Academic journal article Style

Bodily Action and Metaphorical Meaning

Academic journal article Style

Bodily Action and Metaphorical Meaning

Article excerpt

The human body serves as a frequent source of our metaphorical thought and language. This is not surprising given that metaphor provides the resource to understand ideas, events, and objects in terms of what is most familiar and well-understood. We know many things about the world around us. But the thing we are most familiar with, and have a felt understanding for, is our own bodies. Consider a typical use of metaphor in a literary text. The following is the opening verse of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled "Varick Street":

At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work
trying to breathe
the elongated nostrils
hatred with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

Most readers get an immediate sense of Bishop's intention to draw a metaphorical comparison between the operations of a factory and the human body (i.e., a kind of personification). Our understanding of Bishop's intentions, and the underlying motive for her creating this poem in the way that she did, depends crucially on our ability to think metaphorically about ordinary objects, events, and people in the world.

Abstract concepts such as truth, thought, justice, and friendship are also talked about in concrete ways, as if they are items that can be physically manipulated. For example, in his poem "Ultimately," Ernest Hemingway writes of truth as if it is something physical that can actually be spit out:

He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.

Our understanding of truth as something that can be spit out, in the above case with great difficulty for the person trying to speak honestly, is dependent on some recognition of a metaphorical idea (e.g., truth as a substance that can be ingested and regurgitated when needed). Again, there is an essential tacit connection between human embodiment, especially embodied action, and how we think about different physical and non-physical concepts. Writers like Bishop and Hemingway elaborate on these bodily-based metaphorical concepts in new, creative ways that ordinary readers understand given their own embodied experiences.

An increasing body of research in cognitive science suggests that significant aspects of metaphorical thought and language arise from, and are constrained by, human embodiment (Gibbs, Poetics; Gibbs and Berg; Gibbs, Lima, and Francuzo; Kovecses; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy). Many conceptual metaphors have source domains that are rooted in pervasive patterns of bodily experience. For instance, the way we talk about life, or love, as a kind of journey refers to the very embodied experience of people moving from some starting point, along a path, to reach, or attempt to reach, some destination. This embodied, conceptual mapping underlies people's use and understanding of conventional expressions like "We are just starting off our marriage," "I am at a crossroad in my career," and "Their marriage is on the rocks" (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors).

Our purpose in this article is to explore the role that bodily action has in motivating different aspects of metaphorical meaning. We present findings from different linguistic and psychological studies showing that people's intuitive sense of pervasive bodily actions constrains their understanding of many types of metaphorical language. More specifically, the precise metaphorical meanings associated with many conventionalized utterances can be explained by an examination of the ways people move and experience their bodies. Many people may already acknowledge that bodily metaphors are quite common in language. But our claim is that when the body is examined as a source domain for metaphors of language, emotion, and other things, we see that bodily metaphors taken as a group, form a coherent system that is supported by a few image schemas such as containment, source-path-goal, balance, in-out, and front-back. …

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