cognitively connect physical concepts to abstract ones.  Specifically, he defines many of these metaphors in the context of pattern recognition, synesthesia, and cognitive dissonance.  These are the ways in which we create and understand metaphors.

Deutscher provides examples of words which describe abstract concepts whose origins are in concrete ideas.  For example, the Spanish word for ‘to have’ comes literally from the verb ‘to hold’.  In this language, to possess something was to hold it.  Since we are able to perceive the physical world, to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear things, we are able to describe them.  Verbs and nouns which relate to physical realities are the easiest to understand and define.  However, nebulous ideas, such as emotions, thoughts, or even prepositions are more difficult to understand in terms of physical objects.  One important distinction Deutscher discusses at length is how we get descriptions of time from words which are about space.  We can be ‘around the house’, or we can arrive ‘around four o’clock’.  Since time is more abstract than space, words describing space were created first, then applied to time.

The process of metaphor creation is one which is continually ongoing.  Christopher Kilgore recently published a paper on how the study of networks is creating a whole slew of new metaphors.  In Rhetoric of the Network: Toward a New Metaphor, he analyzes words which are used to describe different parts of networks.  Specifically, he says that networks are often described as “points, or ‘vertices’, connected by lines, or ‘edges’” (Kilgore 2013).  Of course, networks are not necessarily spatial.  One of the most important networks of our time is the internet.  In the physical world, the internet is really just electrons moving around in servers and through wires.  However, conceptually the internet is a network, with the points being websites and the lines being hyperlinks.  Yet, in our world of systems and networks of increasing complexity, we constantly have to find new ways to describe things, and thus are constantly making new metaphors.

Metaphors are some of the easiest ways we have to understanding abstractness.  As Geary points out, we often use synesthesia to describe the way we feel.  “A chill ran down my spine” can describe fear, “warmth blossomed in my chest” for happiness or love, “I felt like vomiting” for disgust.  These are all physical concepts, things which we can, in fact, feel.  However, they are tied into emotional ideas.  [In order to make robots understand how humans feel and act, would they need physical bodies to understand our language?  Read The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto].  But the abstract ideas of emotions are not necessarily metaphors in and of themselves.  Some most certainly are.  The word ‘fear’ comes from Old English and Germanic roots, meaning ‘danger’ or ‘risk’.  This makes sense, as we fear that which is dangerous to us.  Tracing roots back, we find that ‘danger’ comes from ‘difficulty’, which comes from ‘hard’, a physical concept.  The word ‘joy’ comes from a proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to rejoice’.  ‘Rejoice’ comes from ‘to be glad’, and ‘glad’ means ‘bright’, or ‘shining’.

If we trace word etymologies far enough, it is conceivable that every word we have to convey some abstract meaning had its origins in a concrete definition.  Hypothetically, the original language(s) consisted solely of concrete words, like ‘rock’ or ‘stick’, and actions, such as ‘run’ or ‘jump’.  But as time goes on, the meanings of these words get shifted in different ways, until ‘to jump’ no longer just means to leap into the air, but could also mean to skip over something.

I think that it is entirely possible that language started out this way.  The most important, immediate things to communicate are physical realities.  Animal communication is only concerned with these matters.  Bird and primate calls convey meaning which only refers to a present, tangible concern.  But as human cognition evolved, so too did our language.  It became necessary for us to discuss more theoretical and abstract matters, and thus our language evolved to follow suit.

In conclusion, metaphors are the most powerful tool we have to discuss the abstract.  The way in which we perceive the internal, theoretical world is shaped by the physical world around us.  The process of redefining old words to convey some new abstract idea is one which has changed our language through and through.  It is a process which continues to this very day and will, undoubtedly, continue to act until perhaps one day when we finally have a word for everything.


Deutscher, G. (2005).  The Unfolding of Language.  New York, NY: Picador.
Geary, James.  Metaphorically speaking. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Kilgore, C. D. (2013). Rhetoric of the Network: Toward a New Metaphor. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 46(4), 37–58.

Yamamoto, H. (2006).  The Stories of Ibis.  (T. Nieda, Trans.). Tokyo, Japan: K



Major: Physics, Astronomy emphasis
Expected Graduation: May 2016
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
As a scientist, I am driven to learn new things wherever I go.  In this course, I was intrigued by the idea that abstract thought might be linked to concrete qualities.  How a person speaks offers insight into how they think; language is a window into the mind.  As a person who is often concerned with highly theoretical, abstract concepts, I decided to research what the etymology of abstract words might mean for our language.