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Review of  Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms

Reviewer: James J. Jenkins
Book Title: Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms
Book Author: Sam Glucksberg
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 13.825

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Glucksberg, Sam (2001) Understanding Figurative Language:
>From Metaphors to Idioms. Oxford University Press, hardback
ISBN: 0-19-511109-5, ix+134pp, $27.95, Oxford Psychology
Series 36

James J. Jenkins, Distinguished Research Professor, Psychology,
University of South Florida, and Speech and Hearing Sciences,
Graduate Center, City University of New York

Sam Glucksberg, a psychologist at Princeton University, has
been doing research on psychology of language for more than
35 years. Some readers will be acquainted with his 1975
book, Experimental Psycholinguistics,(with Joseph Danks)
which was one of the best of the early books in the field.
Although metaphor was accorded only cursory treatment in
that text, it was clearly a matter that Glucksberg could
not set aside. During the last 20 years, he has published
23 articles (either alone or with colleagues) on figurative
language. Fortunately for all of us, he has brought these
studies and many others together in this book to make his
case clearly and forcefully concerning the nature of "non
literal" language. This is not to imply that the book is
merely a review of his own studies. The references range
from Aristotle's classics to the year 2000 and freely cross
the fields of literature, rhetoric, philosophy, linguistics,
and experimental psychology. The book concludes with a
chapter by Matthew McGlone (a former student) who contrasts
the Princeton position on metaphors with that of Lakoff and
Gibbs and offers his view of the Whorfian hypothesis.
Although this is a small book (134 pages), it carries a set
of weighty arguments and an impressive assembly of
experimental evidence.

Chapter one points out the accepted view of the two major
meanings of the term, metaphor. First, it is a type of
language that transfers some analogous meaning from one
domain to another ("My lawyer is a shark"). Second, it
is a form of conceptual representation or symbolization
("Love is a journey"). Glucksberg excludes the many
instances of metonymy ("She's got a new set of wheels.") as
non-metaphoric. When the only purpose of the literary
device is to identify an entity (here, a car) he does not
consider it metaphoric. The kind of metaphor that concerns
him falls under the first definition above; it's the kind
that involves two conceptual domains. A common view is that
the term in the "vehicle" domain (e.g., "shark")
substitutes for some terms in the domain of the "topic"
(e.g., "My lawyer"). Glucksberg argues, however, that this
is an undefined set and that metaphoric interpretations are
not substitutions but, rather, are constructions from the
terms and the context of the conversation.
Glucksberg challenges a set of conventional assumptions:
first, that literal meaning has priority, second, that
figurative meaning is derived from the literal, and third,
that metaphorical meaning is more complex and requires more
cognitive work than literal understanding. His claim is
that all three of these assumptions are incorrect.

In Chapter two, Glucksberg searches for the supposed
differences between "literal" and "metaphorical"
comprehension. Experimental evidence is examined concerning
two questions: Are literal meanings of sentences processed
faster than metaphorical meanings and are literal and
metaphorical readings equally obligatory? Evidence over a
set of experiments argues that literal readings are faster
than metaphorical readings only in the case of poor
metaphors. When the metaphors are apt (as independently
judged), their processing time is as fast as literal
processing. There is also convincing evidence that both
kinds of interpretations are generated in parallel; that
is, that both literal and metaphorical processing are
compulsory. If a sentence can be taken in a metaphorical
way, that fact will interfere with and delay the presumed
literal processing, showing that the metaphorical
processing is active.

The experiments in this chapter require a bit of
sophistication to follow the arguments. This reviewer was
impressed with the skill and clarity with which Glucksberg
leads the reader through the rationale of reaction time
studies, time-accuracy tradeoffs and various other
experimental considerations.

Chapter three tackles the fundamental question of
whether metaphor is just a class of simile, that is,
just a literal comparison. Is "My job is a jail"
to be understood by transforming it into "My job is like a
jail"? Or are similes best understood as weak forms of
metaphors? Glucksberg's contention is that the basis of
metaphor is class inclusion rather than mere similarity.
One of the values of metaphor is that it is not necessary
that the class itself have a name. Thus, when one says, "My
lawyer is a shark," one is saying that the lawyer is a
member of a class of aggressive, voracious, predatory
creatures. Although one can make a comparison simile out of
a metaphor, ("My lawyer is like a shark") it weakens the
metaphor to do so. Further, most metaphors are non-
reversible whereas literal comparisons should be. An apt
metaphor should choose an ideal exemplar vehicle that is
prototypic of the desired category thus bringing to mind,
or even creating, the proper attribute of the unnamed

The chapter stresses the role of dual reference.
An instance can be literal or prototypical of a category.
Thus, it is possible to say, "Cambodia is Vietnam's
Vietnam." where both the literal use of "Vietnam" (name of
the country) and the prototypic use (disastrous military
intervention) are quite clear.

