Tag Archives: metaphors

Metaphors for non-humans

Some observations on how we talk about the non-human. I confess to having watched a number of National Geographic videos on youtube recently, and while I enjoy the visuals, the narration has been less appealing. One of the things I noticed repeatedly was an urge in the script writer(s) to apply human metaphors to pretty much everything. The stand out awful one was describing a flying fox as being like Dracula leaving his lair.

Dracula of course is powered by imagery drawn from the natural world and from the (bizarre to me) idea that bats are somehow creepy and sinister. The bats are not like Dracula. Dracula is like the bats. However, when we turn ideas on their heads like this, there are some uneasy consequences.

If you have to recast the non-human world in terms of human metaphors to present it, you are sending people a message that they are separate from what they are seeing. Other living beings can only be understood on human terms. They are like commuters. They are like ballet dancers, leaping gracefully from rock to rock. They are like gymnasts. As if we can only understand other beings by saying how they are similar to us. As though the behaviour of other beings cannot be described purely on its own terms. We can’t look at goat-like creatures jumping about on rocks and say that they are agile. How are we supposed to empathise with an agile mammal on a rock? Most of us know little or nothing about ballet, yet the idea of unfamiliar mammals as ballet dancers clearly worked for someone.

When we do this, we normalise human activity and make the activity of other beings seem other. If it is only by reference to human culture that we can hope to understand them, we make human culture the key point of reference. Most of the examples I’ve described – and I don’t think this is a coincidence – are about forms of entertainment, too. We are encouraged to look at autonomous living beings as human entertainers. We are to see their utility, their benefit to us and not their individual experience of their own lives.

Metaphors and similes are a great way of creating feelings of connection. Used well, they can increase empathy and understanding. Used badly, they assert human dominance and superiority. If we see the world in terms of being like us, we reduce it.

Grammar and Grammarie

Imagine that everyone had been issued with a magic wand, but that the vast majority of people went round using them as chopsticks, cooking utensils, toys, and so forth. Every so often there’s a little, magical explosion, after which no one admits this might have been because of the magic wands being used in random ways.

From my perspective, this is what seems to happen with language, most of the time.

Spells and spelling, grammar and grammarie. Language is invocation and evocation. Sound is energy. Speech is inspiration brought forth. The written word is all about ideas made substantial enough to share. And yet we use it casually, with little regard for meaning. We speak without thinking, write without contemplating how others may understand our words. We also infer meanings, and then become deaf to other interpretations.

Then, when the mistakes have been made, we get angry with each other, building up layers of resentment and frustration. To go back to my metaphor, we wave our wands about, shooting dangerous sparks in all directions, and when we burn ourselves, we’re surprised. How did that happen? Why am I in pain? We can see the threatening outpourings from the other person, but are much less likely to spot the magic wand gripped in our own hand.

I’m not desirous of some sterile, blandly factual approach to language. I love metaphor, and it is hard to speak of emotional things without it. I love wordplay and creative approaches to language. These, by their very nature, tend to be well considered.

I’ve spent much of my life being told off for taking things too seriously. I make no apology for it. I am serious. I am quite literally sick, in the sense of being made nauseous, by people who are careless with words. I am sick of deliberate distortions of truth, the spin, the media games and the advertising hype. I am sick of the devaluing of language where hyperbole has become so common that it is difficult to speak of serious things without listeners assuming you are being melodramatic. I am sick of hate speech, sick of careless verbal cruelty, and above all, I am sick of the pathetic excuses and the oft-repeated belief that all of this is somehow ok.

It isn’t ok. Language is intrinsic to culture. How we speak to each other and how we write informs our cultural norms, gives us a basis for our behaviour and attitudes. How we utilise language is one of the primary ways in which we manifest our culture to each other.

Every word is an invocation.

Every word is an evocation.

Every word is a spell.

Every word is a prayer.

It doesn’t matter where we direct those words, these things are true, all the time. If we took our words seriously, if we valued them and deployed them with care as a culture, we would change. If we waved our magic wands thoughtfully, we would create magic, all of the time. We would stop burning each other, and stop being confused about how on earth this has happened again.


Words are inspiration and wonder, the flow of ideas from one mind to the next, the means by which we may each relieve the loneliness of being alone inside our own minds. Words are art form, are poetry and song. They are the enablers of civilization; culture and co-operation depend heavily upon them. These, the incantations of our daily lives.