Cold Hard World \ Warm Soft Mommy: Gender and Metaphors of Hardness, Softness, Coldness, and Warmth

by Burton Melnick

December 9, 1999


Drawing on work from cognitive linguistics, this article examines the interlocking conceptual metaphors HARD IS COLD and SOFT IS WARM, showing how they arise out of fundamental patterns that we perceive in the physical world and how they give rise in their turn to certain social preconceptions, especially concerning gender difference. It offers, for example, an analysis of the expression "the hard sciences," and relates that expression to stereotypes about the aptitude of females for studying Physics and Chemistry. Though not essentially a psychoanalytic paper, the article nevertheless contains a certain amount of psychoanalytically oriented material, especially having to do with the concept of the "phallic." It indicates that even the Freudian associations of certain qualities, including hardness, softness, cold, and warmth, are strongly influenced by linguistic categories connected to the network of conceptual metaphors.


    First in Metaphors We Live By (1980) and more recently in Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)1 Lakoff and Johnson show that most, perhaps nearly all, of our discourse is undergirded by a system of unconscious metaphor. Some of the voluminous work on conceptual metaphor that has appeared since 1980 has pointed out that this system of metaphor has a considerable but usually unconscious influence on our attitudes and value judgments.2 That point is not radically new. We have long been aware, for example, that attitudes towards racial difference are affected by the metaphorical associations of white and black. But cognitive linguistics can help us to understand just how metaphorical thinking influences value judgments. The present paper sets out to analyze some of the interlocking metaphors that help to structure our concepts of softness and hardness, warmth and cold. In so doing, it touches on some issues related to psychoanalysis. It will, for example, generate the hypothesis that even the "Freudian" associations of certain qualities, including hardness, softness, cold, and warmth, are strongly influenced (though largely after the fact) by bi-polar linguistic categories connected to the network of conceptual metaphors. But the ultimate aim of the paper is to find out what can be learned about attitudes--especially attitudes toward gender--from studying the metaphors associated with the interlinked oppositions soft\hard and cold\warm.3 For some of the most deeply rooted prejudices about gender difference arise, as we will see, out of the elementary patterns we perceive in the physical world.


     Consider, to begin with, the following two quotations, the first from a commencement speaker, the second from a psychoanalyst:

1)   "It is a cold hard world."
2)   "If for instance we designate  . . . a little boy's passionate love and wish to touch etc. his beautiful, warm, soft inviting mother as sexual then we have to postulate that the youngster is having an erotic experience."

As his stress on "is" indicates, the commencement speaker is resorting to a cliché. So, in writing of the little boy's "warm, soft . . . mother," is the psychoanalyst. But why these clichés? Why do we typically pair "cold" with "hard" and "warm" with "soft"? Why, in other words, does English include the conceptual metaphors COLD IS HARD and WARM IS SOFT? Lakoff and Johnson show that conceptual metaphors reflect our everyday experience. But from early childhood on, our experience is full of things--snow, water from the right hand tap, milk from the fridge--that are cold and soft, and of other things--radiators, the burners on an electric stove, the hoods of cars parked in the sun--that are hot (or warm) and hard.

    The obvious explanation for the metaphors has to do with everyday physics. If you heat matter, it gets softer; if you chill it, it gets harder. Apply enough heat, and a solid will soften into a liquid; chill a liquid sufficiently, and it will freeze--i.e, solidify. The prototypical case is water and ice. Steam, even softer than water, is relevant too, of course. But the gaseous state seems somehow less fundamental than the other two states of matter. We learn very early in life to distinguish between liquids, which are soft, and solids, which typically are hard. (The softer a solid is, the more it resembles a liquid.) Relatively early on, furthermore, we learn the thermal relation between the two states, especially as far as water and ice are concerned.

    Lakoff and Johnson point out that metaphor allows us to understand and express one domain of experience "in terms of" another (1980, 59). Very often, as thinkers prior to Lakoff and Johnson had also noticed, we use metaphor to understand something abstract in terms of something physical. It is natural, therefore, that we should apply the four physical terms "cold," "warm," "hard," and "soft" to more abstract domains. Since, for example, physically soft surfaces are comfortable and hard ones uncomfortable, we sometimes use "hard" and "cold" and their synonyms to express comfort and discomfort in a moral or psychological sense, as in the expressions "a hard blow" (referring to a misfortune) or "softening the blow" or "hard luck."

    One of the non-physical domains to which "hard\soft" and "cold\warm" are most frequently applied is that of character. We may speak, for example, of a "warm" or "cold" personality, or we may call someone "soft-hearted" or "hard-hearted." Now, since our metaphorical extensions of physical terms are governed by a principle of systematicity (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 7-9), our metaphorical use of the four terms will include (though often tacitly) a sense of the relations that prevail among the physical terms. Thus if "cold" and "hard" go together in the realm of the physical, that same relation will hold in the realm of personality and interpersonal relations. This principle is what permits effortless understanding of a sentence like "He was a cold-hearted man, but his marriage to a warm and loving woman made him less obdurate." The metaphorical structure of the sentence can be shown by the following "mapping":

--SOURCE DOMAIN: the physical

--TARGET DOMAIN: the interpersonal


--The man's heart corresponds to a cold substance like ice.

