Proverbial Metaphor & Primary Conceptual Metaphor


[see possible exercise]


By "proverbial" I mean the kinds metaphors that mediators and others frequently use – such as gardening, games, war, sports, etc.  Linguists might refer to these seemingly classic forms as lexical metaphors because they are identified using a certain established choice of words. 


Such “proverbial” metaphors can be powerful in the quantity and intricacy of the intelligence they convey.  However, they most certainly do not convey the same thing to everyone because of their derivation from social and cultural experience with certain source domains, and this experience varies widely even within relatively homogeneous populations (for example, consider the population differences in men’s and women’s experience with football when used metaphorically).


By Primary Conceptual Metaphor I mean those metaphors that derive from experience almost all humans have in common – that of being in our bodies, sensing, moving, surviving and developing in the terrestrial environment.  Included are metaphors of bodily movement, object manipulation, and spatial relations.  These metaphors are simple, elementary and more detailed, and as such they may lack the scope of "proverbial" metaphors.  Variation in the experience different people have with the source domain also occurs in this type of metaphor, but we may be more likely to find useful examples with universal or nearly universal features.

       [ See more on definitions and characteristics of metaphor.]


Some Primary Conceptual Metaphors That May Underlie Certain “Proverbial” Ones


Genetics Metaphor:   Human qualities & behavior come from birth:



Entailments of Genetics Metaphor Per Se
as customarily expressed (particular lexical form)

Entailments of Primary Conceptual Metaphors
expressed in terms of bodily experience

Predetermined, can’t be changed

contained, can't move

Evolved from need to survive

came from special place

Genetic survival more important…

contained, protected, only certain forces, has own point of view

  than survival of the individual

in front (or more deep), higher

Imprinted at the most basic cellular level

carved, shaped

The heart of the matter

at the center

Nature over nurture

outside force

Trumps learning, experience, free will

higher, stronger



Gardening Metaphor:    To grow something by:



Entailments of Gardening Metaphor Per Se
as customarily expressed (particular lexical form)

Entailments of Primary Conceptual Metaphor
expressed in terms of bodily experience

Preparing the ground

go under

Planting seeds



touch, give to...


remove obstacles, deflect outside forces


give essentials, stimulate


cool, refresh, give essentials


handling, shaping


sort pieces, remove obstacles

Seasonal dormancy

travel through time, oscillation

Sprouting back

get up after sleep

Thriving, flowering, fruitful vs. drooping

standing up, visible, full vs. lying down, unseen, empty


The "proverbial" metaphor may work best when it successfully organizes Primary Conceptual parts into a whole, fitting them together; the knowledge that holds the proverbial metaphor together exceeds the sum of parts.  "Proverbial" metaphors may be seen to refer more to the epistemological and methodological levels – expressing principals and strategies that organize and connect the parts. 


For example, in the "proverbial" gardening metaphor, the thrust seems to be to allude to a set of activities that enable plants to germinate, grow and thrive.  However, the activities, themselves, are not detailed.  For the metaphor to have effect, the listener must know how gardening is done, and extensive personal experience in gardening will improve the effectiveness of this metaphor.


Another example would be that of "hitting the target".  Here again, extensive personal experience may enhance this metaphor, but minimal experience is probably all that is needed to invoke the entailments of keeping the target in one's sights, aiming, directing the missile, etc.  In this example the desired overall concept, principal, strategy, as well as the execution of an action are all likely to be conveyed to a larger audience.


Primary Conceptual metaphor parts are needed to ground the "proverbial" metaphor in actual experience.  For people with common experience in the source domain of the "proverbial" metaphor being used, the parts need not be detailed.  Otherwise, parts are essential to build up complex meaning.


One way to organize the complex meaning of a metaphor is in terms of the “Source-Path-Goal” Schema as discussed by Forceville ("The Source-Path-Goal Schema in First-Person Documentaries", paper given at RAAM V, Université de Paris 13, 2003), citing Johnson's description of the STORY is A JOURNEY metaphor (beginning, middle, end), LIFE IS A JOURNEY (birth, maturing, death), and JOURNEY, itself (start, travel, destination), as sharing the same underlying schema of "Source-Path-Goal."  Per Lakoff and Johnson (1999), this schema is central; it is the body's prototypical trajectory from one point to another – a most important source domain for abstract concepts.  This schema may provide overall coherence to Primary Conceptual metaphor parts. 


Another way to organize the levels of understanding and complex meaning that a metaphor may or may not address is in terms of:

            (1) Principals, ideals, values, direction (WHY),

            (2) Methods (including policies, strategies and HOW things are done), and

            (3) Performance (details of action or WHAT procedures; structures and functions are involved). 


(McWhirter renders these levels in terms of what he calls a Self-Management Model.)


Possible Exercise:


            Take a problem or conflict; apply any metaphor (you can find one by clicking on  "
Metaphors Package Names and Entailments Together” on Introduction page).

            Generate questions or statements based on the chosen metaphor that apply to the problem or conflict (for guidance, use the example at the bottom of the above reference).


            Note the degree to which each of the statements or questions falls into the three levels described above, i.e.,

(1) Principals, ideals, values, direction (why),

            (2) Methods (including policies, strategies and how things are done), and

            (3) Performance (details of action or what procedures; structures and functions are involved. 


            See if you can generate additional statements or questions in the categories not very well represented.  To the extent that this is difficult, see if you can identify what it is about the metaphor you choose that limits application in all categories.


            Pick another metaphor and repeat.  See if another metaphor draws attention to different levels than the earlier one you chose.