How Metaphors influence culture and daily language
September 26th, 2011 • Culture Briefings
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!!
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.
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.