--His obduracy corresponds to the hardness of that substance.

--His wife's affectionate personality corresponds to a source of heat which, when applied to the cold substance, melts or softens it.

--The attenuation of the man's stubbornness corresponds to the lessening of the hardness of the substance when it is melted or softened by heat.

Given the principle of systematicity, it may be that, to some extent, the metaphors COLD IS HARD and WARM IS SOFT color any metaphorical reference to any of the four qualities involved. They may do this without necessarily becoming apparent. When a politician calls his opponent "soft on crime" or when Margaret Thatcher warns George Bush that now is no moment to "go wobbly," no explicit reference to warmth is made. Probably, however, there is an implicit sense that warm people are more likely than cold ones to be soft or to go wobbly.

     One interesting instance of this implicit relationship (in the domain of moral qualities) between coldness and hardness and warmth and softness is connected to a metaphor identified by Kathleen O'Connor: SOLID IS GOOD. O'Connor shows (105-09) that although the opposite metaphor, SOLID IS BAD, can come into play when "solid" is seen as expressing inflexibility (as when we call someone "rigid" or "brittle"), much more frequently "solid" evokes qualities that we value. "Solid," O'Connor demonstrates, requires effort (a positive value in our work-oriented society); it is unchanging; it is safe; it keeps its shape; and it is permanent. A parallel analysis for "hard" might place somewhat less weight on safe, and greater weight on keeps its shape (which harder solids do to a greater extent than softer ones) and on unchanging and permanent (as in "Diamonds are forever"). Given the emphasis on immutability, the resulting metaphor for "hard" might be HARD IS RELIABLE.

    HARD IS RELIABLE readily combines with the original COLD IS HARD to produce a kind of unconscious syllogism, generative of still another metaphor:




Although this new metaphor normally remains unconscious and unexpressed, it probably impinges on expressions like "keeping a cool head" or "keeping one's cool"--certainly we feel that people who do keep a cool head are more reliable than hot-heads. We may well tend, even more generally, to perceive people with colder personalities as more reliable (even if less likable in other respects) than people with warm personalities. Indeed, Lakoff and Johnson and their associates frequently make the point that our unconscious conceptual metaphors can bolster or even, perhaps, create false prejudices. COLD IS RELIABLE (along with the concomitant WARM IS UNRELIABLE) may be a case in point. Is there not a widespread, usually unspoken, perception that people from a cold climate--northern Europeans, for example--not only have colder personalities than people from warm climates--southern Europeans, say--but also are more dependable? (Relevant here is the old patronizing image of certain Mediterranean peoples as "mercurial"--i.e, shape-changing.) Presumably, biased perceptions of this sort (which will be examined in greater detail in the next section of this article) are all the more insidious for being usually unconscious and for being so intimately connected to the fundamental ways in which we experience the world.

    In addition to the domain of personality and interpersonal relations, the domain of intellectual qualities also supports abstract senses of cold and hard and soft and warm. Take, for example, the Shakespearean text that supplies the title of Lakoff and Turner's book More Than Cool Reason:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
                                                    (Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.4-6)

    "Reason" here is seen as cool, whereas "fantasies" are associated with "seething brains." The opposition in temperature between the two qualities is obvious, "seething" implying heat (even though its foremost sense in this passage may be something like "highly productive of bubbles"). Also present is a second, parallel opposition between the solid state implied by "cool" and the state at the border between liquid and gas denoted by "seething." Something of the same solid-liquid-gaseous logic still operates when, a few lines later, the speaker asserts that "the poet's pen / . . . gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name" (italics added). All these references to HOT / COLD and GASEOUS / SOLID are based on conventional conceptual metaphors. We would find it perfectly natural to say, for example, that from the poet's fevered brain come vaporous musings, or that a tough-minded person would not indulge in airy-fairy dreaming, but would, rather, subject ideas to cold, dispassionate analysis. In all these examples--the Shakespearean one and the ones I have just made up--the intellectual quality of reason is seen as cold and therefore as solid, and thus (via SOLID IS GOOD) as something to be valued, whereas the opposed intellectual quality of imagination is seen, pejoratively, as hot and therefore airy.

    The idea that cold implies solidity and hardness, and that increasing heat brings about the two (softer) states of the liquid and the gaseous is, of course, one of the principles of everyday physics that we began with. One of its consequences that is especially relevant to the domain of intellectual qualities has to do with the edges or borders of things. For the harder things are, the more fixed their edges are. So long as a block of ice does not melt, its borders remain precisely as they are. But the borders of a quantity of water are not permanent. They adapt (as is the case with liquids, by definition) to whatever container the water is in. It does remain possible, however, so long as the container is not porous, to discern where the water ends and its surroundings begin. Steam is an more extreme case, being (as gases are by definition) so diffuse that it is usually not possible even to demarcate its borders.

