A metaphor for our times

12 min readJul 29, 2020
Photo: Jo Zimny Photos

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, I’m still under the purple blanket. That’s not a metaphor. It’s literally true. Wait! Does that mean that metaphors aren’t true???

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America this is Subtitle. I’m Patrick Cox.

Life’s a party. Or it’s hell. Or it’s a mixed bag. Whatever it is, we only start to make sense of life when we use its metaphors. Right now, we’re trying to make sense of the virus. The lockdown. The re-opening, all of that. We’re trying to understand these new things and place them in our lives.

And metaphors help. They open doors. They allow us to perceive things in a new light. They are in fact doors of perception.

Funny, that. That’s the title of the book Aldous Huxley wrote, “Doors of Perception”, where he described the effect on his mind of hallucinogenic mescaline.

So, is that the way that metaphors work? Is the world a more real place — a more truthful place — after you’ve popped a couple tabs of metaphor? Is it only then we can comprehend this pandemic more clearly?

Patrick Cox: So a few episodes ago, I was talking with Stanford professor Seema Yasmine. She was arguing against the use — the overuse — of the war metaphor to describe our struggle with Coronavirus.

It’s in an episode called At war and not at war.

Now, Seema mentioned there’s an online collection of alternative metaphors for describing cancer. This collection is also a reaction to the overuse of the war metaphor: “His battle with cancer.” “She fought it and beat it.” Etc.

So, this list of metaphors — it’s crowd-sourced — it’s called the Metaphor Menu. And I knew I had to talk with the woman behind it. I figured that she might have some ideas about our current situation; have some metaphors up her sleeve. And she does.

Elena Semino: I am Elena Semino, professor of linguistics and verbal art at Lancaster University in the UK, and I am originally Italian.

Patrick Cox: Elena has been analyzing metaphors, especially those used to describe cancer, for many years. The news media — often medical profession too — they tended to fall back on just a couple of metaphors. Elena and some of her colleagues, they built a huge database of words used in association with cancer. Words that went way beyond war metaphors and a couple of other ones. She thought, well, these descriptions are worth passing on, they’re worth telling others about, especially people with new diagnosis may find them really useful. The metaphor menu arose from that need.

Elena Semino: The idea is to give people options beyond the very conventional ones. The dominant metaphor is that of a war or a battle. And there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with that. The main alternative, which is sometimes explicitly proposed as a better alternative, is the cancer journey. But that is also a metaphor that is sometimes perceived to be too cliched. And so, we felt that there really was a need to highlight the variability that we found in our data, that the people at the individual level come up with all sorts of different alternatives.

Patrick Cox: Stuff like this:

“Having cancer is not a fight but a relationship where I am forced to live with my disease day in, day out. Some days cancer has the upper hand, other days I do.”


“For me, cancer arrived as an unwelcome lodger, parking itself in the back room and demanding attention. I tried to be a courteous if unwilling host, until eventually the time came to invite my cancer to leave. It’s left the place in a bit of a mess, and I’m conscious that it’s kept the key. Still I’m hopeful that in due course all I’ll be left with is the rich memory of time spent with a stranger I never expected to meet.”

I’m guessing it would be pretty useful to hear these.

Okay, so what about our situation now? Elena’s been a keen observer of coronavirus metaphors, and the many, many, many times when political leaders have compared the situation we are in to war. That previous Subtitle episode I mentioned — we have a bunch of audio of politicians trotting out the comparisons to war. So, I won’t repeat them here. Suffice to say Elena says there’s actually good reason for all the war talk.

Elena Semino: It is the case that especially at the beginning of a crisis like COVID-19, war metaphors do have their uses because they are very effective at suggesting a sense of urgency, the presence of a very immediate and serious risk to health and life. The need for extraordinary changes in people’s lifestyles. A sense of collective sacrifice that is being made. And so, in that sense, it is quite possible that those metaphors helped in that, at least in that initial phase where in essence you’ve got a metaphorical call to arms. And, the change in people’s lifestyles was so dramatic that war metaphors had their uses.

Patrick Cox: So, at the start of all this, convey the drama. But what about a few months in? Many leaders are still using the martial language and dressing it up a bit too. Here’s Donald Trump in mid-May. He’s in Pennsylvania at a medical equipment distribution center — and he’s speaking to the workers there.

