What Is an Orientational Metaphor?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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An orientational metaphor is a metaphor (or figurative comparison) that involves spatial relationships (such as UP-DOWN, IN-OUT, ON-OFF, and FRONT-BACK).

Orientational metaphor (a figure that "organizes a whole system of concepts with respect to one another") 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 ontological metaphor. It can be differentiated from the organizational metaphor.


"[A]ll the following concepts are characterized by an 'upward' orientation, while their 'opposites' receive a 'downward' orientation.

MORE IS UP; LESS IS DOWN: Speak up, please. Keep your voice down, please.
HEALTHY IS UP; SICK IS DOWN: Lazarus rose from the dead. He fell ill.
CONSCIOUS IS UP; UNCONSCIOUS IS DOWN: Wake up. He sank into a coma.
CONTROL IS UP; LACK OF CONTROL IS DOWN: I'm on top of the situation. He is under my control.
HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN: I'm feeling up today. He's really low these days.
VIRTUE IS UP; LACK OF VIRTUE IS DOWN: She's an upstanding citizen. That was a low-down thing to do.
RATIONAL IS UP; NONRATIONAL IS DOWN: The discussion fell to an emotional level. He couldn't rise above his emotions.

Upward orientation tends to go together with positive evaluation, while downward orientation with a negative one." (Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010)

Physical and Cultural Elements in Orientational Metaphors

"Orientational metaphors that are strongly cultural in content form an internally consistent set with those that emerge most directly from our physical experience. The up-down orientational metaphor can apply to situations that contain both physical and cultural elements, such as

He's at the peak of health.
She came down with pneumonia.

Here good health is associated with 'up,' in part because of the general metaphor that 'Better is up' and perhaps also because when we are well we are on our feet, and when we are ill we are more likely to be lying down.

Other orientational metaphors are obviously cultural in origin:

He's one of the higher-ranking officials in the agency.
These people have very high standards.
I tried to raise the level of the discussion.

Whether the experience on which an orientational metaphor is based is directly emergent physical experience or one drawn from the social domain, the core metaphorical framework is the same in all of them. There is only one verticality concept 'up.' We apply it differently, depending on the kind of experience on which we base the metaphor." (Theodore L. Brown, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. University of Illinois Press, 2003)

Lakoff and Johnson on the Experiential Basis of Metaphors

"In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis. For example, MORE IS UP has a very different kind of experiential basis than HAPPY IS UP or RATIONAL IS UP. Though the concept UP is the same in all these metaphors, the experiences on which these UP metaphors are based are very different. It is not that there are many different UPS; rather, verticality enters our experience in many different ways and so gives rise to many different metaphors." (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press, 1980)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Orientational Metaphor?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-orientational-metaphor-1691362. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is an Orientational Metaphor? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-orientational-metaphor-1691362 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is an Orientational Metaphor?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-orientational-metaphor-1691362 (accessed May 30, 2023).