    These implications concerning the firmness and stability of edges remain in force when HARD / COLD and SOFT / WARM are extended to the domain of thought and the expression of thought, where they underlie the distinction between precision and vagueness. Vague borders are not perfectly fixed. Necessarily, then, they are soft, and so more reminiscent of liquids or gases then of solids. Vague thought and expression can thus be described not only as fuzzy but also as cloudy, murky, hazy, or foggy. Although (as will be discussed below) these last four terms may also partake of quite a different pair of metaphors, COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT and INCOMPREHENSIBLE IS DARK, the notion of unstable borders continues to operate.

    Precise borders are crisp. Indeed, they have something sharp about them.4 This is actually a further entailment of the physical fact that the borders of hard objects are firm. For with cubical objects (unless the edge has been rounded off), the firmer the edge, the sharper we perceive it to be. COLD / HARD, and WARM / SOFT, in other words, underlie images of sharpness. Consequently, precision, which follows from sharpness, goes with hardness, while imprecision goes with softness or diffuseness. This is why we may, for example, oppose a fuzzy distinction to a distinction that is razor-sharp, or why we may define a keen intellect as one that does not engage in foggy thinking. This last example may indicate that, when used in the domain of intellectual qualities, images of sharpness are governed by some such metaphor as THE MIND IS A CUTTING INSTRUMENT (as when someone is described as having a "Harvard-honed intellect"). Certainly intelligence can be incisive--as can remarks, which can also be pointed or blunt. The concept of bluntness shows that in some cases it is possible to have hardness without sharpness. It is not, however, normally possible to be sharp without being hard. Thus, if successful wit is keen, its opposite, unsuccessful wit, is limp.

    One extremely commonplace metaphorical extension of the HARD / SOFT opposition may be expressed as HARD IS DIFFICULT and SOFT IS EASY. These two metaphors apply first of all to tasks--a hard job or a soft one--but are often extended metonymically. If we want to say that getting something from a certain man is a difficult task, we may call him a hard man or a tough nut to crack. If, on the contrary, we think that getting a handout or loan from him is an easy task, we may say that he is a soft touch. An easy life is a soft life, and an easy job may be a cushy one ("cushy" probably coming from "cushion"). Often, of course, DIFFICULT IS HARD is used of mental activity, for example in the context of education, where schools, teachers, courses, books, assignments, tests, problems, and grading can all be "hard." That the most frequent antonym for "hard" in the sense of "difficult" should be "easy" rather than "soft" may suggest that that "hard" meaning not-soft and "hard" meaning not-easy are merely homonyms, with no necessary metaphorical relation. Philologically, however, "hard" is one word, not two. Furthermore, "easy" itself is at times synonymous with "soft," as in an "easy chair" or "easy lob," just as "ease" often denotes physical relaxation--i.e, making one's muscles softer than if they were tensed--as in the military expression "at ease."

    Both COLD IS HARD and WARM IS SOFT give rise, then, through their various entailments, to whole constellations of qualities. All the terms within each constellation are logically and psychologically (but more or less unconsciously) associated with one another. The two constellations can be represented in tabular form:

   solid    liquid or gaseous
   uncomfortable    comfortable
   unsympathizing    sympathetic
   reliable    mutable
   well-defined    ill-defined
      in detail
   not comprehensible
      in detail
      (sometimes blunt)
   flaccid or spongy
   precise    imprecise
   difficult    easy

It may be that, to a greater or lesser extent, all conceptual metaphors plug into constellations of this type.

    An interesting consequence is that at certain nodal points the constellations connected with two distinct conceptual metaphors may coincide. The opposition COMPREHENSIBLE / NOT COMPREHENSIBLE provides an example. We have just seen it in the context of the constellations generated by COLD IS HARD and WARM IS SOFT. But, as mentioned earlier, there also exists a pair of conceptual metaphors, COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT and INCOMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT. If we speak of a "sharp, lucid style," we are in fact simultaneously evoking the terms sharpness from the COLD IS HARD constellation and the term light from the metaphor COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT. (This is not to deny that COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT may in its own right imply a cutting quality to light, given the physical fact that light helps us to perceive lines of demarcation.) A similar simultaneous evocation of the same two metaphorical constellations is likely to occur when we apply words like "hazy" or "foggy," to intellectual activity. These terms partake both of the concept of fuzziness (indeterminacy of borders) from the WARM IS SOFT constellation and of the notion of darkness from INCOMPREHENSIBILITY IS DARK.

