Metaphors of/for Language in Popular Culture

Handout for LING 057, Language and Popular Culture

Metaphor is a term from rhetoric that refers to a figure of speech or a linguistic device in which a word or phrase that literally denotes one thing is used figuratively for something else, as a way of suggesting likeness or analogy between the two. As such the metaphor conveys additional or more complex meaning beyond the literal meaning, often in a subtle way; it can be a way of `expressing the inexpressible' or `saying the unsayable'.

  1. Linguistic Metaphor: languages themselves are full of metaphor, often built-in to the grammar of the verb phrase or the noun phrase.

    • Use of spatial markers, such as prepositions, for time expressions: something that happened 'before' another event, or 'after' another event, are essentially non-literal extensions of the actual perceivable spatial meaning to temporal meaning.

    • Use of spatial markers to indicate excessiveness, positive or negative mood, etc.

      • 'The stock market closed up today'
      • 'I'm feel very on top of things; yesterday I felt under the weather.'
      • Things are looking up .

    • Use of spatial markers (e.g. prepositions) for other more abstract meaning:

      • 'your time is up'

      • 'I'm feeling kind of spaced out '

      • 'All our computers are down '

      • 'Midterm Vacation is over and I don't feel up to returning to school.

      • 'It's the in thing right now'

      • This is really the pits; I've never felt so low.

    • Many languages use spatial markers to indicate 'aspect' in verbs, i.e. a kind of completion of an action.

      • 'the house burned down yesterday.'

      • 'I'd like to go off by myself for a while.'

      • 'he used up all his time'

      • 'Get up and get off my back'

      • 'Oh, come off it; you need to get over the feeling that you're a burned- out case, and all used up .'

    • Many languages use spatial words or shape words as numerical quantifiers or noun-classifiers:

      • Indonesian sebatang rokok 'one cigarette' where batang means 'stick'; se'ekor kucing 'a (tail of) cat' where ekor means 'tail'; se-buah mobil 'a car' where buah means 'fruit'.

      • English uses 'a stick of butter', 'a loaf of bread' a 'pile' of leaves, laundry, papers, work...

    We have already seen some uses of this in advertising and other print media. As we turn to movies and television ("the moving image") we will encounter metaphors used on a number of different levels.

    1. Metaphor `within language' i.e. the usual literary metaphorical device, the phrase, the 'figure of speech' such as in this poem about a soldier or when a character (in a novel, movie etc.) uses phrases like:

      1. You're my rock of Gibraltar

      2. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; you make me happy, when skies are gray...

      3. She's a pillar of the community

      4. I rely on you to be my eyes and ears.

      5. Speech is silver, but silence is golden.

      6. It's a jungle out there.

      7. I heard Tom DeLay's blood was in the water and the sharks were circling him.
      8. You're my knight in shining armor

          Wall Street and financial managers and advertisers love metaphors; here are a couple from their advertising:

        1. Here's one that capitalizes on our knowing the expression `I'll take the high road and you take the low road. by using a visual metaphor that expresses the same thing as the verbal one. Note how the people on the high road know where they are going; somebody points, others follow. The people on the `low road' are confused, wandering along crooked paths.

        2. Note the visual metaphor at the top of this page: bulls, bears, and Wall Street; but what is the significance of the sheep?

        3. Now that the bull market is over, here's a cartoon that pokes fun at the bull, who has fallen on hard times, while all the bears are doing fine.

        4. Here's another one that uses an acronym that resembles a spider so they then build on that with visual imagery as well.

        5. Here's one that encourages us to think long-term and not expect quick returns on our investments. (Note the swimmer, swimming in an incredibly long channel, with the sunset in the distance.)

        6. Here's one that compares the stock market with `defined asset funds' by using musical imagery i.e. the `exuberance of the stock market' (complex and busy musical notes) vs. the `stability' of the defined asset funds (whole notes with `hold' signs connecting them.)

      Metaphors may also be verbal i.e. a verbal action such as the following is expressed figuratively:

      1. Let's put all our cards on the table.

      2. He plays his cards close to his chest

      3. She reached a glass ceiling and wasn't able to break through it

      4. He outfoxed me ; he pulled the wool over my eyes, and took me to the cleaners.

      5. People in Oregon and Washington are tired of seeing their cities californicated and los angelized .

      6. And here's a bunch of metaphors that are based on animals and animal behavior.

      As you can see, Metaphors may be in the form of X = Y .

    2. Metonyms are a special kind of metaphor where a descriptive name substitutes for someone's name;

    3. Allegory:

      A character (in the movie, play etc.) or perhaps an element of the plot (or indeed the whole plot) is a metaphor for something else: a recent study of Shakespeare's Hamlet portrays it as a metaphor for (or allegory of) the Protestant (especially German, Lutheran) Reformation. If humor or slapstick or other devices are involved, the allegory may become a satire or a parody. If the whole story is allegorical, it means that each character and situation is to be read as something (or someone) else, and the whole literal meaning of the story is a front for something else. The recent film Primary Colors seems to have been a thinly-veiled allegory for Clinton's presidency. Sometimes the French term roman a clef is used, meaning 'a novel with a key' i.e. a story where each character stands for some `real' counterpart.

