What is an Ontological Metaphor?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

fighting inflation
Boxing and battle metaphors are often used in discussions of inflation: fighting inflation, savings being attacked by inflation, retirees taking a beating from inflation, experiencing another round of inflation. (clu/Getty Images)

An ontological metaphor is a type of metaphor (or figurative comparison) in which something concrete is projected onto something abstract.

Ontological metaphor (a figure that provides "ways of viewing events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc., as entities and substances") is one of the three overlapping categories of conceptual metaphors identified by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980).

The other two categories are structural metaphor and orientational metaphor.

Ontological metaphors "are so natural and persuasive in our thought," say Lakoff and Johnson, "that they are usually taken as self-evident, direct descriptions of mental phenomena." Indeed, they say, ontological metaphors "are among the most basic devices we have for comprehending our experience."

See examples and observations below. Also see:

What is an Ontological Metaphor?

  • "In general, ontological metaphors enable us to see more sharply delineated structure where there is very little or none ... We can perceive of personification as a form of ontological metaphor. In personification, human qualities are given to nonhuman entities. Personification is very common in literature, but it also abounds in everyday discourse, as the examples below show:
    His theory explained to me the behavior of chickens raised in factories.
    Life has cheated me.
    Inflation is eating up our profits.
    Cancer finally caught up with him.
    The computer ​ went dead on me.
    Theory, life, inflation, cancer, computer are not humans, but they are given qualities of human beings, such as explaining, cheating, eating, catching up, and dying. Personification makes use of one of the best source domains we have--ourselves. In personifying nonhumans as humans, we can begin to understand them a little better."
    (Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002)

    Lakoff and Johnson on the Various Purposes of Ontological Metaphors 

    • "Ontological metaphors serve various purposes, and the various kinds of metaphors there are reflect the kinds of purposes served. Take the experience of rising prices, which can be metaphorically viewed as an entity via the noun inflation. This gives us a way of referring to the experience:
      INFLATION IS AN ENTITY
      Inflation is lowering our standard of living.
      If there's much more inflation, we'll never survive.
      We need to combat inflation.
      Inflation is backing us into a corner.
      Inflation is taking its toll at the checkout counter and the gas pump.
      Buying land is the best way of dealing with inflation.
      Inflation makes me sick.
      In these cases, viewing inflation as an entity allows us to refer to it, quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see it as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it. Ontological metaphors like this are necessary for even attempting to deal rationally with our experiences."
      (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press, 1980)

      Mere Metaphors and Ontological Metaphors

      • "Within metaphor, a distinction can be drawn between mere and ontological metaphor; whereas the former simply associates a physical concept with a metaphysical one, the latter recognizes that all concepts resonate with possible transpositions and, as such, brings to the fore the world-making power of speaking. Furthermore, ontological metaphor structures experience as an openness to . . . movement between concepts."
        (Clive Cazeaux, Kant, Cognitive Metaphor and Continental Philosophy. Routledge, 2007)