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'.
- Linguistic Metaphor: languages themselves are full of
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
- '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
- 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
- Many languages use spatial words or shape words as numerical
quantifiers or noun-classifiers:
- Indonesian sebatang rokok 'one
batang means 'stick'; se'ekor kucing 'a (tail of) cat' where
ekor means 'tail'; se-buah mobil 'a car' where buah
- 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.
- 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:
- You're my
rock of Gibraltar
- You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; you make me happy,
when skies are gray...
- She's a pillar of the community
- I rely on you to be my eyes and
- Speech is silver, but silence is golden.
- It's a jungle out there.
- I heard Tom DeLay's blood was in the water and the sharks were circling
- You're my knight in shining armor
Wall Street and financial managers and advertisers love metaphors;
here are a couple from their advertising:
- 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
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
- Note the visual metaphor at the top of this page: bulls, bears, and
Wall Street; but what is the significance of the sheep?
- 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.
- Here's another one that uses an acronym that resembles a
spider so they then build on that with visual imagery as well.
- 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.)
- 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:
As you can see, Metaphors may be in the form of X = Y .
- Let's put all our cards on the table.
- He plays his cards close to his chest
- She reached a glass ceiling and wasn't able to
break through it
- He outfoxed me ; he pulled the wool over my
eyes, and took me to the cleaners.
- People in Oregon and Washington are tired of seeing their
cities californicated and los angelized .
- And here's a bunch of metaphors that are based on animals and animal
- Metonyms are a special kind of metaphor where a descriptive
name substitutes for someone's name;
- Here is one example, the term hanky-panky applied to some people who
have been perhaps involved in some.
- Another set of famous metonyms are Disney's names for the dwarves in
Snow White (herself a metonym if there ever was one): Dopey,
Bashful and Doc
. And of course there's also Goofy.
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.
- 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.)
- 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
Mouse, the 'sidekick' in
Pumbaa in Lion King
. Another version, clearly NSNYE, but with some r's pronounced, is this
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-)
heard in Bugs Bunny accents) out of existence.
- A British accent used to convey sophistication (or
superciliousness of snobbishness ); or perhaps some other, nefarious
unreliable character trait.
- 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
- A `foreign' accent, or pseudo-foreigner talk is used to
mysteriousness, sexuality, perhaps evilness, unreliability, the demonic,
sinister forces, etc.
- 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)
be employed by evil creatures from outer space). Listen to this example
- `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!')
- 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.
- 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?)
- Here's one that contrasts their product (a round, curvaceous, therefore
Volkswagen) with a lot of 'squares.'
all know what a 'square' is ...)
- Here are two variations on a similar contrast, between a dark,
thing, and a bright red
thing (the Dodge), which is obviously more interesting.
mountains, thrones, superior
size or height, etc. associated with power, loftiness, superiority
- 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...
- 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.
- Sound (background music etc.) is usually a metaphor for
- Light, soaring flowing melodies (in a major key) for positive
feelings, goodness, freedom...
- Dark, heavy, descending, somber musical line for danger,
evil, sadness, etc. (minor key).
- Martial music, percussive rhythms may represent military
power, or just power.
- Thumping, rhythmic, or syncopated sounds may signal the
arrival of some unexpected, fearsome event or person.
- These musical `themes' repeat themselves whenever certain
characters appear, and signal the change of tone.
- Clichés and symbolism.
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
Examples of visual clichés (and some of them linguistic, too) in
- The cowboy hero in the white hat, riding a white
- The floozy/bimbo with the high, breathy, nasal,
- The gangster in the black suit, black shirt, white
tie, with the NSNY accent...
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
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
- Linked Metaphors
The language metaphor, the visual metaphor, and the musical metaphor may
be linked in subtle (or not so subtle) ways:
- 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
- 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.)
- `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.
- 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
- 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
- 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...)
- Genres of movies (TV shows) can also be metaphoric, or
allegorical (the whole thing is a metaphor, not just the figures of
- 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.
- Science Fiction movies are often allegories for good (The
American Way) vs. `The Evil [Soviet? Totalitarian?
- Beauty and the Beast ("Don't judge a book by its
- Candide, the Innocent Abroad; the Bildungsroman (the getting
of Wisdom? Growing up? Loss of Innocence/virginity?)
- 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?)
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