      Another recent movie review about Godzilla claims that Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear destruction, and all that entails.

    4. Parable.

    5. Language per se (i.e. a particular language, such as French, Italian, German, etc.) or a dialect of a language (such as "southern", African-American, New York non-standard English etc.) used metaphorically, perhaps to convey character (by which we mean ``personality", psychological complexity, quirkiness, differentness, etc.)

      1. New York non-standard English (NYNSE) used for criminals, low-lifes, sometimes strongly associated with the male gender. If associated. with females, conveys stupidity, ignorance, lack of education, and maybe loose morals: the showgirl, the "gun moll", the cigarette- or hat-check girl, the telphone operator. In Disney movies, this accent is often used for "sidekicks" of various sorts, such as Timothy Mouse, the 'sidekick' in Dumbo , Iago (in Aladdin) , and Pumbaa in Lion King . Another version, clearly NSNYE, but with some r's pronounced, is this one.
      2. Then there's the two telephone operators, Gertrude Gearshift and Mable Flapsaddle, whom the Jack Benny radio show continuously made fun of; this continual stereotyping of the 'Brooklyn' accent may have contributed to driving the "Brooklyn diphthong' [oy] (usually spelled -ir-, -er-, -or, or -ur-) (also heard in Bugs Bunny accents) out of existence.

      3. A British accent used to convey sophistication (or superciliousness of snobbishness ); or perhaps some other, nefarious unreliable character trait.

      4. A southwestern ('cowboy') accent for toughness, machismo, the loner... (might be used in a Marlboro cigarette commercial, an ad for Ramada Inns). See article here on Texas accent.

      5. A `foreign' accent, or pseudo-foreigner talk is used to convey mysteriousness, sexuality, perhaps evilness, unreliability, the demonic, sinister forces, etc.


      6. Certain foreign accents, e.g. German, Russian, Japanese, may be used to portray enemies: warlike, evil characters, crafty, untrustworthy people. (In science fiction, these (usually pseudoforeign) accents may be employed by evil creatures from outer space). Listen to this example of Dracula

      7. `Broken' English: non-standard grammar, rudimentary grammar, may be used to depict stupid, evil, low characters, monsters, etc.: the alien in ID4 speaks like Cookie Monster (`We no want peace; we want ... you die!')

    6. Visual metaphors may also appear in the media, perhaps linked with a language or dialect metaphor, perhaps not: the drawing at the top of the webpage syllabus is a visual metaphor. Note the lines of the furrowed brow, indicating mental activity (?) or creativity, become pages of writing that fly off into ...? Another one is this cartoon about campaign-finance reform.

      1. Light and dark may be used metaphorically; heroes/heroines dressed in white/light colors; bad-guys dressed in dark colors, or mounted on a dark horse (the "dark-horse" metaphor?). Dark may also be a metaphor for mystery; a "dark" voice may convey some of the same...

        Birds, flight, soaring images may be metaphors for freedom, independence, rugged individualism (the eagle); or maybe even for death! (the soul leaving the body?)

      2. Here's one that contrasts their product (a round, curvaceous, therefore interesting Volkswagen) with a lot of 'squares.' (We all know what a 'square' is ...)

      3. Here are two variations on a similar contrast, between a dark, uninteresting thing, and a bright red thing (the Dodge), which is obviously more interesting.

      4. Height, mountains, thrones, superior size or height, etc. associated with power, loftiness, superiority

      5. Sexual activity may be conveyed metaphorically: instead of showing sexual intercourse, the film may use a metaphor of an automobile speeding recklessly through the night, or a fast train entering a tunnel, or a scene involving kissing followed by fireworks exploding in the sky; in the Indian film (where not even kissing may be shown) the visual metaphor used is that of a bee exploring the interior of a flower, or two flowers nodding their heads toward each other...

      6. Death, especially gruesome deaths (by hanging, dismemberment, etc.) may be not visually portrayed, but portrayed metaphorically, e.g. we see the victim disappear from the screen, but loud groans, screams, etc. are heard, followed by bits of clothing etc. flying through the air, and then a light snuffed out or, we see the shadows of the attacker and victim projected on a wall, and see the knife being stabbed, the victim fall, etc., but only the shadow. Or, someone wakes up in bed, finds blood on his hands, screams; we know something awful has happened, but aren't shown it.

