Massive Digital Map Tracks Metaphors in Four Million Pieces of Lexical Data

Screenshot: Mapping Metaphors
Screenshot: Mapping Metaphors / Screenshot: Mapping Metaphors

Researchers at the University of Glasgow's School of Critical Studies have spent the past three years mapping more than 14,000 metaphorical connections sourced from 4 million pieces of lexical data. Now, you can browse the results. The examples, as well as the multi-level categories that they're divided up into, are pulled from the Historical Thesaurus of English, which dates back to the 700s CE.

Dr. Wendy Anderson, the project’s principal investigator, was interested primarily in how metaphors allow our language to grow and how they reflect the way we internalize the world. "This helps us to see how our language shapes our understanding—the connections we make between different areas of meaning in English show, to some extent, how we mentally structure our world. Over the past 30 years, it has become clear that metaphor is not simply a literary phenomenon; metaphorical thinking underlies the way we make sense of the world conceptually. It governs how we think and how we talk about our day-to-day lives," she told The Guardian.

Although the flowery comparisons in Shakespearean prose are beautiful, it's the more prevalent examples that catch on—like a "healthy economy" or to "spin a yarn"—that are illuminative of how our minds conceive of intangible concepts.

The interface isn't the easiest to get a handle on. For example, clicking around will show you that there are six strong metaphor connections between the categories within "Armed Hostility" and "Emotion," but in order to see specifics you have to make use of the "Search" function.

Right now, the search function only includes about a quarter of the total connections, but the researchers are constantly adding more. And if you're more interested in the early history of metaphor you can look forward to the launch of a parallel Metaphor Map for data from Old English, used prior to 1150 CE, in August.