April 8, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Covid metaphors: Around the world in eight articles

When the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, Martin Döring (Institute of Geography, University of Hamburg) and I (Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham) began to assemble and then edit articles dealing with its metaphorical framing around the world (not the whole world, of course!). Covid-19 killed millions of people and caused huge distress to almost everybody on this planet. It also changed the ways we live in the world, talk about the world, and think about the world.

Last week, our special issue devoted to documenting Covid-19’s impacts on languages and cultures was finally published in the journal Metaphor and Symbol. It contains eight articles studying the framing of the pandemic within and across various countries, such as the Turkey, Iran, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and China. In the following, we have summarised the articles briefly in order to whet your appetite to explore this special issue further.

The issue starts with an article by Mike Hanne that focuses on a central metaphor that structured thinking and talking about the pandemic in many parts of the world, namely the war metaphor. Unlike most articles published on this matter, Hanne wants to show readers not only how this metaphor works and what it does, but also, perhaps more importantly, how to “escape capture by the war metaphor for Covid-19”. He presents a detailed dissection of war metaphors, reveals their ideological roots and impacts on disease management, with a focus on their use by two political leaders, the then President of the United States, Donald Trump, and the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson. Hanne also explores a plethora of alternative metaphors, from fires to journeys and from floods to rally driving with the devil, including their local resonances and impacts on the framing of the pandemic. Finally, he examines modes and metaphors of ‘post-war’ recovery and lessons learned, with an emphasis on social inequalities, racism, and ecological emergencies, which will still be there, and probably be more entrenched, once the so-called war on the virus is over. His pledge to use ecologically inspired metaphors that highlight empathy, interdependence, equity, and resilience, and not war, provides a pointer for the critical reconceptualisation of the prevailing metaphorical framing of COVID-19.

Early on during the pandemic, when war metaphors were in widespread use, as Hanne has shown, five linguists, Paula Perez Sobrino, Elena Semino, Iraide Ibarretxe Antuñano, Veronika Koller, and Inés Olza, initiated a crowd-sourced repository of alternative metaphors called #ReframeCovid. This initiative developed into a large database of creative, sometimes multimodal, and also multi-cultural, metaphors, some of which they examine in their article entitled “Acting like a hedgehog in times of pandemic: Metaphorical creativity in the #ReframeCovid collection.” More than 550 metaphors were found in over 30 languages during the first six months of the pandemic. They draw on a wide range of genres and modes, with verbal, visual, and multimodal examples displaying distinctive patterns of creativity. The findings explored in the article are fascinating and shed light on the interactions between conceptual, discursive, and visual modes of creativity, thus contributing strongly to research into multi-modal metaphor use. Moreover, the study represents the first metaphor-study based on a crowd-sourced dataset, which, itself, is rather creative.

In their paper on “Audience perceptions of Covid-19 metaphors: The role of source domain and country context”, Britta Brugman, Ellen Droog, Gudrung Reijnierse, Saskia Leymann, Guilia Frezza, and Kiki Renardel de Lavalette investigate the source domains of metaphors in various languages and ask how the metaphors used resonate with members of the public in different countries. Their analysis shows that there are some culture-specific perceptions and evaluations of metaphors, while there are also at the same time more general ways of metaphorically framing the pandemic. The methodologically mixed design of their study deals with German, Italian and Dutch participants and asked them to express their perceptions of various Covid-19 metaphors in terms of liking, aptness, complexity, conventionality, and credibility. These results show that the perception of metaphors differs between the source domains and the country contexts and hence indicates that the experience with or of the culturally established target domains are an important variable in the perception of metaphors and the framing of social issues or problems.