    This coincidence of two separate metaphorical systems is one reason why it is often so easy to "deconstruct" texts--i.e, to show that they contain self-contradictory implications. Usually when two metaphorical systems coincide in a single image, some implications of the one metaphorical system will, if extended far enough, eventually contradict some of the implications of the other. "Sharp, lucid style," for example, evokes both COLD IS HARD and COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT. Thus, on the one hand, being an entailment of COLD IS HARD, comprehensibility is inevitably associated with cold (as in "cool reason"). But at the same time--this, of course is what generates the contradiction--COMPREHENSIBLE IS LIGHT implicitly associates comprehensibility with warmth, since light comes from the sun, and the sun gives heat. Indeed, in certain associative contexts comprehensibility is explicitly connected with warmth rather than with cold. There is, for instance, an old idea in European culture that the sensibility of warm, southern countries is lucid, whereas that of cold northern lands is somehow murky--one might refer to "lucid Mediterranean writing," as opposed to "miasmic Germanic prose." Appended to this article is a short extract from A Farewell to Arms. It illustrates, among other things, how an author may manage, presumably unawares, to overcome an implicit contradiction of this nature. In the extract, Hemingway's stress on the coldness and clearness of the day draws attention away from the warmth of sunlight, not to mention the relative warmth of the Italian climate. His use of the English collocation "clear" and "cold" (an idiom that does not exist in, for example, Romance languages) emphasizes instead an aspect of sunlight--its cutting, delineating quality mentioned above--that connects it to the extended COLD / HARD constellation.

    On the practical level of everyday discourse, the contradictions implicit in the coincidence of separate metaphors normally cause no problems. Through the unconscious cognitive process called "blending," we fuse the congruent aspects of the two separate systems while filtering out the incongruent aspects (Turner, 1996, 57-84. esp. 58n; Fauconnier, chap. 6) It is true, of course, that the meaning we actually convey by a word--"foggy," say--will depend in part on the personal dispositions of our individual listeners or readers, since some of them will weight one set of associations more heavily than the other. This has, however, little practical importance. More important on a practical level is context. If I simply criticize someone's style as "hazy," the ideas of darkness and of imprecise edges may be equally important. If, however, I distinguish among clear, hazy, and opaque writing, I am probably thinking mainly of degrees of darkness. And if I point to a hazy distinction, I am more likely to be thinking of imprecise edges.

    Even when there is no overlapping between separate systems, the multiplicity of terms within a single constellation operates in a meaningful but often unrecognized way. A revealing case is that of the expression "the hard sciences." In this expression, of the different senses attached to COLD / HARD, the most immediately operative is no doubt precision. (This has to do, of course, with what is said above about the relation between precision and the firmness of borders.) A hard science like physics makes precise measurements--often with what are called "precision instruments"--and gives clear, stable, well-defined results. A softer discipline (psychology, say) makes less precise measurements, gives results that are more vague and that may vary from one case to another (or from one observer to another). But at the same time, the other senses in the COLD /HARD  constellation also operate. The "hard" sciences are considered more solid than other fields, are seen as producing more reliable results, etc. They are even perceived as unsympathizing, since in the popular mind they are disassociated from human qualities in general, as may not be the case with "human" sciences like psychology or sociology. Indeed, one of the overtones of the word "objective," often applied to the "hard" sciences, is "like an object" and therefore unlike a human being.

    A connotation of difficulty also adheres to the "hard sciences." High-school and college students may say that physics or chemistry are hard subjects, whereas sociology, for example, will be said to be an easier one, a softer option. The apparent contradiction between "comprehensible" and "difficult" (both from the constellation COLD / HARD) is apparent only. While it is difficult to master the hard sciences, success in mastering them gives you knowledge that is perfectly comprehensible--clear, solid, and reliable. But just because perfectly precise understanding is thought to be unachievable in other fields, those other fields are considered as less demanding.

    If a kind of intellectual cachet attaches itself to the "hard" sciences, it is in part because of the connotations of all the unspoken terms in the COLD / HARD constellation. Those who work in the "hard" sciences are unafraid of intellectual difficulty. Their professional thinking is solid and objective (in that it takes no account of human factors). They produce knowledge that is reliable, well-defined, and comprehensible in its details. Their minds are sharp and precise. They may look down on those who have chosen fields that by comparison are easy, whose thinking is airier (or more mercurial) and more subjective (i.e, subject to human feeling), and who deal in knowledge that is volatile (i.e, less reliable) and imperfectly defined, the details of which are often, by nature, imperfectly comprehended. Such people--those who have chosen to work in a "soft" discipline--have flaccid, imprecise minds. It is hardly necessary to ask which of the two groups is, for example, more worthy of trust (or which of them is, on the other hand, more likely to display humane sentiments) nor is it necessary to ask which kind of knowledge we value more. In a newspaper article about the value that prospective employers place on communications skills, a business school professor is quoted as saying, "It's interesting that hard skills are considered better than soft." If, as the context seems to imply, he intends "interesting" to mean "surprising," then he is being disingenuous. For HARD, in "the hard sciences" as elsewhere, IS SOLID, and as O'Connor has shown, the very language we speak assumes that SOLID IS GOOD.


