Conceptual Metaphor

time is money
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A conceptual 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 metaphorical expressions to understand another conceptual domain is known as the source domain. The conceptual domain that is understood in this way is the target domain. Thus the source domain of the journey is commonly used to explain the target domain of life.

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson identify three overlapping categories of conceptual metaphors:

Examples and Observations

Basic conceptual metaphors are part of the common conceptual apparatus shared by members of a culture. They are systematic in that there is a fixed correspondence between the structure of the domain to be understood (e.g., death) and the structure of the domain in terms of which we are understanding it (e.g., departure). We usually understand them in terms of common experiences. They are largely unconscious, though attention may be drawn to them. Their operation in cognition is almost automatic. And they are widely conventionalized in language, that is, there are a great number of words and idiomatic expressions in our language whose meanings depend upon those conceptual metaphors.

In Metaphors We Live By (University Of Chicago Press, 1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson mention these variations on the conceptual metaphor 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.

Five Tenets of Conceptual; Metaphor Theory

"Conceptual Metaphor Theory rejects the notion that metaphor is a decorative device, peripheral to language and thought. Instead, the theory holds that metaphor is central to thought, and therefore to language. From this starting point, a number of tenets are derived, which are discussed here with particular reference to language. These tenets are:

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


Understanding one domain in terms of another involves a set of fixed correspondences (technically called mappings) between a source and a target domain. This set of mappings obtains between basic constituent elements of the target. To know a conceptual metaphor is to know the set of mappings that applies to a given source-target pairing. It is these mappings that provide much of the meaning of the metaphorical linguistic expressions (or linguistic metaphors) that make a particular conceptual metaphor manifest.

Also Known As

Generative Metaphor


  • George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason. University of Chicago Press, 1989
  • Alice Deignan, Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins, 2005
  • Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010