ORCA Grant Final Report
Metaphors are a very important aspect of language, particularly of the English language.
Lakoff and Johnson opened linguists to the study of metaphors by pointing out that English
speakers use metaphors throughout their speech.i For example, Lakoff and Johnson say
that the phrase “spending time” is evidence of the metaphor “time is money,” which allows
speakers to use money terms with time terms. According to Lakoff and Johnson, these
metaphors permeate almost every aspect of English speech.
Natural metaphors are a particularly prominent category within English language
metaphors, but very little research has been done in this category. Natural metaphors
include metaphors that incorporate any aspect of nature, including the atmosphere
(“thunderous applause”), plants (“shaking like a leaf”), and animals (“monkey business”).
For my ORCA grant project, we studied the change in the use of natural metaphors in the
English language from 1920 to 2009 by searching for natural metaphors in the TIME
Corpus of American English. I completed the research with my mentor, Janis Nuckolls, and
we presented our findings at the conference for the Linguistics Association of the
Southwest at BYU in September of 2009.
The first step in this project was to collect as many natural metaphors as we could find. We
did this by looking up lists of metaphors and pulling the natural metaphors, by listening for
metaphors in television shows, radio programs, and personal conversations, and by using
the game “Origins” to find natural metaphors. After six months of collecting metaphors, we
had a list of over 200.
After we had what we felt was a representative list of natural metaphors, we began to enter
these metaphors into the TIME Corpus of American English. Corpora are electronic
collections of sentences in which the words have been tagged according to their part of
speech. Often, the sentences are also sorted by genre (fiction, news, academic, etc.). The
TIME corpus has taken words from TIME magazine from 1920 to 2008 and tagged them
according to their part of speech and the year in which they appeared in TIME. This corpus
was ideal for our research because its material spanned so many decades.
When searching for the natural metaphors in the corpus, we entered all possible variants of
each metaphor. For example, when looking for the metaphor “changing horses midstream,”
we looked for “change,” “changing,” and “changed” as collocates of “horse” and “horses” and
as collocates of “stream” and “midstream” in order to find all possible variants of the
metaphor. Finally, we recorded the number of hits per decade for each metaphor we
In order to analyze the results from our study, we created this graph that shows the
combined number of hits per decade for all metaphors.
However, part of the difference in the number of metaphors per decade is due to the
difference in the number of words per decade in the corpus. Therefore, we adjusted the
number of hits according to the number of words per decade in the corpus. The second
chart shows this adjustment.
We do not know why the use of natural metaphors peaked in the 1940s, dropped off until
the 1970s, and has been increasing ever since. One theory is that the country became more
industrialized after the 1950s, but the children who grew up in an industrial era were not
in control of TIME magazine until the 1970s. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a
push to return to more natural things. However, a truly plausible theory would need
research in both history and natural metaphors.
iGeorge Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago