Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: Cognitive Linguistics

by George Lakoff

December 1, 2001


This introduction to the new theories of metaphor defines that term as clarifying a target domain (less understood) by speaking of it in the terms of a source domain (better understood). One maps the source domain onto the target domain, as when we use the language of journeys to understand love. The term "conceptual metaphors" refers to these general mappings. Metaphors are not single, odd instances of language, but rest on these conceptual mappings.


  This introduction was excerpted from the Lakoff essay later in this series.

    It was discovered in the late 1970's that the mind contains an enormous system of general conceptual metaphors -- ways of understanding relatively abstract concepts in terms of those that are more concrete. Much of our everyday language and thought makes use of such conceptual metaphors. To take a simple example, take the sentence "I'm weighed down by responsibilites." There is a form of Cognitive Linguistics operating here, namely, DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS. This way of conceptualizing difficulties can be expressed in many different linguistic forms, e.g., "I'm carrying a heavy load," "He's shouldering a lot of responsibility," "Get off my back!", and so on. As any therapist will immediately recognize, such metaphors can be made real, for example, in posture. Someone weighed down by responsibilities may adopt a posture as if he had a heavy load on his shoulders. Thus, Cognitive Linguistics does not merely govern language and reasoning, but may be realized in behavior.

    My later essay is about the way our ordinary conventional system of Cognitive Linguistics shapes dreams -- and hence may provide a therapist with insights as to the nature of dreams. But before we turn to of dreams, I should spend a bit of time explicating in detail what I mean by "Cognitive Linguistics."

    Imagine a love relationship described as follows:

Our relationship has hit a dead-end street.

Here love is being conceptualized as a journey, with the implication that the relationship is stalled, that the lovers cannot keep going the way they've been going, that they must turn back, or abandon the relationship altogether. This is not an isolated case. English has many everyday expressions that are based on a conceptualization of love as a journey, and they are used not just for talking about love, but for reasoning about it as well. Some are necessarily about love; others can be understood that way:

Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road.
We can't turn back now.
We're at a crossroads.
We may have to go our separate ways.
The relationship isn't going anywhere.
We're spinning our wheels.
Our relationship is off the track.
The marriage is on the rocks.
We may have to bail out of this relationship.

These are ordinary, everyday English expressions. They are not poetic, nor are they necessarily used for special rhetorical effect. Those like, Look how far we've come, which aren't necessarily about love, can readily be understood as being about love.

As a linguist and a cognitive scientist, I ask two commonplace questions:

  1. Is there a general principle governing how these linguistic expressions about journeys are used to characterize love?

  2. Is there a general principle governing how our patterns of inference about journeys are used to reason about love when expressions such as these are used?

The answer to both is yes. Indeed, there is a single general principle that answers both questions. But it is a general principle that is neither part of the grammar of English, nor the English lexicon. Rather, it is part of the conceptual system underlying English: It is a principle for understanding the domain of love in terms of the domain of journeys. The principle can be stated informally as a metaphorical scenario:

The lovers are travelers on a journey together, with their common life goals seen as destinations to be reached. The relationship is their vehicle, and it allows them to pursue those common goals together. The relationship is seen as fulfilling its purpose as long as it allows them to make progress toward their common goals. The journey isn't easy. There are impediments, and there are places (crossroads) where a decision has to be made about which direction to go in and whether to keep traveling together.

The metaphor involves understanding one domain of experience, love, in terms of a very different domain of experience, journeys. More technically, the metaphor can be understood as a mapping (in the mathematical sense) from a source domain (in this case, journeys) to a target domain (in this case, love). The mapping is tightly structured. There are ontological correspondences, according to which entities in the domain of love (e.g., the lovers, their common goals, their difficulties, the love relationship, etc.) correspond systematically to entities in the domain of a journey (the travelers, the vehicle, destinations, etc.).

    To make it easier to remember what mappings there are in the conceptual system, Johnson and I (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) adopted a strategy for naming such mappings, using mnemonics which suggest the mapping. Mnemonic names typically have the form:


where X is the name of the target domain and Y is the name of the source domain. In this case, the name of the mapping is LOVE IS A JOURNEY.

When I speak of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, I am using a mnemonic for a set of ontological correspondences that characterize a mapping, namely:


  • The lovers correspond to travelers.

