February 13, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Loaded language

A lot has been written about the dangers of war metaphors used by politicians during the pandemic. But war metaphors are of course everywhere in political speech, where people fight elections, defeat opponents, battle against the odds. It is almost impossible to think about politics without thinking of it as a battle to be won. The conceptual metaphor ‘Politics is war’ is as constitutive of political thinking as ‘Disease management is war’ is of health policy.

So, when a politician says ‘fight like hell’ that should not be surprising at all. But, and that is a big but, words don’t just matter as words, they matter because they are used in particular situations, in particular contexts. Take, the now much discussed example of falsely shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. That word would have major consequences. The same goes for metaphors, such as ‘fight’, in certain contexts. As with words, ‘what a metaphor communicates is more important than what it says’ – and what it communicates depends on the context in which it is used.

Take the prototypical metaphor ‘Juliet is the sun’. Its importance goes well beyond the immediate meaning of the metaphor. It makes us think about the relationship between Romeo and Juliet in a new way. But there is more: Just like any other word or utterance, a metaphor or metaphorical utterance can have what one may call ‘performative force’. When immigrants are metaphorically conceptualised as insects or rodents, as swarms or floods, this has direct political consequences, such as Brexit. Such metaphors are not just metaphors; they are actions. As James Bono has put it: ‘The work of metaphor is not so much to represent features of the world, as to invite us to act upon the world as if it were configured in a specific way like that of some already known entity or process’

The issue with ‘fight’ is, of course, subtler than the immigration metaphors and more complicated than the Juliet metaphor. Here the interaction between words and context is all important.

Imagine a politician in the UK urging supporters in a leaflet to fight for him/her. What are they likely to do? Do they grab a gun and go into battle? That’s unlikely, as getting hold of a gun in the UK is rather difficult. Do they go on Twitter without leaving the sofa? That’s more likely. Now imagine a politician in the US urging people to fight for him or her while standing in front of a crowd of already armed supporters. How do you think this context will change the force of that metaphor? In the first case the rather lame political metaphor of ‘fight’ will perhaps result in a tweet, while in the second context it will perhaps result in an actual bona fide fight.

In certain contexts metaphors have more power than in others. They can be used as weapons and can make people use weapons. Inflammatory speech is especially dangerous in a combustible context.

And here is a blog post by Susan Nacey on the same issue, but from a slightly different perspective, but, of course, also using alliteration: Figurative Fighting

Added 1 July 2021: After a serendipitous conversation between Pernille Bogø, Jacob Mey and myself, I re-read some passages on metaphor in Jacob’s 1993 edition of Pragmatics: An Introduction. Man, I should have quoted them above. Here goes: “Metaphors are always charged with pragmatic explosives; they are ‘loaded weapons’, to use Bolinger’s (1980) apt expression – itself a metaphor” (pp. 62-63) And: “The task of pragmatics is to ‘deconstruct’ the metaphor, to unload the ‘loaded weapon’ of language.” (pp. 64-65)

Image: Public Domain

Posted in MetaphorsPolitics