    7. Sound (background music etc.) is usually a metaphor for something:

      1. Light, soaring flowing melodies (in a major key) for positive feelings, goodness, freedom...

      2. Dark, heavy, descending, somber musical line for danger, evil, sadness, etc. (minor key).

      3. Martial music, percussive rhythms may represent military power, or just power.

      4. Thumping, rhythmic, or syncopated sounds may signal the arrival of some unexpected, fearsome event or person.

      5. These musical `themes' repeat themselves whenever certain characters appear, and signal the change of tone.

    8. Clichés and symbolism.

      1. Clichés are metaphors that have become so tired, overused and hackneyed that they no longer convey the intended meaning; or they convey it so shabbily or stereotypically that we aren't able to accept the figurative association. Instead of finding it interesting, we find it tiresome, unimaginative, trite, hackneyed, boring or ridiculous. (Here, for example, is a list of common clichés.)

        Examples of visual clichés (and some of them linguistic, too) in film:

        • The cowboy hero in the white hat, riding a white horse

        • The floozy/bimbo with the high, breathy, nasal, non-standard NY accent

        • The gangster in the black suit, black shirt, white tie, with the NSNY accent...

    9. Symbolism.

      Symbols are usually visual signs, shapes that have, over time, acquired iconic meaning, i.e. as soon as we see them, we get the idea of what they symbolize. They can have no other meaning than their iconic meaning, and sometimes their shapes become then stylized so that they lose their `pictographic' shape. Examples of some symbols are these images. Note that a symbol like the dollar sign ("$") originated as the two letters "U" and "S", and gradually the U was superimposed on the S, to get [$] which now no longer means `United States dollar' but just `dollar' (e.g. HongKong $ (HK$), Singapore $ (S$), etc. Similarly the symbol for the Japanese Yen () began as a "Y" with [=] across the bottom, and now has assumed the iconic meaning.

    10. Linked Metaphors

      The language metaphor, the visual metaphor, and the musical metaphor may be linked in subtle (or not so subtle) ways:

      1. The powerful, good-guy, white-clad hero probably speaks `standard' language, as does the virtuous good-woman white-clad heroine. In an American film they will speak with `standard American' accents (or at least accents appropriate to their environment, such as the American Southwest); in a British film they will speak with standard RP accents. The background music is upbeat, positive, triumphal

      2. Evil or nefarious or mysterious characters, or humorous (ludicrous, ridiculous) characters/creatures are depicted as visually non-standard (even evil etc.) by their clothing, body-style, posture, hairstyle, behavior, and speaking with non-standard accents. `Dark' music may dominate the background. (Disney films are the paradigm here.)

      3. `Unnatural' switches between languages or language styles (register or tone shift, including wide variation in pitch, from high to low) may signal a humorous, untrustworthy, or erratic character, who can't be taken seriously, or is untrustworthy.

      4. In Disney's Dumbo various animals are linked with language styles, or particular dialects: the crows speak African-American dialect, the mouse (Timothy) speaks the `side-kick' dialect (New York non-standard); the hyenas (in Lion King) lines are voiced by an African-American woman (Whoopie Goldberg), and a Hispanic man (Cheech Marin); the third hyena is voiceless (stupid?). And the parrot in Lion King (Iago) speaks with the usual side-kick dialect, New York NSE

    11. Conventions: Movies and TV are full of conventions: conventional notions about beauty, strength, goodness, and ugliness, weakness, and evil. Conventionally-beautiful people speak in a predictable way; so do the conventionally-evil characters.

      Some of these linguistic metaphors have also become conventional and we depend on them having these conventional (or stereotypic) meanings. Some of the language stereotypes that have become conventional are:

      • the sidekick speaks NYNSE (New York Non-Standard English).

      • the crooks speak NYNSE

      • macho-men speak southwestern American dialect

      • air-heads speak with breathy voices, or at a faster/slower pace than standard speakers.

      • female air-heads/bimbos (`the dumb blonde') use breathy voice, nasal voice, non-standard dialect.

      • Rich, well-educated people speak with `snooty' accents, vaguely British-sounding. (The Grey Poupon Mustard ad...)

    12. Genres of movies (TV shows) can also be metaphoric, or allegorical (the whole thing is a metaphor, not just the figures of speech.)

      1. The Western (and the West) is a metaphor for a place of freedom, unhampered by constraints, where `a man can be a man', a rugged individual, can make it on his own, etc.

      2. Science Fiction movies are often allegories for good (The American Way) vs. `The Evil [Soviet? Totalitarian? Fascist?] Empire').

      3. Beauty and the Beast ("Don't judge a book by its cover?)

      4. Candide, the Innocent Abroad; the Bildungsroman (the getting of Wisdom? Growing up? Loss of Innocence/virginity?)

      5. The Buddy Movie, the Road Movie: an allegory for search for freedom? search for identity? growing up? what is friendship...? (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Thelma and Louise?)

    13. Summing up:

      As you analyze your moving-image material for your large project, please keep the metaphor in mind, and see how language is used in all the above ways. For help with bibliography on the subject of metaphor, see this page, last modified July 13, 2003.