How Metaphors influence culture and daily language

I’ve never participated in an Ignite talk before. So as a challenge to myself, I decided to participate in Ignite at Stream and spent the next few weeks agonizing over what I would talk about. Ignite is a very compelling (and a little intimidating) talk format. You are allowed 15 slides and 4 minutes. Your slide changes automatically every 15 seconds so it’s very important to time your talk.

Stream 2011 is WPP’s three-day un-conference that brings together brilliant minds in marketing and technology from all over the world to discuss new trends, behaviors and ideas. (Not that I consider myself anywhere close to the league of people that were present!)

The real challenge for me was to find something unique to talk about that the crowds would find interesting. As a storyteller, I’m mildly obsessed with metaphors and so I decided to package everything I knew about metaphors in 4 short minutes and present it. Enjoy!!

Ignite: How metaphors influence culture

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Voice-over for of each slide: (I’ve added more context here to explain better!)
Metaphors exist because as humans we are incapable of thinking about things literally. Metaphors are nothing but stories that anchor our understanding and allow us to approach the world from a frame of reference. As children, we allow influential epics, books and stories to shape this frame of reference (For eg: Good vs. evil from Mahabharata; etc) As humans we yearn for figurative language to help us contextualize and make sense of our worlds.
Unless, ofcourse if you are Spock. In which case, this talk will not amuse you. (And I just used Spock as a metaphor for someone that does not speak emotions or understand figurative language) The point us, our conceptual systems, our jokes and even our national identities to a certain extent are metaphorical. But we are not readily aware of it.
Even as a professional (in advertising) metaphors from the basis of what I do. Metaphors allow us to dip into our values, histories and mythologies to communicate the value of a brand and connect to our audience. For all those naysayers, good advertising is good storytelling. (This advertisement will not make sense to you if you don’t have the cultural context. Ask me if you are curious about what this ad means)
Learning basic metaphors is essential to participate in daily life. You can call it slang or cultural literacy. I didn’t feel fully American until I understood the metaphors that dominate in this country. But I still have a lot to learn. Just a few weeks ago, I found out what “beaver” stands for in America. It was quite embarrassing. Either ways, in thinking about origin of metaphors – they come from every aspect of life. Cooking, eating, local animals, local foods etc. (Characteristic foods are often used to label ethnic groups: Krauts (Germans); Dhoklas (Gujaratis); Frogs; Limmeys etc)
But what has a profound impact on our culture is transformational inventions and events that become new sources of metaphors and have a lasting impact on how we communicate in thought and action.
Take for example, the invention of clock. The clock was a new representation of time. It’s mechanical clockwork came to symbolize pre-ordained regularity and order.

By 18th century is characterized and defined by clockwork metaphors and mechanistic philosophy. The figure of a clock is commonplace in the period – and the regularity with which it is used to metaphorize the mind. Descartes treatise on man compares our inner-workings (memories, passion and imagination) to that of a clock – mechanical and pre-ordained. Alexandar Pope pictured a clock-work soul in his Essay on man.

Over time though the thoughts and ideas evolved and now clock remains an expression of an authoritative mind. more closely associated with men. As keepers of time and order. A gentleman’s signature. Time-pieces that are passed down as legacy. That was an example of how an invention became a cultural metaphor.

But perhaps a bit closer to home and something we can relate to is the invention of the ship and how the age of sailing influenced our everyday vocabularies. Even though the industry has changed and we’ve forgotten the meanings and logic of hundred’s of these borrowed words.

For example,  “Show someone the ropes’ is taken from the use of ropes to orient and adjust the sails. With flying colors comes from the time when a ship would surrender by lowering the colors (national flag) the term is now used to indicate a victory. But the word I was most taken aback by was, “taken aback!” It describes what happens when wind veers 180 degrees on square-rigged ships; and the ships are suddenly driven straight backwards.

And my favorite, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” referred to a brass tray on which canon balls were stored. The jury is still out on this one and the internet keeps disagreeing – but sailors still use it so it goes.

Another metaphorical devices that we use when we argue comes from “war.” When we argue, we are often “attacking “ our opponents weaknesses to “win” an argument. In some cases, our arguments are “shot down” and we are “wiped out” by our opponent, especially if they are right “on target”. The concept, the activity and the language is structured as a war metaphor.

The biggest invention of our time that has transformed thoguhts and actions has been the internet. But its true impact and the metaphors it has birthed won’t be evident until generations after.  I’ve already followed some of you here and by the time we are done, I will have friended some of you. Some of words have found new meaning in our everyday parlanceand made it to Webster. As close to an official seal of approval that we can get but it remains to be seen the kind of impact these inventions and actions will have on the next hundred generations.

As a little exercise, try to pay attention to the words you use in everyday language and business and see if you can decipher which ones are metaphors and where they come from.

About Jinal Shah

Jinal Shah is a writer and a digital strategist.
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