Donald Trump: “The moment this terrible virus reached our shores, each of you has worked relentlessly to get the vital supplies to our healthcare warriors. And they are warriors, aren’t they? When you see them going into those hospitals and they’re putting the stuff that you deliver, that they’re wrapping themselves, and the doors are opening, and they go through the doors and they’re not even ready to go through those doors. They’re probably shouldn’t. But they can’t get there fast enough. And they’re running into death just like soldiers running to bullets.”

Patrick Cox: So, there’s a lot there that we’re kind of getting used to hearing — frontline workers as heroes, people sacrificing themselves for the common good. It sounds romanticized. Does it still at this stage help us understand what’s going on?

Elena Semino: In the longer term, it may well be that the war metaphor is not fit for purpose. It can lead to some extent to fatigue or eventually if a war is protracted, people could become fed up with it. They could despair. They could become fatalistic. They could think that there’s no victory in sight. And so, the messages could become less effective. It’s always useful to have alternatives, especially alternatives that might be appropriate for subsequent stages of the crisis caused by COVID-19, because the lockdown that I am speaking from in the UK and that many people are experiencing, even though it has fuzzy edges, it is still relatively clear cut.. But as we enter future phases in which we might have more freedom, but it might be still limited or there might be some lifting of restrictions and then further lockdowns, I think it would be very useful if public health messages had a range of metaphors at their disposal.

Patrick Cox: Metaphors that commandeer forest fires and swimming pools that need to be empty because — well, you know why swimming pools are usually emptied. That’s after the break.

Patrick Cox: I think I’m not alone in understanding that metaphors can be extremely powerful, but I don’t really understand why that is. I mean, why — how a metaphor works. Can you explain that?

Elena Semino: Yes.

Patrick Cox: I’m so relieved Elena said yes.

Elena Semino: So basically, metaphor is the phenomenon whereby we see one thing in terms of another, on the basis of some similarities between unlike things.

Patrick Cox: Similarities between unlike things. Things that go through some kind of verbal sleight of hand and suddenly appear to have similarities.

Elena Semino: So that seeing something as something else, is both a communicative process and there is a lot of evidence that it is also thinking process. And as a consequence of that, the choice of metaphor can — other things being equal — affect not just the way in which we talk about something, but potentially the way we think about something and experience it. So on the one hand, metaphors open up our ability to speak and think about our experiences, because we can draw vocabulary and knowledge and inferences from one area of experience to another. But also, they potentially influence how we think.

Patrick Cox: This is the power of a metaphor. A well-employed metaphor can change our view of something, create a little Eureka moment: like, oh now I get it! It’s like something inside your mind clicks — you may not even be aware of it .

Elena Semino: And that is what makes them both very powerful and useful, but also something to be aware of because they can also potentially limit our thinking or influence it in ways that may not always be desirable or may not allow for an understanding of the full complexities of phenomena.

Patrick Cox: Have you ever heard of the Czech novelist Milan Kundera? I went through a big Kundera phase. He wrote this in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

‘Metaphors are dangerous, Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.’

I’m not going do the context justice here, tease out all the nuances, but the takeaway is, metaphors can be incredibly seductive and misleading.

I’m wondering what the relationship exactly is between metaphor and truth. I mean, for a metaphor to work well, does it have to tell the truth, at least in part?

Elena Semino: Normally, I would not evaluate a metaphor on the basis of its truthfulness.

Patrick Cox: This is the moment in our conversation when I realize that I am not a linguist and Elena is. I’m seeking something that may or may not have any answers. Elena’s analyzing how language works.

Elena Semino: If you’re looking at most if you look at most metaphors from the kind of truth or falsehood perspective, most metaphors literally make no sense. So, they’re kind of literally untrue. A very classic example of a metaphor is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo seeing Juliet coming out onto our balcony. And amongst other things, Romeo says Juliet is the sun.

Patrick Cox: I’m not going to walk away completely from the idea that some kind of truth is being conveyed here. Okay, not literal truth, but isn’t there a metaphorical truth? Elena prefers to use more precise language.

