Bad metaphors

“Osborn pushes the nuclear button”: That’s a clever headline from the Guardian this week, leading an article about the UK Chancellor’s invitation for Chinese investment in the UK nuclear energy programme.

The headline is a joke, but also a metaphor. A literalist would read it as a lie. For the rest of us it’s simply a metaphor. In fact pushing buttons is pretty well metaphorical whichever way you look at it, especially as I push the button, hopelessly, on my recently shattered smartphone. I think there are at least three kinds of metaphor: dead, live and forced.

Shattered1. Dead metaphors. A dead metaphor is one that no longer excites interest. It’s taken for granted, like whistleblower, leaked document, pressing the right buttons, or being shattered.

2. Live metaphors. You can revive dead metaphors by reminding yourself just how wedded human beings are to indirect references, especially in the computer world: motherboard, memory, desktop, rubbish bin, button.

But then pointing to a smartphone and saying “this is a smartphone” operates metaphorically. What literal organisation of categories entitles a pointing finger to be associated with a phone?  Evidence the difficulty I have getting my neighbour’s cat to exit where I’m pointing.

3. Forced metaphors.“Metaforce” is a brand of dietary supplement for body builders. So I can’t use that. But body building is a good metaphor for forced metaphors. This week I taught a class on design and metaphor, and ran an experiment. Everyone was given a noun at random, which they then shared with the person to their left. So that meant everyone had two nouns, and every noun appeared in two pairings. I then said do something with the two random words you’ve been given, in ten minutes.

• If this is a video game what is its unique selling point?
• If this is an app, what does it do?
• If this is a song, what is the first line of the lyrics?
• If this is a band then what type of music does it play?
• Type the two words into a web search engine. Any surprises?
• Type the two words into an image search. Does anything new emerge?

Shattered metaphors

As it was a digital class they entered their responses on laptops and smartphones with the results visible to all as comments on a WordPress site. So a typical game response was: toothpaste + dinosaur = A dinosaur that chases you in the morning if you haven’t brushed your teeth.

This simple exercise illustrates at least three points to me, or at least it reinforced three main points from the literature on metaphor.

1. It’s easy to dream up some association of two terms that makes sense, even when forced. This supports the view of psychologists that we “process” metaphors instantaneously. Metaphors require no extra special cognitive effort additional to some literal processing. Putting any two words or concepts together activates this capacity for reasoning relationally.

2. Words are not pre-loaded in our minds with definitions, feature lists and attributes, such that we match one word with another. It’s rather a case that one word provides a context for the other. This is the interactionist theory of metaphor.

3. Creativity of the metaphorical kind is everywhere in our use of language. In the context of art, design, entrepreneurship, and research, it’s effects can be amplified through the obvious and forced use of metaphor.

I was also reminded of the entrepreneurial power of metaphor in a talk I heard this week by the independent game designer Nicoll Hunt, who invented the retro game Fist of Awesome. The game is not to my taste, but the method is: throwing together words like fist and awesome, as well as lumberjacks, bears, aliens, strip joints, and dinosaurs.



  • Some other forced metaphors from the class: mosquito + porridge = If it’s a song, the first line could be: “there is a mosquito in my porridge, I don’t know how bad the day could be”; party + brush = An app that suggests hairstyles for parties and events; shower + toe = video game: you have to shower as many toes as you can in one minute. More toes- higher score; highway + wok = This is a new iPhone game app that let users play with their friends. While one user is driving a car on the highway, the other is throwing woks to hit his/her car. You should be careful! Let’s start; joke + apple = an app with jokes about apple products or jokes about apple, e.g. What kind of apple isn’t an apple? A pineapple; chainsaw + button = strong love song: the more I love u, the more I want to discover u; paper + spoon = if it can be a song, it would describe the painful part of love! such as, “Love is like a paper spoon, it seems you can get anything you want through it, but it’s just an illusion.”
  • Also see blog posts tagged metaphor.

