Unit 12

Unit 12. Power and pragmatics: The framing power of metaphor

Cognitive metaphor theory was first outlined by Lakoff and colleagues in a series of influential works (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Lakoff and Turner 1989; Lakoff 1989). According to such theorists, metaphors are extremely common in all types of language (as opposed to being a characteristic of literature texts only). This is because metaphors not only help us to talk about one thing – the target – in terms of another – the source – but to also think about and therefore understand that target in terms of the source (Baker 2006: 167). Groups of expressions that reflect conventional patterns of thought – for example, that verbal arguments can be understood as physical aggression/war (‘ARGUMENT IS WAR’) – are known as conceptual metaphors. As Semino (2008: 6) explains:

Cognitive metaphor theorists [tend to] emphasize that target domains [such as ARGUMENT] typically correspond to areas of experience that are relatively abstract, complex, unfamiliar, subjective or poorly delineated, such as time, emotion, life or death...

In the case of the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR, however, the source domain (WAR) is also rather complex. Nonetheless, it helps us to understand ARGUMENT as it ‘can be seen as arising from the basic experience of physical struggle amongst individuals with contrasting goals’ (ibid.: 7). Conventional conceptual metaphors, then, ‘are often explained in terms of recurring correlations of experience’. This said:

...it is also recognized that some metaphors cannot be traced back to experiential correlations, but rather have their basis in perceived similarities or areas of experience. (ibid.)

In the following sections, we investigate both types of metaphor: those that appear to correlate with particular experiences conventionally, and those that have their basis in perceived similarities or areas of experience. We also describe how to make use of corpus linguistic techniques to investigate metaphorical representations.

  • 12.1. ‘Hunting’ for terrorists
  • 12.2. Framing the Other as vermin
  • 12.3. Ideologically conceptualizing refugees
  • 12.4. Making use of the sort function, when analysing concordance results
  • 12.5. Claiming vs. ascribing metaphors


  • Baker, P. (2006) Using corpora in discourse analysis. London and New York: Continuum
  • Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Lakoff, G. and M. Turner (1989) More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide To Poetic Metaphor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Lakoff, R. (1989) ‘The limits of politeness’ Multilingua 8 (2/3): 101–129
  • Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (especially ‘Introduction: Studying metaphor in discourse’, pp1–35)

12.1. ‘Hunting’ for terrorists

In Unit C9.2, we suggested that you undertake an investigation of COCA concordance results relating to the metaphor, war on terror, as a means of exploring the extent to which Othering techniques that depict the enemy as ‘diabolical and insane’ (Jackson 2005: 1) are used.

Steuter and Wills (2009: 72) suggest that animal and hunting metaphors should also be very evident in your war on terror dataset, as ‘reports concerning the war on terror are filled with terms implying the pursuit and capture of an animal’ (e.g. hunt, trap, snare, net). Instead of using verbs that describe agents searching and looking for terrorists, for example, the verb commonly used is that of hunting. And when the hunt is successful, the enemy is described as scurrying for cover or slithering away – unless, that is, they are caught in a trap. Steuter and Wills go on to claim that these and similar depictions are dangerous, when mistaken for ‘simple, natural descriptions, rather than motivated, deliberate, symbolic choices that perform significant ideological work’ (ibid.). They further suggest that, when such word choices are ‘constantly reiterated’, they can ‘take on a collective force’ that serves to shape ‘the conceptual frameworks by which we understand the war on terror’ (ibid.).


Look again at your concordance results to determine whether animal and especially hunting metaphors are used. As you are likely to have a lot of concordance results to get through, you might want to adapt the approach suggested by Sinclair (1999): selecting 30 concordance results at random, noting their patterns, and then moving on to another 30 concordance results. Alternatively, you might adopt the ‘hypothesis testing’ method championed by Hunston (2002): using your first 30 concordance results to spot patterns, as before, and then looking to see whether this pattern or patterns occur(s) on a wider scale in your dataset – you might search for a particular animal reference, for example, or search for the verb hunt.


  • Hunston, S. (2002) Corpora in Applied Linguistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Jackson, R. (2005) Writing the war on terrorism: language, politics and counter-terrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Lakoff, G. (2003) ‘Metaphor and War, Again’. AlterNet. Available online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/15414
  • Sinclair, J. (1999) ‘A way with common words’ in Hasselgård, H. and S. Oksefjell (eds.) Out of Corpora: Studies in Honour of Stig Johnasson, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp157–79
  • Steuter, E. and D. Wills (2009) At War with Metaphor: Media, propaganda and racism in the war on terror, Lanham: Lexington Books

12.2. Framing the Other as vermin

Did you find any examples of vermin-related metaphors in your war on terror dataset (see C9, and also 12.1., above)? According to (Steuter and Wills 2009: 76):

When the media labels suspected terrorists, enemy military and political leaders, and ultimately an entire population as ‘rodents’, it conjures up a spectrum of negative cultural associations. It transforms people into vermin, whose capture and extermination becomes justified and necessary

Associating people with rats, in particular, will usually result in an extremely negative connotation, not least because:

Within the category of vermin, rats are seen as particularly loathsome. In many cultures, rats are equated with destruction, disease, and the spread of plague. The rat is also associated with untrustworthiness, slyness and ruthless self-interest; an informer is a ‘rat’; to ‘rat’ on someone is tantamount to betraying them. In both East and West, the rat is seen as unclean; as a denizen of earth’s bowels, it ‘has distinctly anal connotations’... (ibid.)

A useful concept, here, is that of semantic prosody (see, e.g., Louw 1993; Sinclair 1991; Stewart 2009). Relabelled discourse prosody by Baker (2006: 86–8), semantic prosody denotes a characteristic whereby words, phrases – and even larger units of meaning such as a whole text – occur within certain semantic environments to such an extent that mention of the former triggers an implicit (and often evaluative) association with the latter. For example, when a hearer/reader comes across symptomatic of they tend to expect something undesirable to follow, such as a disorder of some kind (see Louw 1993: 170 for specific examples): this is because the phrase has become ‘coloured’ by its ‘habitual collocates’ (ibid.: 159) and, hence, has taken on their (in this case, negative) evaluative meanings.

Given the overt negative semantic prosody attached to the metaphorical use of vermin, it is not surprising that a British parliamentary candidate faced disciplinary action when he likened Queen Elizabeth II to vermin on Twitter in 2009. As the following report (from the UK’s BBC Online website) makes clear:

Mr White posted: ‘What is the point of celebrating the diamond jubilee of someone who is born into a position of privilege, she is a parasite and milks this country for everything she can. [...] Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with a public holiday but lets (sic) have one that means something, rather than celebrating vermin.’

(BBC Online, 2009)

There have been points in history when people groups have been described as vermin (or related terms) because of their race and/or religion. Van Dijk (1987) discusses the characteristics of such racist discourses in detail.


Find other examples of animal metaphors that have the same ‘shock’ value.


  • Baker, P. (2006) Using corpora in discourse analysis. London and New York: Continuum
  • BBC Online (2009) ‘Would-be councillor in Queen “vermin” slur off list’, BBC, 2 December, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8392063.stm
  • Louw, B. (1993) ‘Irony in the text or insincerity in the writer? The diagnostic potential of semantic prosodies’ in M. Baker, G. Francis and E. Tognini-Boneli (eds.) Text and Technology: In honour of John Sinclair, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp157–76
  • Sinclair, J. McH. (1991) Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Steuter, E. and D. Wills (2009) At War with Metaphor: Media, propaganda and racism in the war on terror, Lanham: Lexington Books
  • Stewart, D. (2009) Semantic Prosody: A critical evaluation, London and New York: Routledge
  • Van Dijk, T.A. (1987) Communicating Racism: Ethnic prejudice in thought and talk, London: Sage

12.3. Ideologically conceptualizing refugees

As will be clear by now, ‘metaphors are seldom neutral’, as ‘constructing something in terms of something else results in a particular view of the “something” in question, often including  specific attitudes and evaluations’ (Semino 2008: 32) – that is, framing (see C9.3). There is an inherent danger here, of course, for:

when particular uses of metaphor become the dominant way of talking about a particular aspect of reality within a particular discourse, they may be extremely difficult to perceive and challenge, since they come to represent the ‘common-sense’ or ‘natural’ view of things ... [and hence] can be seen as an important part of the shared sets of beliefs, or ‘ideology’, that characterize a particular social group. (ibid.: 33)

For example, refugees are regularly ‘categorized as out-of-control water, with phrases like flood of refugees, overflowing camps, refugees streaming home, etc.’, according to Baker (2006: 20). Flood is also conventionally used – as both a verb and a noun – in relation to immigration: which helps to explain why ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ are among the top 15 collocates of flood in the written part of BNC. Lexical items related to flood – wave (n.), tide (n.) and inundate (v.) – are also conventionally used to talk about economic migrants and asylum seekers, according to Semino (2008). This pattern, moreover, has been noted for languages other than English (see, e.g., the work of van Dijk 1987: 372–3; van Teeffelen 1994; El Refaie 2001; O’Brien 2003; Chilton 2004: 110–34):

It can therefore be argued that a conventional metaphorical use of expressions relating to the movement of water, and ‘flood’ in particular, is part of the discourse of immigration and asylum generally, i.e. it is part of the dominant way of talking about immigrants and asylum seekers... (Semino 2008: 88–9)


Determine the extent to which refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and economic migrants are described in terms of flood and related vocabulary by undertaking your own analysis of newspaper stories written in different languages (if you are a monolingual speaker, work with others who can speak languages relevant to your chosen study).


  • Baker, P. (2006) Using corpora in discourse analysis. London and New York: Continuum
  • Chilton, P. (2004) Analysing Political Discourse: Theory and Practice, London: Routledge
  • El Refaie, E. (2001) ‘Metaphors we discriminate by: Naturalized themes in Austrian newspaper articles about asylum seekers’, Journal of Sociolinguistics 5(3): 352–71
  • O’Brien, G.V. (2003) ‘Indigestible food, conquering hordes, and waste materials: Metaphors of immigrants and the early immigration restriction debate in the United States’, Metaphor and Symbol 18(1): 33–47
  • Scott, M. (1996). WordSmith Tools, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Van Dijk, T.A. (1987) Communicating Racism: Ethnic prejudice in thought and talk, London: Sage
  • van Teeffelen, T. (1994) ‘Racism and metaphor: The Palestinian–Israeli conflict in popular literature‘, Discourse and Society 5(3): 381–405

12.4. Making use of the sort function, when analysing concordance results

Baker (2006: 77–86) provides a detailed account of how you can sort concordance results – to the left and to the right – using WordSmith Tools so that you can more easily spot how refugees are described/framed. These patterns might point to quantification (300,000 Afghan refugees) and movement (...forcing refugees into another village). They might also point to particular depictions of refugees as:

  • victims/groups undergoing suffering (...refugees trudge aimlessly, hunched against a biting wind),
  • transported goods/packages (...packed with refugees),
  • recipients of help (...new funding to help refugees),
  • criminals/a nuisance (...stoned by Afghan refugees).


Familiarize yourself with WordSmith’s concordance sorting process, and then use this procedure on your own concordance result(s) so that you can determine whether similar – or different – patterns as the above are evident in your newspaper sources.


  •  Baker (2006) Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London and New York: Continuum (especially Chapter 4, ‘Concordances’, pp71–93)

12.5. Claiming vs. ascribing metaphors

Semino (2008: 41) asks a pertinent question in her monograph, Metaphor in Discourse: are we ‘completely blinkered and straitjacketed by the metaphors we conventionally use?’ She answers her own question in the negative, adding:

we can overcome the slant and limitations of individual metaphors, at least to some extent, by exploiting alternative conventional metaphors for the same target domain, or by creating new metaphors, and hence new ways of making sense of particular experiences... (ibid.)

Writers will also use scare quotes to ‘overcome the slant’of individual metaphors they wish to dissociate themselves from, as in the following example (cited in Semino 2008: 89):

Support for anti-immigrant politics in many west European countries grew in late 1991, fuelled by the belief that a flood of immigrants posed an economic and cultural challenge

Eubanks (2000: 217–18) provides us with a useful term here: that of ascribing metaphors to others. This term allows us to distinguish incidences when writers ascribe metaphors to others from incidences when writers claim metaphors for themselves.


Re-examine your dataset(s) to determine if scare quotes are used at all, in relation to the refugee or immigration issue: if they are used, are they indicative of a pro-immigration stance? When scare quotes are not used, does this mean that the writer is taking an anti-immigration stance (be it implicit or explicit)? (see Semino 2008: 89).


  • Baker (2006) Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London and New York: Continuum (especially Chapter 4, ‘Concordances’, pp71–93)
  • Eubanks (2000) A War of Words in the Discourse of Trade: The rhetorical constitution of metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press