The Magic of Metaphor

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley8 Comments


Please take a minute to undertake the following little linguistic task. Grab a pen and a piece of paper.

Write down a few sentences that describe yourself in a good mood.

Now, write some sentences that describe yourself in a bad mood.

Do you notice any patterns of language? Do you employ any clichés or common idioms almost despite yourself? Are metaphors springing up in all their linguistic glory?

Crucially, do you notice an orientation for each group of descriptions? Were you consistently ‘up‘ when you described your good mood? Were you flying high, or on cloud nine? Were you physically ‘down’ when you were mired in a bad mood? Dwelling in the depths of depression, or stuck in the gutter?

In their classic book, ‘Metaphors We Live By‘, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson unpick how our very understanding of the world is shaped by the language of metaphor. So much so, we often miss and take for granted metaphors in our everyday talk and writing. The authors start with the example of arguments. Arguments are expressed and understood in terms of war. Consider these examples: your arguments are indefensible; she was under attack from his barrage of questions; he defended his position.

This language (our very mode of thinking) is so integral to our understanding of the world it is hard to make explicit something which is so common and implicitly embedded in  everything we say, read and write. Record any explanation you may give to students and listen back to it. How many metaphors did you use? How many times did you describe something abstract in concrete terms? I bet there were more than you expected. It is habitual. They make meaning and they help smooth the process of learning.

Indeed, the ideas in this post may well be going over your head, or more likely my attempt at an explanation is falling flat!

Metaphors are essential for good writing. They provide the backbone to rhetoric. They are the stuff of imagination and they transform our stories. They can illuminate information and make explanations comprehensible. In short, they are essential.

In English therefore, metaphors are very much a threshold concept. These can be simply described as concepts that are integral to a body of knowledge that, once known, transform our degree of understanding and thinking about a subject. This knowledge can be transformative and can make many aspects of the subject area subsequently easier to understand. For the subjects of English Literature and English Language, to understand metaphor is to understand one of the fundamental elements of knowledge.

We therefore need to make metaphors visible at every opportunity. They don’t just appear in poetry – they are woven into the very fabric of language. See, I can’t stop myself!

Last week, at NTEN ResearchEd York, I gave a talk on, amongst other things, the importance of metaphors in teacher explanations. Metaphors, I hope we now agree, aren’t just the stuff of English teachers. To understand and use metaphors effectively is important for every teacher. They make our explanations sing and mark in the memory of our students essential knowledge.

Teachers in every subject area should look to isolate their best metaphors. Those apt comparisons and images that make crucial concepts clearer and understandable to our students seeking out understanding. Try it. Sit down and consider the key threshold concepts that define your subject and attribute your best metaphor to ensure understanding. We should share our best metaphors as subject specific gems. Have a think, what are your best metaphors for learning?

If you want some homework, just take a week to record the metaphors you use in your subject. Is there any patterns? Do you have any gems to share with your department colleagues?

James Geary reckons we all use six metaphors a minute. Consider that for a moment. Give James’ short TED talk a listen:

For English teachers, we should lead the march. We should unmask the metaphors that we use, often unthinkingly. We should get students to write with original and striking metaphors, whilst training them to read with a keen eye for metaphor. We should model this magic of metaphor for all to see.

Metaphors are for life, not just for English teachers.


Note: any metaphors used in this post were entirely intentional.


Related reading:

My post on Threshold Concepts explains the idea in greater depth with an excellent array of links – see here.

BrainPickings has a fantastic article on metaphors (with the same title as mine) – see here.

There is an excellent post on metaphor as a threshold concept in English, by Mark Miller – see here.

Rob Ward has written a really useful post on metaphors, with helpful classifications – see here.


  1. As a primary teacher, the magic of metaphor really came alive within my own teaching when I started to work outside with natural materials. I had observed that young children were very happy with physical metaphor such as substituting a piece of bark for a plate and creating a home play area on a tree trunk.

    When I applied this to introducing metaphor in literacy activities – passing a stick around a circle and having to invent different uses, “It’s not a stick, it’s a…” I found that it really was the key that unlocked the door for a good number of children. From here it was easier to move into looking at metaphor enriches our language and enables us to create pictures in our heads with words.

  2. George Lakoff’s read was a key part of how we framed the messaging for the election campaign back in 2011. Metaphors have the power to change minds, and even change the mindsets of people who maybe feel that they’re underperforming, to a growth mindset that they’ll win. Fabulous stuff. I wrote a post a while back about his outlook and The Umbrella Mind, to show how metaphor can be used to powerfully reframe things. Thanks for making me think again about this! :

    1. Author

      Excellent Umbrella Man post. I’m just writing a post about how teachers and educators (well, humans) ignore so much of the evidence and simply confirm what they want to confirm.

  3. Excellent article. I use metaphor in Computing and it certainly helps understanding. It also helps with memory and “making it stick”.

    Beyond comprehension, I do have one fear though and that is that students may overuse or substitute metaphor in exams in place of technical subject specific language. An example is a student referring to a computer’s RAM as its short term memory whilst forgetting the actual term “RAM” itself.

    I’m a big fan of metaphor and love your blogs however I wonder what your thoughts are on the risk of kids using these metaphors instead of correct subject-specific terms and technical language? Is there a conflict with this and Lemov’s “right is right”?

    1. Author

      I don’t think it is an either or situation really. I think that you can use the technical language and metaphor to illuminate that very same language. Indeed, I think the nature of language is such that we can hardly help ourselves. Computing is a good example. We think of information in very physical terms. RAM, for most, is understandable in terms of a concrete mass and we describe it as much. Abstract information is particularly prone to being described in concrete terms to aid comprehension.

  4. Do you ever build up a set of shorthand phrases or references with the students that then work as a shorthand to concepts that arise on a frequent basis? (E.g. Cultural references, such as, “the answer is 42” for questions that don’t actually have an answer). I find myself frequently using “Ah, grasshopper….” from the 1970s series Kung Fu with David Carradine, to indicate an important, potentially paradigm shifting point…(but I don’t work in a classroom)…. Once explained, the references become a powerful shorthand, and the explaining forges connections (or demonstrates your madness).

    1. Author

      I use shorthand for commands e.g. ‘Active listening’ means a whole host of actions they need to perform, but not systematically for understanding. I’m sure I do use some, but I’d have to listen to some recordings of myself I think – it would be too implicit for me at the moment.

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