Metaphors of friendship and marriage

Am off to Manchester tomorrow for a meeting with some interesting sociologists. We are collaborating to examine how people talk about difficulties in friendships, with me bringing along my expertise in metaphors to apply to their data. We want to find out whether analysing people’s metaphors gives us new insights into their ideas, attitudes and values.

Metaphor studies has really taken off (sorry!) over the last 30 years since Lakoff and Johnson showed (in their book ‘Metaphors we live by’) how pervasive metaphors are in everyday language, and how networks of metaphors seem to underpin ideas. In what I find to be a rather simplistic and overly strong development of this theory, metaphors are held to structure our thinking, even to be encoded in the neurons of our brains. I prefer a more subtle development that sees metaphors as part of the various socio-cultural forces and influences that contribute to building our minds as we grow up surrounded by other people and experiencing the world.

Today I have been re-reading Naomi Quinn, who investigated US American ideas about marriage in the 1980s and found that the hundreds of metaphors in her data could be sorted into 8 classes: metaphors of lastingness; sharedness; mutual benefit; compatibility; difficulty; effort; success or failure; risk. These metaphor types help to understand the qualities that Americans ascribe(d) to marriage, what she calls a ‘cultural model’.

I have been trying a similar exercise with the metaphors of friendship in the Manchester data. Here’s one that has emerged – more tomorrow.

The end of friendship is spoken about as a moving away from the other person, either suddenly or gradually:

people go in separate directions

we drifted apart

friends disappear

just dropping somebody

we’ve fallen out


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