May 14, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

The coronavirus: A global metaphor

In cognitive linguistics there is a long-running debate about whether some metaphors are universal or near-universal or whether metaphors are more culture specific. I don’t really want to get into that controversy here, but recent work by Ahmed Abdel-Raheem made me think about it again. In this post I argue that it might be good for metaphor researchers to shift their focus from searching for universal metaphors to exploring global metaphors, such as the coronavirus.

Universal and culture-specific metaphors

There are some metaphors based on universal bodily experiences that one can find in almost any language and culture; and we are talking here about ‘conceptual’ metaphors, metaphors that underlie how we conceptualise certain aspects of the world. A prototypical example is the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, on which expressions such as ‘they got hot under the collar’ or ‘he blew his top’ are based. But already with the second example we get into cultural influences of oil wells or steam engines and the like…

At the other end of the spectrum we have my standard example of a culture-specific metaphorical expression, “This is pop-tart philosophy”, which one can only understand if one knows about pop-tarts, and for which I can’t quite think of an underlying conceptual metaphor.*

In between we have conceptual metaphors like DEALING WITH DISEASE IS WAR, which have been with us for centuries and have been especially prominent again during the current pandemic of Covid-19.

Metaphors and mapping

Metaphors map aspects of a source domain onto a target domain, e.g. aspects of a hot body or engine onto anger, aspects of war onto disease management and aspects of pop-tarts onto philosophy. To be able to understand metaphors, we need some knowledge or experience of the source domain. This knowledge is quasi universal regarding experiences of the human body, near universal regarding experiences of war and rather culture specific when it comes to pop-tarts.

Metaphors without knowledge are empty and the advancement of knowledge without metaphors is impossible.

The advent of the coronavirus

At the beginning of last year, hardly anybody in the world knew about or had experience of a SARS-like virus that was spreading around the world, the so-called coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 which spread the disease Covid-19 and has now killed millions of people. Early on in the pandemic war metaphors were used to talk about what to do about the virus, followed by other experience-based, indeed ‘elementary’, metaphors like fires, storms and floods, for example.

Gradually, knowledge about the virus increased and so did our experiences of dealing with is as individuals and nations. Images of the virus circulated widely. Never before has a virus been ‘seen’ by so many people in so many shapes and forms. At the same time, the virus also became ’embodied’. Social distancing became common practice and so did, after some hesitation, the wearing of masks or face coverings. Lockdowns were imposed all over the world, and peoples behaviours, relations, and experiences of self and bodies and others changed fundamentally.

During a fraught time of ‘non-pharmacological interventions’ such as these, scientists beavered away at developing vaccines and they began to be used about one year into the pandemic. They are now a common feature of our lives. After distancing and masking, vaccines and vials have become ubiquitous symbols of the virus and, hopefully, the cure. We are hoping that vaccines as ‘pharmacological interventions’ will make non-pharmacological ones unnecessary.

Global knowledge, global mapping and global metaphor

What is remarkable here is that this knowledge and these experiences are indeed universal. There is no corner in the world where the word ‘lockdown’ would, for example, not be understood or, indeed, the symbol of a mask. The coronavirus gradually became (in some parts of the world at least) less a reservoir of disease than a reservoir of knowledge and opinion-making.

People all over the world began to use their knowledge and experience of the virus to talk about a multitude of non-viral topics and targets, from the freedom of speech to the issue of gun violence. The coronvirus and its associations became a global source domain rather than a global target domain.

The spiky ball of the virus or masks or syringes began to be used everywhere, especially in political cartoons, to talk about everything under the sun, as Ahmed has demonstrated abundantly in his work on political cartoons from all over the world. As Kenan Malik wrote early on in the pandemic, in March 2020: “The coronavirus is both a physical threat and a metaphor for everything from the failures of globalisation to the menace of foreigners.”

For me, what is interesting here is the fact that we have, perhaps for the first time a global metaphor through which we, as a global population, can conceptualise almost every aspect of our lives, even the failure of globalisation. That is quite something.

Is there a danger though in treating illness, namely covid, as metaphor so liberally? Again, early on in the pandemic, also in March 2o20, Paul Elie wrote in The New Yorker (following Susan Sontag): “To treat illness as a metaphor is to avoid or delay or even thwart the treatment of literal illness.” I think this fear can be put to rest. The literal illness has had the world in its grip for a long time now and still will for a while. It’s not yet likely that we’ll forget to treat it just because we use it as a metaphor to conceptualise many other aspects of our lives. This metaphorical use of the virus keeps us on our toes. It will only fade away once treatment has become global or universal.

*I have just seen a more science-related example. Ok, imagine you see the metaphor ‘biological pump’, what would you think that is? Now read on! (Of course, you would normally not see that metaphor out of context, but still, it shows how prior knowledge or expertise shapes the understanding of metaphors)

Image by Abdessamad Jdaia from Pixabay



Posted in coronavirusinfectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors