The structure of metaphors

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 10:39 am

A metaphor is a figure of speech that references one concept, object, or action, by identifying it with another. In metaphors, that identification of one concept with another isn’t literally accurate. Metaphors help us understand and experience one thing, with which we might be unfamiliar, in terms of another, with which we’re more familiar [Lakoff 1980]. Understanding the structure of metaphors helps us understand how to use them—and mitigate the risks that arise when we do use them.

A squirrel

For example, consider the statement,“my son’s room is a war zone.” As a metaphor, it identifies my son’s room as a war zone, when it isn’t literally a war zone. We mean that his room is messy and disorganized. We don’t mean to imply that military ordnance or troops are involved. More examples:

  • True friends stab you in the front. — Oscar Wilde
  • A squirrel is just a rat in a cuter outfit. — “Carrie Bradshaw,” played by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex in the City
  • A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain. — variously attributed to Robert Frost, Mark Twain, and others

In these examples, Oscar Wilde isn’t saying that friends actually stab anyone. Nor is “Carrie Bradshaw” saying that squirrels are rats, or that they wear clothing. And Frost or Twain isn’t saying that banks actually lend umbrellas. Nevertheless, these three statements do literally imply stabbings, squirrel clothing, and umbrella distribution. These metaphors make their points by being literally inaccurate. The literal but untrue assertion is the hallmark of the metaphor.

Unintended associations: why using metaphors can be risky

The fundamental structure of metaphors is “A is B.” Borrowing terminology from cognitive linguistics, A is the target of the metaphor and B is its source. Thus, the squirrel is the target; the rat in a cuter outfit is the source. The bank is the target; the perfidious umbrella lender is the source. For the technical debt metaphor, the needed technical work is the target; financial debt is the source. Metaphors aid us by applying what we understand well in the domain of the source. The metaphor applies that to what we understand less well in the domain of the target.

DefinitionA metaphor is a figure of speech used to convey understanding of one concept, object, or action by identifying it with another that is well understood, even though the identification is not literally accurate. The well-understood concept is called the source. The less-well-understood concept is called the target. The metaphor is thus a statement that “<Target> is <Source>.” Although the identification of target with source is literally invalid, it provides a means of understanding some aspects of the target in terms of some of the properties or behavior of the source.

Because metaphors compel our minds to accept the identification between source and target in toto, they can cause us to make errors of thought. Those errors create risks for the enterprise as we attempt to manage technical debt. The risk arises because we begin to regard technical debt as a form of financial debt, when in reality it is not. The risk of misidentification is acceptable if we understand it and manage it properly. But that risk is often unrecognized, and therefore it remains unmitigated. A significant source of this risk is our inability to control which attributes of the metaphor’s source the reader or listener chooses to associate with the metaphor’s target. We can call this phenomenon unintended association.

Some of the unintended associations of the technical debt metaphor cause real problems for organizations as they try to manage their technical debt. We explore the unintended associations of the technical debt metaphor next time.


[Lakoff 1980] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

The classic and fundamental study of metaphor. Order from Amazon

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