A bibliography on metaphor

  • Black, Max. 1962. Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • Blier, Suzanne Preston. 1994. The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Caballero, Rosario. 2003. Metaphor and genre: The presence and role of metaphor in the building review. Applied Linguistics, (24) 2, 145-167.
  • Camp, Elisabeth. 2005. Josef Stern, Metaphor in Context (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000) Review. Noûs, (39) 4, 715-731.
  • Coyne, Richard. 1995. Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
  • Coyne, Richard, Adrian Snodgrass, and David Martin. 1994. Metaphors in the Design Studio. JAE (Journal of Architectural Education), (48) 2, 113-125.
  • Coyne, Richard, Dorian Wiszniewski, and Hoon Park. 1999. Metaphor in design discourse. Symposium on Metaphor: AISB-99 Convention56-60.
  • Deignan, Alice. 2008. Corpus linguistics and metaphor. In R. W. Gibbs (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought: 280-294. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History, (61)5-74.
  • Erickson, Thomas D. 1990. Working with interface metaphors. In B. Laurel (ed.), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design: 65-73. Reading Massachusetts: Addison Wesley.
  • Gere, Charlie. 2004. Brains-in-vats, giant brains and world brains: the brain as metaphor in digital culture. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, (35)351-366.
  • Hesse, Mary. 1980. The explanatory function of metaphor. In M. Hesse (ed.), Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science: 111-124. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press.
  • Hillis, Ken. 1999. Toward the light within: optical technologies, spatial metaphors and changing subjectivities. In M. Crang, P. Crang, and M. Jon (eds.), Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations: 24-43. London: Routledge.
  • Hunt, harry. 2005. Synaesthesia, metaphor and consciousness: A cognitive-developmental perspective. Journal of Consciousness Studies, (12) 12, 26-45.
  • Karatani, Kojin, and Michael Speaks (ed). 1995. Architecture as Metaphor: Language, Number, Money. Trans. S. Kohso. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1995. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth Century Biology. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kövecses, Zoltán. 2000. Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kövecses, Zoltán. 2008. Metaphor and Emotion. In R. W. Gibbs (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought: 380-396. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lakoff, George. 2008. The neural theory of metaphor. In R. W. Gibbs (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought: 17-38. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press
  • Marcuse, Peter. 2005. ‘The city’ as perverse metaphor. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, (9) 2, 247-254.
  • Melles, Gavin. 2008. New pragmatism and the vocabulary and metaphors of scholarly design research. Design Issues, (24) 4, 88-101.
  • Milne, E. 2000. Vicious circles. Metaphor and the historiography of cyberspace. Social Semiotics, (10) 1, 99-108.
  • Palladino, P., and Young T. 2003. Fight Club and the World Trade Center: On metaphor, scale, and the spatio-temporal (dis)location of violence. Cultural Values, (7) 2, 195-218.
  • Reddy, Michael. 1979. The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought: 284-324. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1977. The Rule of Metaphor. Trans. R. Czerny, K. McLaughlin, and J. Costello. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
  • Schön, Donald. 1963. Displacement of Concepts. London: Tavistock
  • Schön, Donald. 1979. Generative metaphor: a perspective on problem-setting in social policy. In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought: 254-283. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Seligmann, Klaus, and Claus Seligmann. 1977. Architecture and Language: Notes on a Metaphor. Journal of Architectural Education, (30) 4, 23-27.
  • Snodgrass, Adrian, and Richard Coyne. 2006. Myth, mandal and metaphor. Interpretation in Architecture: Design as a Way of Thinking: 183-202. London: Routledge.
  • Snodgrass, A.B., and R.D. Coyne. 1992. Models, metaphors and the hermeneutics of designing. Design Issues, (9) 1, 56-74.
  • Turbayne, Colin M. 1970. The Myth of Metaphor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.


6 thoughts on “Bad metaphors

  1. Usually when designing a game one starts with an idea, and that idea is a metaphor for some other competition or conflict. For example Chess is a metaphor for war and Monopoly is a metaphor for real estate control. By starting with a metaphor, your game design is directed. If you find yourself designing for a different metaphor than you started with, you should explicitly change your metaphor to properly describe your new direction. Some games are so abstract that no metaphor presents itself, but you should still have an overarching method of competition.

    Posted by Tristan Meagher | October 31, 2013, 11:37 am
  2. Good points Tristan. There are some mad (if not bad) game metaphors though. What’s Candy Crush about … fruit machines (an odd metaphor in any case), a slot machine raised to the nth power?

    Posted by Richard Coyne | October 31, 2013, 12:17 pm
  3. Yes, when you look at Candy Crush it does not seem obvious what it is about, but I have played it myself a number of times and see it in some ways can be related to our own lives. Maybe that’s why we find games like Candy Crush so addicting. In the beginning, everything is pretty simple. Life makes sense, your problems get solved, candies are crushed, and we move on. But, as we move up, as we grow older, things become much more difficult. Every day we are presented with small problems we have to solve and slowly but surely we manoeuvre around until we reach the end.

    Posted by Tristan Meagher | October 31, 2013, 12:33 pm
    • Examining metaphors is a bit like looking at dreams, or a Rorschach ink blot. It’s what they read into it that reveals most about the person constructing the narrative. So someone else might see Candy Crush as a metaphor for life in a different way. Obstacles are there to be crushed and vaporised. You never need to clean up or get in a sticky mess. I’ve never got past the first couple of levels. Does it ever end in a sticky mess? It’s not very real unless it does.

      Posted by Richard Coyne | October 31, 2013, 1:26 pm
  4. The question of how words are stored in our minds is a very interesting one, and I guess that our great ease to create new, functional words out of almost any random juxtaposition of two words tells us that, as you write, words are not static entities in our minds, but rather that words provide context. I suppose this is what Wittgenstein argued in his later works.
    However, it might very well be true what Steven Pinker writes, that words still are entities in our minds, because this is the most efficient way to store a language. If we would have a separate entity or storage function for every meaning of the word ‘game’, this would take up more “space” in our minds, so to speak. And the current trend is to show how a simple set of entities can create a highly complex system (like in Chomsky’s proposal that human language is first and foremost characterised by recursion).
    However, Pinker and other cognitivists have (as far as I know) not really come up with an answer of how exactly we can get the context for the (proposed) single entity word ‘game’ when we use it. If we point to computational properties of the brain, we create somehow a dualism, as if the ‘brain’, separate from the ‘I’, would first find the context for us, and that we then either accept or reject this usage of the word.
    Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ dictum is certainly influential here as a means to get rid of any dualistic versions of language use, but even here, it is still a very interesting question to ask as to how we actually do it when we come up with new, creative ways of using a language. Chomsky’s minimalist program is a start, based on good logic, but when we start to ask more questions about what actually goes on in the brain when we are speaking, many scientists get tangled up in difficulties.
    Just throwing different thoughts out there, but I guess my main point is exactly what you write, that language and word usage is very dependent upon context.

    Posted by Mikael Lind | November 11, 2013, 2:11 pm


  1. Pingback: Are we metaphor happy? | Michele Fox - February 17, 2015

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