I’m starting to hate metaphors

Maybe that’s a little strong, but it’s not far off.

To polarise and perhaps give a little context, this sentiment is stemmed from the fact I really love linguistics.

Over time, what I’ve come to realise is that our overuse of metaphor can really squash our meaning, delivery and understanding of what we are truly saying.

Metaphors are powerful. When we learn their function at school they’re the next level up from simile. The moon goes from being ‘like’ a golden disc to fully ‘being’ a golden disc. Immediately, the description packs more punch; it’s poetic. It’s committed.

To be fair, I’m not opposed to a bit of poetry. Some of our most famous literature has been born from clever use of metaphor. My issue comes more from its use in every day language for hyperbolic effect to the point where we don’t really understand the comparisons we are making. And within this, I have a particular point of contention around how metaphor, unbeknownst to us, can drive sexism and gender stereotypes.

This area is huge, so in the interest of skimming the surface, let’s consider a few very common terms:

“You’re so sweet”, “pet” as a nickname and the concept of describing someone as “cold”.

If we are being literal ‘sweetness’ is a categorically impossible trait for a human. It is an association made to consumable product and therefore holds connotations of being in the possession of someone else. It is not a power word.

While it is often used in a complimentary fashion it is commonly given from someone in a senior societal or relationship ranking to a subordinate.

We have also let the concept of “sweetness” become an overarching theme for other edible nicknames, often only used for women. Consider: honey, sugar, sweetie, baby cake, pumpkin. Through our use and acceptance of these terms, we have created an entire language mechanic based around women being labelled as consumable.

If that sounds over the top, ask a selection of men why they do not like being called these names. While the answers may be poorly articulated or awkward, a theme will emerge.

“Pet” is a bit the same. While commonly used as a form of endearment, we’ve let it slip that a pet has an owner. There’s a hidden meaning that once again has a stamp of hierarchy.

And lastly, the ‘hot’ vs ‘cold’ rabbit hole.

A part of our language which very few of us are aware of is that sexuality has long been described in terms of heat, or lack of it. Someone with high appeal is described as ‘hot’ and we even use the metaphor ‘warming them up’ as a way to describe getting ready for having sex with someone.

To counter all this heat, anything that fits the descriptor of ‘cold’ sits at the other end of the spectrum. And again, we lend this to a bit of poetry with terms like “ice queen” or “icy”.

We may never consciously associate these descriptors with anything sexual, the deep set acceptance of what we associate ‘hot’ being means our brains can’t help but connect the dots.

I anticipate most people reading this will think that this interpretation is over the top. Had I read it before really getting into the research, I would have thought so too. And that’s normal, because all this all really plays in our sub and unconscious. We take things like cute nicknames or seemingly nonchalant adjectives for what the sound like on the surface without examining the underlying messages that their use perpetuates.

When we let things become metaphors they become very hard to displace. We get lazy and we don’t bother revisiting them. However, if we really start to peel back stereotypes, attitudes and assumptions, there’s a commonality that certain verbiage is an unsuspecting driver.

The solution here isn’t to stop using metaphor altogether. For starters, metaphor is only one device that makes up the matrix of language and meaning. However, there is a case for examining our choice of words with a little more scrutiny. We need to be aware of the power and influence our language can have, and consciously select words that reflect and project our personal values more accurately.