Understanding Conceptual Metaphors

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

time is money
(Colin Anderson/Getty Images)

A conceptual metaphor—also known as a generative metaphor—is a metaphor (or figurative comparison) in which one idea (or conceptual domain) is understood in terms of another. In cognitive linguistics, the conceptual domain from which we draw the metaphorical expressions required to understand another conceptual domain is known as the source domain. The conceptual domain that is interpreted in this way is the target domain. Thus the source domain of the journey is commonly used to explain the target domain of life.

Why We Use Conceptual Metaphors

Conceptual metaphors are part of the common language and conceptual precepts shared by members of a culture. These metaphors are systematic because there is a defined correlation between the structure of the source domain and the structure of the target domain. We generally recognize these things in terms of a common understanding. For example, in our culture, if the source concept is "death," the common target destination is "leave-taking or departure."

Because conceptual metaphors are drawn from a collective cultural understanding, they've eventually become linguistic conventions. This explains why the definitions for so many words and idiomatic expressions are dependent on understanding accepted conceptual metaphors.

The connections we make are largely unconscious. They're part of an almost automatic thought process. Although sometimes, when the circumstances that bring the metaphor to mind are unexpected or unusual, the metaphor evoked may also be more out of the ordinary.

Three Overlapping Categories of Conceptual Metaphors

Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have identified three overlapping categories of conceptual metaphors:

  • An orientational Metaphor is a metaphor that involves spatial relationships, such as up/down, in/out, on/off, or front/back.
  • An ontological Metaphor is a metaphor in which something concrete is projected onto something abstract.
  • A structural Metaphor is a metaphorical system in which one complex concept (typically abstract) is presented in terms of some other (usually more concrete) concept.

Example: "Time is money."

  • You're wasting my time.
  • This gadget will save you hours.
  • I don't have the time to give you.
  • How do you spend your time these days?
  • That flat tire cost me an hour.
  • I've invested a lot of time in her.
  • You're running out of time.
  • Is that worth your while?
  • He's living on borrowed time.

(From "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson)

Five Tenets of Conceptual Metaphor Theory

In Conceptual Metaphor Theory, metaphor is not "a decorative device, peripheral to language and thought." The theory holds instead that conceptual metaphors are "central to thought, and therefore to language." From this theory, a number of basic tenets are derived:

  • Metaphors structure thinking;
  • Metaphors structure knowledge;
  • Metaphor is central to abstract language;
  • Metaphor is grounded in physical experience;
  • Metaphor is ideological.

(From "More Than Cool Reason" by George Lakoff and Mark Turner)


Understanding one domain in terms of another requires a predetermined set of corresponding points between the source and target domains. These sets are known as "mappings." Think of them in terms of a road map. In conceptual linguistics, mappings form the basic understanding of how you got from Point A (the source) to Point B (the target). Each point and movement forward along the road that eventually brings you to the final destination informs your travel and also gives meaning and nuance to the journey once you've arrived at your destination.


  • Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark. "Metaphors We Live By." University Of Chicago Press, 1980
  • Lakoff, George; Turner, Mark. "More Than Cool Reason." University of Chicago Press, 1989
  • Deignan, Alice. "Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics." John Benjamins, 2005
  • Kövecses, Zoltán. "Metaphor: A Practical Introduction," Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2010
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Conceptual Metaphors." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-conceptual-metaphor-1689899. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Understanding Conceptual Metaphors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-conceptual-metaphor-1689899 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Conceptual Metaphors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-conceptual-metaphor-1689899 (accessed March 27, 2023).