Conceptual Metaphor

14 February 2024 – Vol 2, Issue 2.

Conceptual metaphor theory suggests that our understanding of concepts is often shaped by metaphors, where we use terms from one domain to comprehend another domain. For example, in the metaphor “time is money”, the familiar concept of money (source domain) is mapped onto the more abstract concept of time (target domain). Aspects like spending or wasting money are applied to time. This allows us to conceptualize time in terms of value, efficiency, and resource management.

‘The Metaphor Within’ by Gil Dekel and image-generating AI, 2024.

‘The Metaphor Within’ by Gil Dekel and image-generating AI, 2024.


Classical rhetoric studies, particularly in ancient Greece, view metaphor exclusively as a rhetorical ‘ornament’ that adorns and enhances poetic and other texts. Metaphors in ancient rhetoric were used as a creative artistic tool to increase expressiveness in language. As such, the metaphor did not belong to the realm of everyday speech. Rhetoric originated in ancient Greece as the study of oratory, and it was also used to teach beautiful and correct writing. It was based on learning about literary genres, learning about styles, learning about composition and about stylistic figures. Among the stylistic figures is the figure of speech (trope), which is based on the principle of similarity (shared qualities). Creating a figure of speech, such as metaphor, requires a simultaneous recognition of corresponding elements between two concepts (Stott et al., 2010, as cited in Lloyd, 2015). An example of a figure of speech: ‘the sun smiled down on the earth’.

The Greek term for metaphor is meta-pherein. ‘Meta’ means ‘beyond’, and ‘pherein’ means ‘to carry’. The Latin equivalent, ‘translatio’, also means ‘to carry across’. Both the Greek and the Latin words refer to transference, to the idea of carrying (projecting) the meaning of one concept across to another.

Aristotle, one of the earliest theoreticians of metaphor, was mostly concerned with metaphors (Aristotle 1926, as cited in Coughlin, S.M.P. 2013). He understood it as a rhetorical figure by which two concepts or things are compared on the basis of mutual similarities. Aristotle established the following key features (Black, 2004):

  • a metaphor is a figure attached to a single word (onoma) rather than to an entire expression or sentence
  • a metaphor is a transfer
  • a metaphor consists of a transfer contrary to the logical structure of language, i.e. a metaphor introduces non-literal connections between concepts
  • the metaphorical word is opposed to the everyday use of the word, introducing a new perspective.

Aristotle saw metaphor as a passive rhetorical figure that only expresses an existing objective similarity, and not as an active figure that can produce that similarity. This represents the difficulties of the traditional understanding of metaphor. The difficulties relate to the perception of metaphor as a ‘mere’ transfer of meaning from one word to another on the basis of existing similarities. Additionally, there is a common belief that metaphor represents a deviation from ordinary and everyday speech, becoming speech where metaphors provide pleasure and increase expression.

Part of the ancient legacy of metaphor is reflected in the division of metaphor into present (in praesentia) – for example, ‘her smile is a radiant sun’ – and absent (in absentia) words – for example, ‘his absence cast a shadow on the celebration’ (Micunovic, 2012). Absent metaphors have the power to evoke emotions and nuances even in the absence of a literal presence.

Figures of speech (tropes) were also dealt with by later philosophers. In the work “Des figures du discours autres que les tropes” (1827), Pierre Fontanier deals, among other things, with metaphor and metonymy. In metonymy, one word is substituted with another closely associated word or phrase. For example, ‘the White House issued a statement’. Here, ‘the White House’ is used to refer to the President or the President’s administration.

Fontanier talks about metaphor in the context of questions about catachresis. Catachresis is a figure of speech where a term is used in a way that extends beyond its proper meaning, often out of necessity or due to the absence of a more suitable term. For example, ‘the news struck a chord in her heartstrings’. The term ‘heartstrings’ extends beyond its literal meaning (tendons in the heart) and is applied to emotions.

For Fontanier, catachresis is a false, extensive trope initiated by necessity, while metaphor is a true trope that explains one idea with another idea, and is set in motion by the possibility of choice actualized by the speaker’s invention. In the field of metonymy, Fontanier gained importance by defining eight types of metonymy – metonymy of place, symbol, means, thing, effect, cause, exterior and protector (Fontanier, as cited in Micunovic, 2012).

The expansion of the meaning of metaphor (and metonymy) and their connection with paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships will occur in the 20th century with the work of Roman Jakobson. Jakobson (2008 [1956]) elaborates on the opposition between metaphor and metonymy. He explains how language works, and also improves the classification and analysis of literary procedures. Jakobson concludes that the connection of concepts occurs in two ways – concepts are connected according to the principle of similarity or direct opposition (metaphor) and concepts are connected according to the principle of spatial or temporal closeness, the linear sequence within a sentence (metonymy).

Metaphor and metonymy are thus associated with paradigmatic (metaphor is determined by similarities) and syntagmatic relationships (metonymy is determined by sequence in syntagm). Each sentence can be analysed in relation to these two axes of consideration – the choice of words and the mutual connection of words. Emphasizing the difference between referential (axis of selection/similarity) and linear (axis of combination/consistency), Jakobson expanded Saussure’s paradigm of distinguishing between historical and structural linguistics.

