Mapping Metaphor, a visualization of 13 centuries of metaphors in the English language (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mapping Metaphor, a visualization of 13 centuries of metaphors in the English language (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

A three-year project from the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies mapped 13 centuries of metaphors in the English language. Based on four million lexical data points, the Mapping Metaphor data visualization charts 14,000 connections, showing how the metaphor is not just a literary device, but something intrinsic to human psychology and communication.

Principal Investigator Wendy Anderson told the Guardian that “metaphorical thinking underlies the way we make sense of the world conceptually. It governs how we think and how we talk about our day-to-day lives.” The source data was the Historical Thesaurus of English, also created at the Scottish university, which from 1965 to 2008 compiled around 800,000 words going back to Old English. With this resource, researchers delved into the history of how the English language changed over time from the seventh century onward, and how people used it to understand their worlds. For example, sleep and death go way back to Old English, while comparing bodily weight to a pig only goes back to the 16th century. Over on the Mapping Metaphor blog are posts exploring the peacock as a metaphor for pride, the huge number of devil metaphors compared to fewer for angels, and the sun as a metaphor for good.

Metaphor connections between “death” and “sleep”

A quarter of the project’s connections are online with plans for expansion, including an Old English map in August. It takes a bit of experimenting with the map to explore its tiered navigation, and the university posted a how-to video as an introduction. It’s also recommended that you check out this page showing all the categories completed online with dates and information, and utilize the timeline view which makes it easier to pinpoint different eras. Some metaphors are so embedded in our language we don’t consider them, such as “healthy economy” or “chicken” for someone who is scared. Mapping Metaphor explores when these metaphors appeared, revealing how our internal and external worlds are interpreted through this comparative language.

Connections between trade, finance, and animals

Metaphor connection between “bodily shape and strength” and pigs

Metaphor timeline for plants and pride

h/t the Guardian

View Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus online. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...