What is a Source Domain in a Conceptual Metaphor?

source domain
In Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson claim that "metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.". (Nisian Hughes/Getty Images)

In a conceptual metaphor, the source domain is the conceptual domain from which metaphorical expressions are drawn. Also known as the image donor.

"A conceptual metaphor," says  Alice Deignan, "is a connection between two semantic areas, or domains, in this case [HAPPY IS UP] the concrete domain of direction (UP) and the abstract domain of emotion (HAPPY). The domain that is talked of metaphorically, 'emotion' in this example, is known as the target domain, and the domain that provides the metaphors, 'direction' in this example, is known as the source domain.

The source domain is typically concrete and the target domain is typically abstract" (Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics, 2005).

The terms target and source were introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980). Although the more traditional terms tenor and vehicle (I.A. Richards, 1936) are roughly equivalent to target domain and source domain, respectively, the traditional terms fail to emphasize the interaction between the two domains. As William P. Brown points out, "The terms target domain and source domain not only acknowledge a certain parity of import between the metaphor and its referent but they also illustrate more precisely the dynamic that occurs when something is referenced metaphorically—a superimposing or unilateral mapping of one domain on another" (Psalms, 2010).

Metaphor as a Cognitive Process

  • "According to the conceptual view of metaphor as outlined in Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson 1980), metaphor is a cognitive process that allows one domain of experience, the target domain, to be reasoned about in terms of another, the source domain. The target domain is usually an abstract concept such as LIFE, whereas the source domain is typically a more concrete concept, such as a DAY. The metaphor allows us to export conceptual structure about the more concrete domain to the more abstract target domain. . . . Conceptualizing LIFE as a DAY allows us to map the various structures comprising a DAY onto aspects of a LIFE, understanding our BIRTH as the DAWN, OLD AGE as the EVENING, and so forth. These correspondences, called mappings, allow us to make sense of our lives, understand our stage of life, and appreciate that stage (working while the sun is high, savoring the sunset, and so on). According to conceptual theories of metaphor, these systems of mappings, and their applications to reasoning and cognition, are the primary function of metaphor."
    (Karen Sullivan, Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language. John Benjamins, 2013)

    The Two Domains

    • "The conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions to understand another conceptual domain is called source domain, while the conceptual domain that is understood this way is the target domain. Thus, life, arguments, love. theory, ideas, social organizations, and others are target domains, while journeys, war, buildings, food, plants, and others are source domains. The target domain is the domain that we try to understand through the use of the source domain."
      (Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002)

      Metaphor-Metonymy Interaction​

      • "Consider . . . the expression in (28):
        (28) to win someone's heart
        The source domain of this metaphor contains a winner and a prize. The target domain contains a lover who has succeeded in figuratively obtaining someone's heart. The heart, as a container of feelings, is chosen to stand for the feeling of love. Since 'heart' and 'love' stand in a domain-subdomain relationship, we have a case of metonymic highlighting of (a relevant part of) the metaphoric target. Winning requires effort and tactics, an implication that is carried over to the target domain of the metaphor, thus suggesting that the action of obtaining someone's love has been a difficult one."
        (Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez and Lorena Pérez Hernández, "Cognitive Operations and Pragmatic Implication." Metonymy and Pragmatic Inferencing, ed. by Klaus-Uwe Panther and Linda L. Thornburg. John Benjamins, 2003)