Chapter four addresses the question of property
attribution. The central idea of the chapter is that topics
have a range of possible dimensions and vehicles have a
range of salient properties that might be relevant to the
dimensions. In a good metaphor the topic has only a few
relevant dimensions of variation and the vehicle has only a
few salient property attributes. In a poor metaphor, the
topic has many possible dimensions that might be addressed
(i.e., it is weakly constrained) and the vehicle does not
specify a salient property. Sets of clever experiments that
manipulate these variables demonstrate that speed of
metaphor comprehension is indeed a function of such
constraints. In a neat extension of this paradigm
Glucksberg goes on to demonstrate that the same line of
reasoning can explain when compound nouns are interpreted
as property attributions as opposed to descriptive
modifiers. (For example "feather luggage" is interpreted as
luggage that is light whereas "feather storage" is a place
to store feathers. When the head noun can be taken as topic
and the modifying noun as the vehicle, the compound is
given a property interpretation.)

Chapter five takes up the vexing question as to whether
idioms can be included in the purview of this approach. The
answer appears to be "sometimes." Glucksberg suggests four
classes of idioms: Non-compositional idioms are expressions
that cannot be analyzed syntactically or semantically. They
are not syntactically flexible and their meaning must
simply be learned e.g., "by and large." The second class is
compositional but semantically opaque. An example would be
"kick the bucket". This phrase may be modified as to tense
or verb auxiliaries but again, its meaning must be learned.
The third class is compositional and transparent. His
example is "spill the beans" meaning to disclose something
that should have been kept secret. The final class is
quasi-metaphorical which is compositional, transparent and
is handled by his approach to metaphor. An example is
"skating on thin ice" as an instance of a dangerous or
risky undertaking. This last case fits nicely into his
treatment of metaphor. Members of this class of idioms are
expressions that are prototypical of an entire category of
events or situations.

While this chapter gives the reader an intriguing
discussion of idioms, it offers little in the way of
experimental research. One experiment that is provided,
however, supports the overall theme of the book. It
demonstrates that quasi-metaphorical idioms appearing at
the end of a paragraph of context are more rapidly
understood than are literal sentences of the same content.
It is also true that modified or altered idioms are
processed just as rapidly as their literal equivalents.

Chapter six, by Matthew McGlone, deals with concepts as
metaphors. It is a general consideration of Lakoff's
position (Lakoff, 1993) that certain abstract concepts are
only to be understood as metaphors (e.g., "Love is a
journey", "Theory is a building"). In its strongest form it
argues that the metaphor IS the concept and dominates
thought and reason. The general argument is that abstract
concepts are represented as concrete concepts and are in
this way both thought about and talked about. McGlone sees
this as another version of the old Whorfian hypothesis. One
hardly needs to add that such arguments are usually fatally
circular. McGlone rejects both the strong and the weak form
of the argument as being without empirical support. He
also rejects Gibbs' position (Gibbs, 1994) that one
understands metaphorical expressions by recognizing the
conceptual metaphors that they instantiate. This view is
rejected as cumbersome and unnecessary in favor of
Glucksberg's position that allows us to construct
attributive categories on the spot.

Like many discussions of the Whorfian-like theses, there is
little hard evidence to support any position on these
topics. In a final footnote, McGlone leaves the field open,
as is almost always the case:
"... we do not intend to deny the role of metaphor in
science, art, or more broadly in society and culture. How
we talk about the mind, art, people or society both
reflects and shapes how we think about those concepts. The
argument developed in this chapter is explicitly narrow and
is specifically focused on the conceptual metaphor theory
in cognitive linguistics. Considerations of the complex
relations between language and thought are beyond the scope
of this book." (p. 115)

The book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of
metaphor. It brings experimental research to bear on what
might have been thought to be purely "literary" problems.
It presents an ingenious, workable theory of metaphor that
will impact many fields, beginning most importantly with
cognitive psychology and linguistics. It is splendidly
reasoned and well written. It is crystal clear about what we
presently know and hints at what is still to be done. It is
highly recommended. This book is a goldmine.

Gibbs, R. W. (1994). The Poetics of Mind: Figurative
Thought, Language and Understanding. New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Glucksberg, S. & Danks, J. H. (1975). Experimental
Psycholinguistics: An Introduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In
A. Ortony (Ed.) Metaphor and Thought (2nd Ed.) Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-251.

James J. Jenkins has considered himself a psycholinguist
since the summer of 1953 when he was part of a group
assembled by the Social Science Research Council to explore
the possibility of interdisciplinary research in the domain
between linguistics and psychology. He has been adviser to
a number of now-distinguished psycholinguists and cognitive
psychologists. His current research work is largely in
speech perception.


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