  • The love relationship corresponds to the vehicle.

  • The lovers' common goals correspond to their common destinations on the journey.

  • Difficulties in the relationship correspond to impediments to travel.

It is a common mistake to confuse the name of the mapping, LOVE IS A JOURNEY, for the mapping itself. The mapping is the set of correspondences. Thus, whenever I refer to a metaphor by a mnemonic like LOVE IS A JOURNEY, I will be referring to such a set of correspondences.

    The LOVE-AS-JOURNEY mapping is a set of ontological correspondences that map knowledge about journeys onto knowledge about love. Such correspondences permit us to reason about love using the knowledge we use to reason about journeys. Let us take an example. Consider the expression, "We're stuck," said by one lover to another about their relationship. How is this expression about travel to be understood as being about their relationship?

    "We're stuck" can be used of travel, and when it is, it evokes knowledge about travel. The exact knowledge may vary from person to person, but here is a typical example of the kind of knowledge evoked. The capitalized expressions represent entities in the ontology of travel, that is, in the source domain of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping given above.

Two TRAVELERS are in a VEHICLE, TRAVELING WITH COMMON DESTINATIONS. The VEHICLE encounters some IMPEDIMENT and gets stuck, that is, becomes nonfunctional. If they do nothing, they will not REACH THEIR DESTINATIONS. There are a limited number of alternatives for action:

  • They can try to get it moving again, either by fixing it or getting it past the IMPEDIMENT that stopped it.

  • They can remain in the nonfunctional VEHICLE and give up on REACHING THEIR DESTINATIONS.

  • They can abandon the VEHICLE.

The alternative of remaining in the nonfunctional VEHICLE takes the least effort, but does not satisfy the desire to REACH THEIR DESTINATIONS.

The ontological correspondences that constitute the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor map the ontology of travel onto the ontology of love. In so doing they map this scenario about travel onto a corresponding love scenario in which the corresponding alternatives for action are seen. Here is the corresponding love scenario that results from applying the correspondences to this knowledge structure. The target domain entities that are mapped by the correspondences are capitalized:

Two LOVERS are in a LOVE RELATIONSHIP, PURSUING COMMON LIFE GOALS. The RELATIONSHIP encounters some DIFFICULTY, which makes it nonfunctional. If they do nothing, they will not be able to ACHIEVE THEIR LIFE GOALS. There are a limited number of alternatives for action:

  • They can try to get it moving again, either by fixing it or getting it past the DIFFICULTY.

  • They can remain in the nonfunctional RELATIONSHIP, and give up on ACHIEVING THEIR LIFE GOALS.

  • They can abandon the RELATIONSHIP.

  • The alternative of remaining in the nonfunctional RELATIONSHIP takes the least effort, but does not satisfy the desire to ACHIEVE LIFE GOALS.

This is an example of an inference pattern that is mapped from one domain to another. It is via such mappings that we apply knowledge about travel to love relationships.

Metaphors are not mere words

    What constitutes the LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor is not any particular word or expression. It is the ontological mapping across conceptual domains, from the source domain of journeys to the target domain of love. The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. The mapping is primary, in that it sanctions the use of source domain language and inference patterns for target domain concepts. The mapping is conventional, that is, it is a fixed part of our conceptual system, one of our conventional ways of conceptualizing love relationships.

    This view of metaphor is thoroughly at odds with the traditional view of metaphor. The traditional view includes the following claims:

  1. Metaphors are linguistic expressions (as opposed to conceptual mappings).

  2. Metaphors use words from one literal domain to express concepts in another literal domain, but there is no such thing as Cognitive Linguistics or metaphorical reasoning where inference patterns from one domain are applied to another domain.

  3. Metaphors are based on similarity: words from one domain express similar concepts in other domains.

  4. Metaphorical language is not part of ordinary, everyday, conventional language, but rather part of poetic or especially rhetorical language.

