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What are metaphors for?

22 October 2017

As we hurtle ever-faster into the age of digital communication, I find myself wondering whether metaphors are still useful in everyday life. Skilled journalists have always produced headlines using sharp, snappy metaphors to sensationalise, to ridicule and to frame an event, generating huge ripples of influence and instant impact. The pacy style of tabloid newspaper headlines is absolutely aligned with the short staccato formulaic styles of digital communication in everyday life. However, the sheer volume of electronic communication allows insufficient space and time for a metaphor to unfold. Far from allowing details to clutter the basic outline, the message must be brief, clear and direct. Any potential for misunderstanding can therefore be circumvented in advance.

We all share a common heritage that stems from traditional pre-literate societies in which metaphors have been extraordinarily important tools of diplomacy and ingenuity. Using the richness of imagery, they allowed delicate messages to be conveyed indirectly, thereby fortifying relationships between different groups of people. The use of metaphor assisted the settlement of disputes because grievances could be powerfully expressed in novel and flexible ways. The free-floating nature of a metaphor enabled negotiations to ebb and flow within a conceptual framework and for objections to be recanted without fear of recrimination or loss of face (Samatar, 1997).

Naturally, a beautifully-crafted metaphor, enhanced by a heartfelt and expressive delivery could be highly persuasive and help to establish trust between all parties. The power of the metaphor has been driven by cultural traditions infused by intricate systems of symbol and superstition, which in historical terms have played an important role in everyday language. However, in the digital age of mass communication and scientific method, we seem to be leaving those magnificent days of rich and flexible communication behind. Perhaps the omniscient light-hearted face of our diminutive electronic emissary Mr Emoji is a direct descendant of the metaphor, arguably the greatest literary device of the ancient scribes and archive of oral folk-lore.

Samatar, S (1997) Sarbeeb: ‘The art of oblique communication’ In J.K. Adjake & A.R. Andrews (Eds) Language, Rhythm and Sound, University of Pittsburgh Press.

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