Definition and Examples of Target Domain in Conceptual Metaphors

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In a conceptual metaphor, the target domain is the quality or experience described by or identified with the source domain. Also known as the image recipient.

In Introducing Metaphor (2006), Knowles and Moon note that conceptual metaphors "equate two concept areas, as in ARGUMENT IS WAR. The term source domain is used for the concept area from which the metaphor is drawn: here, WAR. Target domain is used for the concept area to which the metaphor is applied: here, ARGUMENT."

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).

Examples and Observations of the Two Domains

"The two domains that participate in conceptual metaphor have special names. 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 we try to understand through the use of the source domain." (Zoltan Kovecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2001)

​Target and Source Domains in LOVE IS A JOURNEY

"Metaphorical concepts fulfill all their functions . . . through a network of metaphorical expressions. . . . [T]ake the following example:

Conceptual metaphor:LOVE IS A JOURNEY
Metaphorical expressions:
this relationship is foundering
we are going nowhere,
this relationship is a dead-end street
we are at a crossroads,

" . . . Metaphors connect two conceptual domains: the target domain and the source domain. In the course of metaphorical processes the source domain corresponds to the target domain; in other words, there is a mapping or a projection between the source domain and the target domain. The target domain X is understood in terms of the source domain Y. For example, in the case of the metaphorical concept mentioned above, LOVE is the target domain whereas JOURNEY is the source domain. Whenever JOURNEY is mapped onto LOVE, the two domains correspond to each other in a way which enables us to interpret LOVE as a JOURNEY." (András Kertész, Cognitive Semantics and Scientific Knowledge. John Benjamins, 2004)


  • "The term mapping comes from the nomenclature of mathematics. Its application in metaphor research basically means that features from a source domain (e.g. OBJECTS) are mapped onto a target domain (e.g. IDEAS). The term metaphorical expression refers to 'the surface realization of such a cross-domain mapping' which is virtually what the term metaphor used to refer to (Lakoff 1993:203)." (Markus Tendahl, A Hybrid Theory of Metaphor. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
  • "It is possible for two different parts of a sentence to make use of two distinct metaphorical mappings at once. Consider a phrase like, within the coming weeks. Here, within makes use of the metaphor of time as a stationary landscape which has extension and bounded regions, whereas coming makes use of the metaphor of times as moving objects. This is possible because the two metaphors for time pick out different aspects of the target domain." (George Lakoff, "The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor," Metaphor and Thought, ed. by A. Ortony. Cambridge University Press, 1993)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Target Domain in Conceptual Metaphors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Target Domain in Conceptual Metaphors. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Target Domain in Conceptual Metaphors." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).