All these claims are false. For example, if metaphors were merely linguistic expressions, we would expect different linguistic expressions to be different metaphors. Thus, "We've hit a dead-end street" would constitute one metaphor. "We can't turn back now" would constitute another, entirely different metaphor. "Their marriage is on the rocks" would involve still a different metaphor. And so on for dozens of examples. Yet we don't seem to have dozens of different metaphors here. We have one metaphor, in which love is conceptualized as a journey. The mapping tells us precisely how love is being conceptualized as a journey. And this unified way of conceptualizing love metaphorically is realized in many different linguistic expressions.

    In addition, we saw above that inference patterns from the travel domain can be used to reason about love. Hence, metaphorical reasoning does exist. As to similarity, there is nothing inherently similar between love and journeys, yet they are linked metaphorically. Finally, all of the metaphorical expressions we looked at in the <LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor are ordinary, everyday expressions, rather than poetic or especially rhetorical expressions.

    It should be noted that contemporary metaphor theorists commonly use the term "metaphor" to refer to the conceptual mapping, and the term "metaphorical expression" to refer to an individual linguistic expression (like dead-end street) that is sanctioned by a mapping. We have adopted this terminology for the following reason: Metaphor, as a phenomenon, involves both conceptual mappings and individual linguistic expressions. It is important to keep them distinct. Since it is the mappings that are primary and that state the generalizations that are our principal concern, we have reserved the term "metaphor" for the mappings, rather than for the linguistic expressions.

    In the literature of the field, small capitals like LOVE IS A JOURNEY are used as mnemonics to name mappings. Thus, when we refer to the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, we are refering to the set of correspondences discussed above. The English sentence, "Love is a journey," on the other hand, is a metaphorical expression that is understood via that set of correspondences.


    The LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor is a conceptual mapping that characterizes a generalization of two kinds:

  • Polysemy generalization: A generalization over related senses of linguistic expressions, e.g., dead-end street, crossroads, stuck, spinning one's wheels, not going anywhere, and so on.

  • Inferential generalization: A generalization over inferences across different conceptual domains.

That is, the existence of the mapping provides a general answer to two questions:

  • Why are words for travel used to describe love relationships?

  • Why are inference patterns used to reason about travel also used to reason about love relationships.

Correspondingly, from the perspective of the linguistic analyst, the existence of such cross-domain pairings of words and of inference patterns provides evidence for the existence of such mappings.

Novel extensions of conventional metaphors

    The fact that the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping is a fixed part of our conceptual system explains why new and imaginative uses of the mapping can be understood instantly, given the ontological correspondences and other knowledge about journeys. Take the song lyric,

  We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love.

The traveling knowledge called upon is this: When you drive in the fast lane, you go a long way in a short time and it can be exciting and dangerous. The general metaphorical mapping maps this knowledge about driving into knowledge about love relationships. The danger may be to the vehicle (the relationship may not last) or the passengers (the lovers may be hurt, emotionally). The excitement of the love-journey is sexual. Our understanding of the song lyric is a consequence of the pre-existing metaphorical correspondences of the LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor. The song lyric is instantly comprehensible to speakers of English because those metaphorical correspondences are already part of our conceptual system.


    Each conventional metaphor, that is, each mapping, is a fixed pattern of conceptual correspondences across conceptual domains. As such, each mapping defines an open-ended class of potential correspondences across inference patterns. When activated, a mapping may apply to a novel source domain knowledge structure and characterize a corresponding target domain knowledge structure.

    Mappings should not be thought of as processes, or as algorithms that mechanically take source domain inputs and produce target domain outputs. Each mapping should be seen instead as a fixed pattern of ontological correspondences across domains that may, or may not, be applied to a source domain knowledge structure or a source domain lexical item. Thus, lexical items that are conventional in the source domain are not always conventional in the target domain. Instead, each source domain lexical item may or may not make use of the static mapping pattern. If it does, it has an extended lexicalized sense in the target domain, where that sense is characterized by the mapping. If not, the source domain lexical item will not have a conventional sense in the target domain, but may still be actively mapped in the case of novel metaphor. Thus, the words freeway and fast lane are not conventionally used of love, but the knowledge structures associated with them are mapped by the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor in the case of "We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love."

Imageable Idioms

    Many of the metaphorical expressions discussed in the literature on conventional metaphor are idioms. On classical views, idioms have arbitrary meanings. But within cognitive linguistics, the possibility exists that they are not arbitrary, but rather motivated. That is, they do arise automatically by productive rules, but they fit one or more patterns present in the conceptual system. Let us look a little more closely at idioms.

