The Verbal Communication of Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

By Susan R. Fussell | Go to book overview

- 8 –

Conventional Metaphors
for Depression

Linda M. McMullen

John B. Conway

University of Saskatchewan

Depression: "...a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a wordfor such a major illness. "—Styron (1990, p. 37)

In a candid and eloquent account of his own experience of depression, William Styron (1990) rued the abandonment of the term melancholia for its modern-day counterpart, believing that the latter simply did not do justice to the human suffering it was intended to describe. In doing so, Styron spoke to the importance of naming, not only for its ability to represent and express what a speaker intends or hopes to communicate, but for its power to influence and determine future events. He continued with his assault on the term depression: "... for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control." (p. 37)

In this brief passage, Styron hinted at several important questions. How have the words we use to refer to what we now call depression changed over time? What is the historical and cultural context in which such words are not only located but thrive? In this chapter, we consider these questions by analyzing contemporary conventional metaphors for depression. We choose to focus on this particular form of language because of its capacity for illuminating questions of representation and determination and because of its centrality in human thought and action (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). And we reach a conclusion that is both similar to and different from that of Styron: That the dominant conventional metaphor of DEPRESSION IS DESCENT is so much a part of the fabric of our culture that it is simultaneously trite (and virtually inaudible) and associatively rich.

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