Metaphor is not the sole preserve of Shakespearean scholarship or high literary endeavour but has governed how we think about and describe our daily lives for centuries, according to researchers at Glasgow University.
Experts have now created the world’s first online Metaphor Map, which contains more than 14,000 metaphorical connections sourced from 4m pieces of lexical data, some of which date back to 700AD.
While it is impossible to pinpoint the oldest use of metaphor in English, because some may have been adopted from earlier languages such as Germanic, the map reveals that the still popular link between sheep and timidity dates back to Old English. Likewise, we do not always recognise modern use of metaphor: for example, the word “comprehend” comes from Latin, where it meant to physically grasp an object.
The three-year-long project to map the use of metaphor across the entire history of the English language, undertaken by researchers at the School of Critical Studies, was based on data contained in the Historical Thesaurus of English, which spans 13 centuries.
Dr Wendy Anderson, the project’s principal investigator, said that the findings supported the view that metaphor is pervasive in language and is also a major mechanism of meaning-change.