    An idiom like "spinning one's wheels" comes with a conventional mental image, that of the wheels of a car stuck in some substance--either in mud, sand, snow, or on ice, so that the car cannot move when the motor is engaged and the wheels turn. Part of our knowledge about that image is that a lot of energy is being used up (in spinning the wheels) without any progress being made, that the situation will not readily change of its own accord, that it will take a lot of effort on the part of the occupants to get the vehicle moving again--and that may not even be possible.

The LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor applies to this knowledge about the image. It maps this knowledge onto knowledge about love relationships: A lot of energy is being spent without any progress toward fulfilling common goals, the situation will not change of its own accord, it will take a lot of effort on the part of the lovers to make more progress, and so on. In short, when idioms that have associated conventional images, it is common for an independently-motivated conceptual metaphor to map that knowledge from the source to the target domain. (For a survey of experiments verifying the existence of such images and such mappings, see Gibbs and O'Brien, 1990.)

Mappings at the superordinate level

    In the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping, a love relationship corresponds to a vehicle. A vehicle is a superordinate category that includes such basic-level categories as car, train, boat, and plane. Indeed, the examples of vehicles are typically drawn from this range of basic level categories: car ( long bumpy road, spinning our wheels), train (off the track), boat (on the rocks, foundering), plane (just taking off, bailing out). This is not an accident: in general, we have found that mappings are at the superordinate rather than the basic level. Thus, we would be surprised to find fully general submappings like A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A CAR; when we find a love relationship conceptualized as a car, we also tend to find it conceptualized as a boat, a train, a plane, etc. It is the superordinate category VEHICLE not the basic level category CAR that is in the general mapping in this case, and that is common in the system (though there may be cases where it is not so).

    It should be no surprise that the generalization is at the superordinate level, while the special cases are at the basic level. After all, the basic level is the level of rich mental images and rich knowledge structure. (For a discussion of the properties of basic-level categories, see Lakoff, 1987, pp. 31-50.) A mapping at the superordinate level maximizes the possibilities for mapping rich conceptual structure in the source domain onto the target domain, since it permits many basic-level instances, each of which is information rich.

    Thus, a prediction is made about conventional mappings: the categories mapped will tend to be at the superordinate rather than basic level. Thus, one tends not to find mappings like A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A CAR or A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A BOAT. Instead, one tends to find both basic-level cases (e.g., both cars and boats), which indicates that the generalization is one level higher, at the superordinate level of the vehicle. In most of the hundreds of cases of conventional mappings studied so far, it has been borne out that superordinate categories that are used in mappings.

    There are, however, occasional cases where basic-level categories seem to show up in mappings, or where it is not clear whether a category should be considered basic-level. For example, anger is a basic emotion. Should it be considered a basic-level concept? There is no shortage of conceptual metaphors for anger: ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, ANGER IS MADNESS, and so on. It is not clear whether anger should not be considered a basic-level category or a case where a basic-level category occurs in a mapping. Another case will be discussed in my essay on dreams: in the IMPOTENCE IS BLINDNESS metaphor (observed by Freud), there is a submapping that TESTICLES ARE EYES. This certainly involves basic-level concepts.

    It is not clear what significance this observation has, if any, for the theory of metaphor. There is nothing in the general theory that requires mappings to be on the superordinate level. It is simply an empirical fact that they tend to occur that way. This tendency may just follow from the fact that mappings at the superordinate level do more conceptual work than mappings at lower levels. It could be that mappings tend to be optimized for information content, but that occasional mappings at the basic-level occur for other reasons, for example, when there is an experiential basis for a mapping at the basic level but not at the superordinate level.

    In sum, when contemporary cognitive linguists speak of a "metaphor" or a "conceptual metaphor," they are referring to a mapping of the sort we have just discussed.


Gibbs, Raymond W., and Jennifer E. O'Brien (1990). "Idioms and Mental Imagery: The Metaphorical Motivation for Idiomatic Meaning." Cognition 36(1): 35-68.

Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

----- and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: George Lakoff "Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: Cognitive Linguistics". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 1, 2001, Published: December 1, 2001. Copyright © 2001 George Lakoff