While Hanne’s article focused on the misguided use of war metaphors by some world leaders during the early onset of the pandemic, Andreas Musolff’s article “World-beating” pandemic responses: Ironical, sarcastic, and satirical metaphor use in the context of COVID-19 pandemic” homes in on another type of language adopted by some of them, namely their hyperbolic claims of “world-leading” interventions. He shows how their metaphorical framings were satirically turned back on them. The paper reveals in detail the counter-implications triggered by the implied dissociation from hyperbolic promises. This procedure leads Musolff to tease out several types of implied dissociation, i.e., doubting the figurative claims’ implicatures (irony), decrying their rationality (sarcasm), and exposing their absurdity (satire), with reference to diverse models of irony (e.g., echo, pretence, defaultness, conceptual blending). The paper weaves together a number of theoretical strands in research dealing with metaphor, hyperbole, and irony/sarcasm and applies them in an empirical study focused on political responses to Covid-19.

The response to Covid-19 has been defined by public health measures intended to contain and mitigate, if not eliminate, the Covid-19. Containment brings with it a curtailment of movement and journeys and the erection of barriers and boundaries, both real and metaphorical. David Gurnham’s article entitled “’Our country is a freedom-loving county’: the spreading of the virus as metaphor for ‘people on the move’” focuses on movement metaphors swirling around the pandemic and traces this metaphorical frame of reference across a range of different kinds of responses to Covid-19 – namely legal texts and poetry. Both the official legal documents and the experience-based poetry studied here, emerged during the first wave of the pandemic in the UK and therefore share similar reference points. Gurnham’s analysis shows how the literal movement of the virus and of people, as well as the bodily experiences of physical motion and constraint form the cognitive basis for metaphors for social justice and fairness.

Esranur Efeoğlu-Özcan’s contribution in turn reveals the role of metaphor in the political discourse in Turkey. In her paper “Pull the weeds out or perish: Using the pandemic metaphors to foster in-group unity and solidarity in Turkish political discourse” she investigates the ideological entailments inherent in the metaphors of 141 political Tweets. Her thought-provoking study shows that specific argumentation schemes are politically used as a discursive strategy to corroborate and foster the self-presentation of politicians while, at the same time, shared representations of a common Turkish identity are developed. Thus, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the metaphors structuring it use familiar patterns of cultural experience rooted in historical and religious presuppositions. This procedure creates a symbolic reservoir to subtly convey messages of unity typical of nationalist discourse while also indicating who is supposedly not part of the nation.

Comparative studies of the use of pandemic metaphors between different languages stemming from various language families are still scarce. The topic is, luckily, addressed here by Reza Kazemian and Somayeh Hatamzadeh in their paper entitled “Covid-19 in English and Persian: A cognitive linguistics study of illness metaphors across languages.” Their systematic and intercultural study of media-metaphors used in Iranian and American newspaper coverage investigates the conceptual metaphors structuring the news discourse. The detailed analysis of source domains and the respective characterisation of most common conceptual metaphors uncovers the implications hidden in the linguistic metaphors analysed and opens up exciting insights on diverging and converging framings between the two languages and cultures. Of particular interest are some novel metaphors that only appear in Persian as they convey new ways of framing Covid-19 – at least to people in the West.

And finally, the contribution by Cun Zhang, Zhengjun Lin, and Shengxi Jin turns to China, where our global pandemic story began. Their article “What else besides war: Deliberate metaphors framing Covid-19 in Chinese online newspaper editorials” conveys fresh insights into the way Chinese online newspaper editorials framed the pandemic metaphorically. The data were collected in the first few months of the pandemic and show that three metaphorical framings prevailed at the time, namely, season metaphors, disease/medicine metaphors, and homework metaphors. All three metaphorical framings resonate with specific aspects and implications of Chinese culture, providing a shared socio-cultural background for creating a common understanding of the virus and the policies enacted to deal with it.

The pandemic and its impacts have changed over the last two years and the new variant, Omicron, has started a whole new pandemic that is still sweeping the globe and affecting countries that had hitherto coped well with the older variants, changing yet again our ways of living, talking and thinking. The coronavirus still calls for vigilance and monitoring and so do the metaphors that frame it.

Image: Pixabay

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