    If the expression "the hard sciences" carries, along with everything else, benighted implications about the aptitude of females for subjects like physics and chemistry, it is because male is usually perceived as a term in the COLD / HARD constellation, and female a term in the WARM / SOFT constellation. The male / female opposition, it is true, does not always follow the logic of the opposition between COLD / HARD and WARM / SOFT, since other metaphors, such as ANGRY IS HOT or PASSIONATE IS HOT, may override MALE IS HARD and FEMALE IS SOFT. It is probably among young males, for example, that we would first go to look for hot-heads. It is probably a desirable thing, furthermore, for a male to have a warm personality.5 But by and large the qualities associated with COLD / HARD have a masculine connotation to them, while those associated with WARM / SOFT have feminine connotations. In conventional (or "patriarchal") imagery men are tougher, emotionally cooler, less mutable, etc., while women are softer, warmer, less fully comprehensible, etc. Freud's embarrassing references to the "enigma" of femininity partake of the convention that women are dark and veiled in mystery.

    Why men come to be seen as basically hard and cold and women as soft and warm is a complicated question. It is doubtful that non-human species--dogs, say, or Martians--would have such a perception of the gender differences between human beings. Why, then, do human beings themselves? Presumably, this particular perception originates in infantile experience. But how?

    The intuitive answer would be that an infant's first caretaker is a mother, whom the infant experiences, especially when being held or fed, as soft and warm. (Such impressions would be particularly strong when the infant is being fed from the breast, which is itself soft and warm--and which releases, as of course a bottle also does, a soft, warm fluid into the infant's mouth.) The father is seen, in contrast, as hard and cold. He has no breasts, and probably has less body fat, proportionally, than the mother, but he may have harder, more prominent muscles. Furthermore, since the father does not nurse--or, in the case of bottle-feeding, probably does not give bottles as frequently as the mother--he is likely to hold the infant physically in a rather different way from the mother, perhaps not quite so close to his body, so that with him the child has somewhat less of a sense of warmth than it does with the mother.

    Such a picture is probably too simple. In fact men and women have exactly the same body temperature. It may well be that anyone, male or female, who picks up an infant and holds it tenderly against his or her body will be experienced as warm and soft. Though men cannot breast feed, they can and do give bottles. Indeed, some children have males as primary caretakers, and we have no reason to believe that in the speech of such children the association between WARM / SOFT and female is especially tenuous (although that question, along with others, does invite empirical study). In any case, much or most of the experience of being nursed or given a bottle is, at least in Western societies, already over by the time the linguistic categories "mother" and "father" have been acquired. (And if the categories "mother" and "father" have any pre-verbal fore-runners, a good part of the experience of nursing is in the past before even these pseudo-categories have been acquired.)

    It is in fact extremely difficult to say how many of the perceived differences between "father" and "mother" correspond to real physical experiences during infancy and how many of them are later constructions, influenced by acquired linguistic structures, which we retroject, presumably by the process that Freud called nachträglichkeit, onto our infantile memories. At some point, possibly very early on, we fit the opposition mother / father and its generalized equivalent female / male into the whole inferential system implied in COLD IS HARD / WARM IS SOFT. Once that is done, mother / father and female / male partake inevitably of all the entailments that the logic of the system generates--so that if "father" strikes us as cooler than "mother," it may well be due as much to the way our language leads us to think and speak about "fathers" and "mothers" as to our actual experience. (This is not to deny that the semantic structures involved themselves reflect aspects of our collective experience--including the fact that, historically, primary caretakers have been female.6) Similarly, with respect to other qualities that we ascribe to one or the other gender, the two factors--our empirical experience and the logic of the underlying metaphorical system--will interact, often without our being able to know which plays the greater role.

    Possibly, for example, the perception of woman as mutable has something to do with the menstrual cycle. Arguably it originated there. If so, it has been enormously reinforced by the system of metaphorical implication this article has been analyzing. But it is also possible that the perception of women as mutable arose directly from that system of metaphorical implication. Possibly, that is to say, real (or even imagined) behavior related to the menstrual cycle has merely been exploited, unconsciously, as corroborating evidence for an independently existing notion. For, whatever the reality of female behavior may be, a perception like "Some women tend to behave unpredictably at certain points in the menstrual cycle" is inevitably incorporated, more or less unconsciously, into the intellectual structures governed by the WARM / SOFT / FEMALE and COLD / HARD / MALE constellations.

    Something similar can be said of the ascription of a cluster of metaphorically "phallic" qualities to males. (Here I am discussing the gender stereotyping to be found in the object of psychoanalysis--the human psyche--and not gender stereotyping in psychoanalytic thinking itself. Early psychoanalysis was guilty of gender stereotyping, but neither that nor present-day psychoanalytic theories of gender are my concern here.) It is true of course that men, unlike women, possess an easily visible organ which, when erect, becomes hard; but why should that fact carry over to, say, stereotypes about male and female thinking?7 Probably phallic considerations--which are of greatest concern to the child relatively late in the developmental process, after it has mastered language--are simply inserted into logical and metaphorical schemas that have already developed. Given that, and given the binary logic governing the HOT \ COLD and MALE \ FEMALE oppositions, there ensue a number of further (and, as usual, largely unconscious) entailments concerning gender difference.

    One such entailment has to do with the the quality of vigor. Conventionally, vigor is perceived (or, as I have argued elsewhere, misperceived) as characteristic of hard maleness. That being so, the inverse quality of languor is attributed by binary logic to the female. Languor then connects in its turn with further characteristics from the WARM / SOFT / FEMALE constellation. One such characteristic is warmth itself, and another is flaccidity. (Compare the Italian expression "avere la fiacca," meaning "to be overcome with lassitude.") Yet a third such characteristic--a basic logical entailment of the opposition between solid and liquid (though it may also be affected by early experiences of being fed)--is moistness. Moistness and warmth having obvious associations with both erotic response and with climate, they give rise to a new metaphor: EROTIC RESPONSE IS A CLIMATIC PHENOMENON. Hence we describe lovers as "sultry," "torrid," "hot," "frigid," etc. If this metaphor appears to be used more frequently about women than about men, it is perhaps because both women and climate are seen as enveloping phenomena.

    Vigor has a further entailment. It implies effort. Thus, if vigor connects with hardness through being male and penetrative, it also connects with hardness by being associated with difficult tasks. This association of phallic vigor with difficult enterprises helps to structure the notion that the "hard" male is created for difficulty and strenuous effort, the "soft" female for ease and indolence. (A similar antithesis is sometimes drawn between north and south. The two antitheses can be telescoped into one, as in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.) And only a slight extension of the opposition between hard / strenuous / male and soft / indolent / female is needed to arrive at the notorious sexual metaphor MALE IS ACTIVE \ FEMALE IS PASSIVE.

    The MALE IS ACTIVE metaphor combines with, among other things, the opposition between penetrativeness and receptivity. Since in sexual intercourse the male penetrates and the female receives, penetrativeness becomes a part of the COLD / HARD / MALE constellation, and receptivity a part of the WARM / SOFT / FEMALE constellation. That much is based on simple experience. There are entailments involved, however, which are at some remove from the empirical. For if PENETRATIVE IS MALE and if MALE IS ACTIVE, then the obvious conclusion is PENETRATIVE IS ACTIVE. Now, in reality, as numerous discussions in the psychoanalytic literature have helped to establish (most notably, perhaps, Schafer, 481-82), penetration and activity are not always the same thing. When a baby sucks at her mother's nipple, the nipple penetrates the baby's mouth, but it is hard to claim that the mother is more active than the baby (Freud, 115). When Freud smoked a cigar, no one thought that the cigar was the active partner in the interaction and Freud the passive one. Nevertheless, the network of metaphorical connections which more or less unconsciously structures our thinking on this point foists upon us an association between penetration and activity, based on both terms' belonging (one of them dubiously) to the COLD / HARD / MALE constellation. Some of the metaphorical connections behind this association follow plausibly, to be sure, from everyday experience. Hard and sharp objects, for example, do penetrate more readily than soft ones. But some of the connections involved, like the one between vigor and maleness, are based, as I say above, on dubious psychic perceptions. Others, like the notion that maleness goes with arduous undertakings, follow from fallacious implication (the result of an equivocation between "hard" in the sense of "not soft" and "hard" in the sense of "difficult"). Still others may be based on some combination of false perception and faulty logic.

    Unconscious metaphor, then, which enables thought and communication, also enables stereotyping and the tacit dissemination of prejudice (as with the idea, mentioned in previous section of this article, that northern peoples are more reliable than southern ones). The following chart is inevitably incomplete. It gives some indication, nevertheless, of how much gender stereotyping is fostered by the implicit entailments of rudimentary conceptual metaphors.

   hard    soft
   cool or cold    warm
   dry    moist
   uncomfortable    comfortable
   unsympathizing    sympathetic
   solid    flowing, labile, or airy
   dependable, reliable    mutable
   precise    imprecise
   favors distinct demarcations    favors fuzzy demarcations
   illuminates reality
      (visible genitals)
   veils reality
      (veiled genitals)
   ultimately comprehensible
      in detail
   ultimately incomprehensible
      in detail
      (or sometimes blunt)
   spongy, elastic
   vigorous    languid
   made for effort and difficulty ("hard")    made for ease ("soft," "easy")
   well-defined    ill-defined
   active    passive
   penetrative (hard, sharp)
   receptive (soft)
   conquers gravity
      (via erections)
   cooperates with gravity
   belongs above    belongs below
   struggles against nature (gravity)    represents nature

    We do not, of course, always speak and think about sexual difference as schematically as this chart might indicate. One reason is that we are not the mere slaves of our unconscious metaphors. Another is that, in the area of sexual difference as in others, numerous and often contradictory metaphorical systems co-exist. The chart shows, for example, that male erectility implies, by binary opposition, an association between females and the tug of gravity. Such an association probably enters into (among other things) the concept of "Mother Earth," perhaps especially into the idea of death as a return to Mother Earth, Possibly it also enters into the adjective "gravid." But often, especially when we are speaking or thinking of sexual activity, FEMALE IS A TUG TOWARDS THE EARTH is over-ridden by SEXUAL AROUSAL (in the male and female both) IS UP. Similarly, the metaphors MALE IS COLD / MALE IS HARD / HARD IS COLD, etc., which would logically imply that the erect penis is cold, are usually over-ridden, in a sexual context, by PASSIONATE IS HOT.

    Indeed, it is possible that our choice of metaphor in describing the consistency of the erect penis corresponds to the traditional psychoanalytical distinction between the phallic and the genital. In reality an erect penis, however hard, is covered by human flesh, which is warm and, compared with non-animal matter like metal or stone or wood, soft to the touch. This does not, however, prevent us from metaphorically using inorganic terms to describe the hardness of the erect penis. "But she did not cry out," writes a novelist about a defloration, "when she felt the burning of the iron." (Comparisons of the erect penis to cold inorganic matter do seem uncommon, but not indications of a cool or cold attitude on the part of the penis's possessor.) Wilhelm Reich writes that for the character-type he names the "phallic narcissist" the "penis is not in the service of love but is an instrument of aggression and vengeance" (203). If that is so, the erect penis would readily lend itself, in particularly "phallic" contexts, to being described in terms of metal, rock, or wood--the three substances of which aggressive weapons are most usually made. But in a "genital" context, in which the erect penis is seen as loving, other more sensually appealing metaphors (velvet, for example) would be more likely to come into play.

    However that may be, it is clear that a great deal of our thinking--about gender difference, about science, about human geography (and also about money, a subject which O'Connor analyzes in some detail)--is significantly influenced by our perception of the nature of matter. The stereotypes discussed in this essay are not simply arbitrary, unfortunate figures of speech. As unfortunate as many of them are, they are deeply rooted or "entrenched" (Turner, 1991, 156) in us, arising from the very way we think and from the way we view the material world.8 They are, moreover, especially insidious for being unconscious, sometimes in more than one way. For they are at times unconscious in a psychoanalytic sense, in that part of the psychic material behind them (especially, perhaps, concerning gender difference) has been subject to repression. And also, probably more importantly, the linguistic mechanisms that structure that material are unconscious in a cognitive sense--that is to say, we are unaware of their operation, as we are unaware of most of the linguistic mechanisms that operate when we speak our mother tongues. Given how deeply rooted the stereotypes are that arise from the HARD / COLD and SOFT / WARM structures, and given their unconscious nature, extirpating or even modifying them may be an impossible task.

     Curiously, however, in one area change may have begun to come about of itself. For in the language of computer science the value judgments implicit in the HARD \ SOFT dichotomy appear to contradict conventional usage. In the conventional constellations, although SOFT / WARM entails certain appealing qualities like comfort and sympathy, the qualities that we admire--objectivity, reliability and so on--belong to COLD / HARD. Since female belongs to WARM / SOFT and male to COLD / HARD, the entailment is that the female (comfortable, sympathetic, etc.) is merely appealing, whereas the male (objective, reliable, etc.) is admirable. But in computer science--so at least it seems intuitively, to me and to those I have spoken to in the field--these associations are beginning to shift, with greater value being attached to soft than to hard. Within computer science, for example, designing software would appear to carry considerably more cachet than designing hardware. And certainly I can think of no other area where the fuzziness of one's logic would be proclaimed as a selling-point. If I am right about this, then the use of metaphor in the male-dominated discipline of computer science has, ironically, begun to revalorize qualities that some of the most deeply embedded patterns in our language classify as female.

Whether that is so remains to be seen. What appears already evident, however, is that the metaphorical pairings COLD / HARD and WARM / SOFT, while rooted in in cognitive experience, neverthless carry with them unconscious affective associations, which influence social values and attitudes. Connected to that point is a more general question, of considerable importance: if COLD IS HARD and WARM IS SOFT carry forceful but unconscious affective associations, then might not other conceptual metaphors--even perhaps, to varying degrees, all conceptual metaphors--bear similar affective freight? Psychoanalysis, after all, suggests that all conscious thinking has an unconscious dimension, related to repressed feelings, wishes, fears, and fantasies. Presumably, what is true of thought in general is true of conceptual metaphor. Given what psychoanalysis tells us about love and aggression, and about the way we, as infants, fantasize about our own bodies and their processes, contents, and products, are there not overtones going beyond the cognitive in such metaphors as IDEAS ARE FOOD; IDEAS ARE PRODUCTS; PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL STATES ARE ENTITIES WITHIN A PERSON; or GOOD IS UP, BAD IS DOWN (all taken from Lakoff and Johnson 1980)? The relation between the "Freudian" and the cognitive is, to be sure, complicated and highly problematic. One difficult question is the one evoked earlier about the relation between language (which the individual acquires, already formed, from the outside) and the individual's own personal pre-verbal experience. Nevertheless, it does seem likely that in conceptual metaphor generally the newly discovered "cognitive" unconscious interacts, in one way or another, with the "dynamic" unconscious of psychoanalysis. Both psychoanalysis and cognitive science would benefit, perhaps very considerably, from understanding that interaction.

For their helpful comments I am indebted to Alan Cienki, Julie Elphee, Norman Holland, Kathleen O'Connor, Claiborne Rice, and Jerome Winer.  I am grateful also to those who responded to abbreviated versions of this paper presented in 1998 at the Fifteenth International Conference in Literature and Psychology and in 1999 at the third conference on Researching and Applying Metaphor.


1 The present article was completed before the publication of this book.  

2 For a brief, lucid account of the field oriented to psychoanalytic readers, see Holland.  See Turner (1996) for a good abbreviated bibliography.  For a more elaborate bibliography see Lakoff and Johnson (1999).  Useful bibliographies are also available from the website of the Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor ( and from the homepages of Mark Turner ( and Gilles Fauconnier (  

3 I will use the normal slash (/) to indicate association or collocation as in "HARD/COLD," and the reverse slash (\) to indicate opposition as in "hard\soft."  

4 The etymology of a word should be of no account in this kind of analysis.  But as a matter of interest the Latin root of "precise" means "to cut"; and "vague," discussed above, comes from a Latin word meaning "wander."  

5 Because they are less extreme than hot and cold, warm and cool are typically easier to shift from one side to the other of the SOFT\HARD opposition.  For the same reason, warm and cool often have a more positive connotation than hot and cold.  The attitudes connected with degrees of hot and cold is a subject worthy of attention in its own right.  

6 In an empirical study of form symbolism in English-speakers, Liu and Kennedy find a high degree of correlation among mother, warm, and soft, and among father, cold, and hard.  More recent research by Kennedy, Liu, Challis, and Kennedy reveals similar correlations among speakers of Danish, Japanese, and Slovenian.  These results, though difficult to interpret, seem to point to the importance of the non-linguistic.  

7 See on this point Cixous's account of the series of paired opposites corresponding to perceived differences between male and female (115-119).  

8 Culture plays a role here, of course, conceivably the major role.  It would be useful to compare the English metaphorical systems studied in this article with similar systems in other languages.  In other languages, for example, do the terms "cold," "dependable," and "masculine," belong to the same constellation, as they do in English?

Works Cited

Cixous, Hélène (1975). Sorties. In La jeune née. H. Cixous and C. Clément. Paris: Union Générale d'Editions,  114-246.

Fauconnier, Gilles (1997). Mappings in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1933). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Standard Edition, 22:3-182. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.

Holland, Norman N. (1999). Cognitive linguistics. Internat. J. Psycho-Anal., 80:357-363

Kennedy, J. M., Liu, C. H., Challis, B. H., and Kennedy, V. (in preparation). Form symbolism and Danish, Slovenian and Japanese subjects.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

----- (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Liu, C. H., and Kennedy, J. M (1993). Symbolic forms and cognition. Psyke and Logos, 14:441-456.

Melnick, B. A. (1997). Metaphor and the theory of libidinal development. Internat. J. Psycho-Anal., 78:997-1016.

O'Connor, K. T. (1995). Matter metaphors in Spanish: solid, liquid and gas across lexical domains. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56(03):910A. (University Microfilms No. 9522890)

Reich, Wilhelm (1933). Character Analysis. London: Vision Press and Peter Nevill, 1950.

Schafer, Roy (1974). Problems in Freud's psychology of women. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 22: 459-485.

Turner, Mark (1991). Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

----- (1996). The Literary Mind. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.


I had wanted to go to Abruzzi. I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes morning and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear and sometimes a dispute about the cost. Sometimes still pleasant and fond and warm and breakfast and lunch. Sometimes all niceness gone and glad to get out on the street but always another day starting and then another night. I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now. But if you have had it you know.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Burton Melnick "Cold Hard World \ Warm Soft Mommy: Gender and Metaphors of Hardness, Softness, Coldness, and Warmth". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 18, 1999, Published: December 9, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Burton Melnick