The Rhetoric of Metaphors

Rayne Supple

This is dedicated to my friends and family members, I hope you enjoy it!

Keywords: Motivations, influences, persuasion, imagery, research

Metaphors are all around us in our lives, in commercials, politics, and even everyday conversation. Metaphors bring our conversations to life in a productive way, mostly because a lot of metaphors are generalizable, meaning most people understand them. Without metaphors, some difficult to grasp ideas may not be understood by people until a metaphor is used to describe the concept. I care deeply about the use of metaphors because I use them on a very regular basis. I like to spice up small talk by adding in a witty metaphor, and people seem to really appreciate it more than just mundane back-and-forth conversation. People also seem to remember the metaphors I choose to use when conversing, as they will recall them in later conversations. Metaphors shape how research is conducted in various fields, how the public views the government, as well as how metaphors can influence political change. I first discuss how metaphors influence the public’s opinion on political matters, through a case examining the use of metaphors in cartoons depicting the oil slick of 2002 in Spain. I then explore how metaphors can be an ideological weapon that structures how political issues are viewed by the public. I uncover how metaphors are applied as motivations for scientists to make a finding in their area of research expertise. I discuss how metaphor use was a rhetorical plan political leaders used to structure their political agenda to gain full economic liberalization in Hong Kong. Finally, I provide a counterargument to why metaphors can be misleading in the field of science.

In a study looking at the evolution of a metaphors, oil slick cartoons depicting the oil spill from the Prestige oil tanker in 2002 covering beaches in Spain used metaphors that shaped how the public viewed and responded to the disaster. Newspaper cartoons about the environmental disaster clearly represented the ideological bias each respective newspaper had. “Metaphors were essentially related to the oil tanker as a symbol of danger, of death and devastation produced by the spillage, of political incompetence, of the lack of scruples of businessmen and shipping companies, of the manipulation of information, and of the verdict of justice” (Dominguez, 2015). Metaphors have been a staple in human language. Metaphors also provide a shortcut for explaining complex ideas in a way that is highly generalizable and relatable. It was through the analysis of the metaphors used in these cartoons that the bias each of these newspapers was discovered by the public.

This study observed how three major newspapers: El Pais, El Mundo, and ABC represented the oil spill, and delegated who was at fault. The first two, El Pais and El Mundo, their cartoons represented the oil tanker as a symbol of political incompetence, blaming the shipping companies for the spill. The ABC newspaper focused on cartoons that depicted the oil spill as an environmental disaster that the shipping companies were not to blame to protect the Spanish government from blame for the incident. This is a case of the first two newspapers being representative of justice for those responsible for the spill, while the ABC newspaper was more interested in protecting the Spanish government and deflecting the blame by manipulating media coverage. In 2013, a verdict was reached in favor of the shipping company not being at fault, which sparked a massive questioning of the Spanish justice system by the public. It was through the use of metaphors by the newspapers El Pais and El Mundo that lead the Spanish public to question what really happened with the oil spill, and who was ultimately at fault.

The “frontier of science” metaphor can be interpreted by researchers as providing importance and relevance to the research they do in their field of expertise. “The frontier of science metaphor is a terministic screen that draws on a cultural myth to effectively convey the excitement and value of basic research; it is also problematic because it delimits our understanding of who can be a scientist (risk-taking frontiersman) and what kind of work they do (e.g., compete with each other to conquer territory)” (Ceccarelli, 2019). The frontier of science metaphor only works because of the positive connotation associated with it of westward expansion, so when applied to one’s work, researchers strive to be an expansionist in their field of expertise. By relating this metaphor to the work researchers do, it provides incentives for researchers to be the first to discover a concept in their field of expertise. It is through this frontier of science metaphor that researchers discover the unknown, and to bring knowledge to an area of study that has not yet been searched. The competitive nature of this risk-taking metaphor creates a drive in every researcher to be the first to discover something new in their field, before other researchers beat you to the glory of discovery. Science is not the only field of work that implements metaphors in their motivations to succeed.

Metaphors are important in political contexts for simplifying complex concepts so that the public can understand them easier. Metaphor use by political leaders was the main method used as their political agenda framework in maintaining full economic liberalization in Hong Kong. In a study spanning two decades, from 1997-2017, the metaphorical framing of the concept of free economy was analyzed from speeches of the three Secretaries of Departments who report to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. “Our study provides an overview of changes in metaphorical framing of Free Economy in a corpus of Hong Kong public speeches over the past two decades (1997–2017). Among the 8,748 Economy instances extracted from the corpus, we identified 1430 Free Economy instances, of which 695 instances were metaphorical, indicating that this topic is frequently metaphorized” (Zeng et. al, 2020). The constant presence of free economy metaphors in Hong Kong’s discourse is a strong persuasion to why they have remained one of the freest economies in the world over the two-decade span in this study. This rhetorical strategy focused on highlighting the benefits of having a free economy, and ushered in international partners in Australia, the US, and the Indo-Pacific region. It was the consistency of Hong Kong’s free economy message over the two-decades that solidified the relationship for trade with international partners. The impact of the metaphors was undoubtedly seen on the public, as Hong Kong remained a free economy for the entirety of two decades. This is the proof that the metaphors did in fact have an effect on the people of Hong Kong, persuading their belief systems. If the free economy metaphors were not effective, Hong Kong would have not remained a free economy for the two decades that this study was focusing on.

Metaphors can be misleading at times. Because metaphors usually describe a complex concept in simpler terms, they can sometimes not be completely correct. When looking at metaphors for evolutionary descent, there is metaphor imagery associated with it that is deceiving. “The image of the ‘tree of life,’ with new species branching off as budding twigs and extinct species as dead branches, is an instructive approximation of the relations of evolutionary descent. However, it can also foster misconceptions about ‘progress’ in evolution, or lead to a simplistic conception of speciation events” (Pigliucci, 2010). As mentioned earlier, metaphors are meant to shift and evolve over time when new knowledge becomes available, or old information is proved to be obsolete. With this metaphor, it can be tweaked to include imagery that addresses progress in evolution. The new metaphor could be “the tree of evolving life” to make it more scientifically accurate.

To conclude, metaphors are instrumental in shaping political agendas, providing motivation for people conducting research, and can influence how the public views their government through the media. While all metaphors are not perfect, they can always be tweaked and adjusted as more prevalent information becomes available regarding the metaphor. I actively search for new ways to describe situations using metaphors, as I believe it is the best way to communicate a new concept to a person or a group of people, that leaves a lasting image in their memory.

Works Cited

Ceccarelli, Leah. “The Rhetoric of Rhetorical Inquiry.” Western Journal of Communication. 84, 3, 14, 365-78. December 2019.

Dominguez, Marti. “Evolution of Metaphors.” Discourse Studies, 2015.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Why Machine-Information Metaphors Are Bad for Science and Science Education.” Science and Education, 20, 5-6, 453-471, June 2010.

Zeng, Winnie. H., Burgers, C., & Ahrens, K. Framing metaphor use over time: ‘Free economy’ metaphors in Hong Kong political discourse (1997-2017) . Lingua252, 1-16. 2021.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Rayne Supple is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book