Also, by using a metaphor, Jakobson emphasized Saussure’s dichotomy signifier. Signifier is the physical form of a word, and the signified is the associated mental concept. For example, the word ‘chair’ is a signifier. It signifies a term, a picture/idea of a chair that comes to mind. It is represented in our head – it is marked. In order to ‘name’ the signified, it is necessary to select the word (signifier) from the selection axis. Just as the usual marking process is based on the selection of words with a specific meaning, the metaphor itself (which emphasizes another meaning) is based on the selection of words with a specific meaning from the axis of selection (Micunovic, 2012).

In this way, the metaphor ‘doubles’ the process of signifying – it signifies a certain image which further signifies/gives some new meaning to another term.

Conceptual metaphor theory is also linked to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By (1980).  It is a connection between two domains of knowledge that manifests itself on different linguistic and non-linguistic levels – in everyday language, in poetry, in idioms, in discourse, through the historical development of language (Stanojević, 2013). “Conceptual metaphor implies the understanding of one conceptual domain based on terms from another conceptual domain” (Kövecses, 2010, p. 4).

Lakoff and Johnson (2015) divided conceptual metaphors into three categories, based on the cognitive function they perform:

  • structural
  • ontological
  • orientational metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson, 2015, pp. 10-17).


Structural metaphors

Structural metaphor “…helps the listener to understand domain A using the meaning of domain B” (Lakoff and Johnson, 2015, p. 14).

Kövesces (1999) cites the example of time, which is structured using movement and space. Time is understood in terms of some basic elements: physical objects, their locations and movements. There are conditions related to this way of understanding time; one condition is that the present time is in the same location as the observer. Based on this, the following mapping (assertions) are made (Kövesces, 1999, p. 37):

  • “Time is a thing.”
  • “The passage of time is in motion.”
  • “Future time is in front of the observer; the past time is behind him.”
  • “One thing moves, another is still; the thing that remains is the deictic center.”

On the basis of these mapping data, an assertion can be made that ‘time is movement’. A conceptual metaphor can be made: time is a moving object.

With the help of mapping, the concept of time is understood. Without metaphors, it would be difficult to imagine what the concept of time is.


Orientational metaphors

Orientation metaphors have to do with space. Therefore, most of these metaphors are related to basic human spatial orientations, such as up-down, and centre-periphery. Orientational metaphors do not organize a concept on another (as in the case of structural metaphors), but organize the entire system of concepts and their interrelationship.

Kövecses (2002) prefers to name this a ‘coherence metaphor’ because it is more in line with the cognitive function that this metaphor performs. Kövecses (2010) gives an example: “more is up” and “less is down”, where concepts are characterized by an ‘ascending’ orientation, while their ‘opposites’ acquire a ‘descending’ orientation. This is a cognitive coherence because humans associate quantity with direction, and thus understand and express quantity through spatial orientation.

Lakoff and Johnson (2015) point out that these metaphors are not arbitrary, but are based on physical and cultural experience. Some orientation metaphors can vary from culture to culture, for example, the concept of future time that is seen as ‘ahead’ in some cultures, and ‘behind’ in others. However, it is very difficult to distinguish the physical from the cultural, on which the metaphor is based, because the choice of a physical basis among many possible ones is also related to cultural coherence (Lakoff and Johnson, 2015).


Ontological metaphors

Kövecses (2010) defines ontology as a part of philosophy on the nature of existence: a person can understand their experiences in terms of objects and substances in general, without specifying what type of object or substance it is. Non-physical objects are viewed as an entity or substance.

Yet, knowledge about objects and substances is quite limited on a general level, so these general categories cannot be used to understand much about the target domains. This is the job of structural metaphors, which provide detailed structure for abstract concepts (Kövecses, 2010).

Lakoff and Johnson (2015) explain that understanding experiences in terms of objects and substances allows parts of an experience to be selected and approached as separate entities. People tend to frame certain phenomena, so they try to observe phenomena – the events, activities, thoughts and feelings – as entities or substances.

“We don’t know what the mind actually is, but we look at it as an object and try to find out as much as possible about it. In this way, an immaterial thing acquires objectivity through ontological metaphors. With that alone, personification could be observed as a form of ontological metaphor” (Kövecses, 2010, p. 60).


Conceptual metaphor has a profound impact on the understanding of abstract ideas. Metaphors, rooted in experience, illuminate how language shapes thought and understanding.


© Journal of Creativity and Inspiration.
Image copyright as specified.

About the author

Marina holds an MA in English Language and Literature from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Born in 1998 in Croatia, she considers the English language as the most fulfilling for self-expression. Marina is an avid cyclist, and has competed in multiple cross-country, road and track cycling events.



Black, M. (2004). Metafora. Republika, 60(2): 73-87.

Coughlin, S. M. P. (2013). Method and Metaphor in Aristotle’s Science of Nature. Retrieved 11 January 2024

Jakobson, Roman Josipovič (2008). O jeziku. Zagreb: Disput.

Kövecses, Z. (2002). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kövecses, Z. (2010). Metaphor: A practical introduction. Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. (2015). Metafore koje život znače. Zagreb: Disput.

Lloyd, J. (2015). The Therapeutic Use of Metaphor: A Heuristic Study (p.42). University of Manchester.

Micunovic, M. (2012). Razvoj i primjena konceptualne metafore u jeziku suvremene znanosti: konceptualizacija prostora, vremena i stanja. Doctoral thesis. Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Osijek

Stanojević, M.M. (2013). Konceptualna metafora: Temeljni pojmovi, teorijski pristupi i metode. Zagreb: Srednja Europa