Elena Semino: A classic term that is used in the study of metaphor is whether a metaphor is apt. In other words, if the similarity that it relies upon, is something that makes sense and whether it works well in context. More specifically, when it comes to metaphors, there are other criteria that I would apply and they very much apply to the context of illness, beat cancer or the current communication about COVID-19. So, for example, in the case of metaphors to do with cancer, one of the things we were concerned along wasn’t so much do people use war metaphors or journey metaphors or sports metaphors or fairground metaphors? But, how is the person who is ill positioned in the metaphorical scenario? Are they presented in an empowered or disempowered position? Are they presented as responsible for what is happening to them? So, for example, with war metaphors, we had a patient writing in an online forum who says that her cancer had spread and so it’s not incurable. And then she says, I feel such a failure that I am not winning this battle. But, in fact, is the treatment that has failed, not the person. But the idea of losing a battle or not winning a battle, can lead to inferences about the fighter not being strong enough or determined enough or skillful enough. And that is where the failure, the feeling of failure comes.

Patrick Cox: So, with all that in mind, back to the coronavirus. Elena’s come across several metaphors she likes, many of them related to our present moment, like how we re-emerge from lockdown, as we’re doing now. Here’s one of Elena’s favorites: likening the virus to a forest fire.

Elena Semino: So, with the fire metaphor, you can do several things. In the phase that infections are still rising or not near the peak, you can say that basically the problem is like a fire that is raging. There are firefighters fighting it directly, such as doctors, nurses, etc. But other people have to be vigilant. They have to be prepared to support and they have to be modified, their behavior in order not to get in the way and not endanger themselves. You could then extend the metaphor and say when the main fire seems to be under control, or when the fire has been reduced, we still need to remain to be vigilant. We still need to be attentive. We might still have to continue to modify behavior. And you could also have a situation where the fire has-for all intents and purposes-has been extinguished, but there could be some bits of the smoldering that we’re not necessarily immediately aware of. And they may create new future fires.The metaphor can be extended to suggest that to avoid future fires, you need to look after the wood and you need to look at, look after the land in ways that make future fires less likely.

Patrick Cox: There are other metaphors involving parachutes, orchestras, and swimming pools. The swimming pool one, I came across after I spoke with Elena. I sent it to her — she loved it. I’d read it in the form of a Twitter feed written by Jeremy Konyndyk who was director of US foreign disaster assistance under Barack Obama. I don’t have Konyndyk to read out this thread, but I do have a special guest.

Jack: My name is Jack and I don’t live anywhere. Thank you.

Patrick Cox: So, I asked Jack, of no fixed abode, to read this Twitter thread, because the metaphor extends not just to swimming pools but to something else even closer to his heart.

Jack voiceover: Poop.

Patrick Cox: Yup. Take it away, Jack.

Jack: Imagine you’re at the pool, and a kid takes a stinky poops in the water. It happens a few times every summer. What happens next? Everybody clears the stinky, poopy, pool. That’s the initial step to protect people from the dangerous poop in the pool. But that’s not the end of the story. There’s a next step — some poor soul on a poor pool staff has to go fish out the stinky, disgusting poop. Then they have to shock the pool with chlorine to kill off the bacteria. And then every single person waits half an hour or so till it’s safe to swim again. I think you can see where I’m going with this. If the lifeguards tell everyone to clear the pool, but the pool staff declines to actually get rid of the poop, what happens? No one can go back in. The stinky poop is still there, and it’ll stay there until someone cleans it up. Whose fault is it that it’s not safe to go back in the water? Who is accountable? Do you focus on the people saying, “Clean up the poop before we can go back in safely”? Or do you focus on the staff whose job it is to clean up the poop? And what would you think if the staff started saying — look, just get back in. Be a warrior. The answer is pretty obvious. So right now, our country is a big swimming pool with a huge stinky, poopy problem.

Telling people to just be warriors and go back in the pool isn’t just reckless, it also won’t work. Maybe a few hardy souls will take their chances. But those who can will opt out. If people can see the stinky, toilet poop still floating in the pool, they’re not going to be convinced by the staff telling them it’s safe to go in. Similarly, governors lifting restrictions won’t yield economic recovery until a critical mass of people feel that reopening is safe. So, the pool staff need to stop telling us it’s too hard to clean up the stinky poop, and probably unnecessary, and that if we just wait maybe it will go away on its own. Instead, do what all other pools in town are doing and clean up the stinky poop.

Patrick Cox: I leave you with that extended metaphor, tweeted out by Jeremy Konyndyk, who now teaches at Georgetown.

This version, courtesy of Jack, was slightly shorter than the original. but he also added a few of his own words, like “stinky” and “disgusting.”

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Patrick Cox. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.

Thanks to Deb Clark, Jeremy Helton, Nina Porzucki, our partners at the Linguistic Society of America, the Hub & Spoke audio collective and The World public radio program.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod