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What Is a Cognitive Metaphor?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A way in which someone uses a concrete or physical idea to better understand abstract ideas is referred to as a cognitive metaphor. It is a particular type of metaphor that goes beyond literary or poetic use, and extends into practical, every day considerations. A common example of a cognitive metaphor is the idea of "up" and "down" being used to indicate the quantity of something. When the cost of a product, which is a quantitative value, increases, it is said to" go up" or to "rise." These types of concepts are quite common and are found among a number of different cultures.

Cognitive metaphor theory refers to the overall concept of this idea, and the way in which people as a whole use figurative language and comparisons. A metaphor is a direct comparison between two different things, such as "Her eyes were pools of dark water reflecting the night sky" or "He is an angry bear, first thing in the morning." Rather than stating that one thing is like another, the two objects are directly related to each other.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Though a cognitive metaphor functions in much the same way, rather than acting merely as an expression, it is a tool for better understanding the world. One concept, which is abstract or theoretical, is compared directly to another concept that is real or physical in nature. This allows someone to more easily create a frame of reference by which the abstract idea can be fully understood.

For example, the idea that when a product becomes more expensive, it is said that the "prices are rising," is a cognitive metaphor. The cost of the product is not physically increasing in height. It is a quantitative value that is increasing in magnitude and cost. This is an abstract concept, however, in which there is no physical component to this increase that can be seen, other than the greater amount of money needed to pay for it.

The "rise" likely represents the idea of an increase in water volume within a given body. A glass of water, for example, with additional water added physically raises in height toward the top. In this way, there is a concrete example of additional quantity resulting in a physical rise. Through cognitive metaphor, this real concept is compared to the abstract idea of increased cost for a product, and so the second idea becomes easier to understand.

Use of cognitive metaphor likely stemmed from shared human experiences as people began to deal with numerous abstract concepts. Language may have initially only been needed to indicate and describe physical elements and the environment around people. As non-physical components became more important, such as "love" and "value," then physical concepts were often used to more easily explain and describe them. This is why cognitive metaphor can be seen in numerous cultures and languages, and there is a fundamental understanding of what these expressions mean.

Discussion Comments


If we have metaphors, why do we need memes?


Cognitive (conceptual) metaphors have a huge impact on language and culture. We often don't realize this affect.

For example, the types of metaphors used and which metaphors become more common or popular actually says a lot about the worldview of people in that society.

Take for example the metaphors in this famous Indian poem about love: "Ye ishq nahin aasan, bas itna samajh lijiye. Ek aag ka dariya hai, aur doob ke jana hai." Meaning "this love is not easy, just understand that much, it's a river of fire, and one must go through it drowning (sinking)."

This says a lot about how the poet views love. It's a river of fire, something that burns and pains. And it's not possible to swim in it, one must drown.


@bluedolphin-- Well it doesn't have to be an object but it should be a concrete idea, something conceptual that sheds light on what one is trying to say.

A good example is the metaphor in the phrase "winning an argument." There is an implication here that an argument is a battle, because battles are won or lost. So even though the word "argument" doesn't bring a concrete idea in our head, a battle certainly does. So using one physical concept for something that we can't see or imagine, helps us understand it.


Okay, so a cognitive metaphor is when a thought or feeling is represented through an object? Did I understand this correctly?

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books