Spies aren’t known for their cultural sensitivity. So it was a surprise when news broke last month that IARPA, a US government agency that funds ‘high-risk/high-payoff research’ into areas of interest to the ‘intelligence community’, had put out a call for contributions to its Metaphor Program, a five-year project to discover what a foreign culture’s metaphors can reveal about its beliefs. Take the concept of ‘democracy’. If, say, Pashto speakers in Waziristan tend to describe democracy in terms of a tool used indiscriminately by a predator to beat its prey into submission, then this might help intelligence analysts understand their point of view. I admit I don’t know if that is how Pashto speakers do describe democracy. On the other hand, IARPA’s Office of Incisive Analysis doesn’t know either, which is why it is offering to pay many millions of dollars to teams of academics and private corporations that promise to find out. Successful applicants will be mindful, when putting together their proposals, of IARPA’s overall mission statement, which is to invest in research which has ‘the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries’.

The Office of Incisive Analysis isn’t innocently named. It’s an illustration of what metaphor specialists call the IDEAS ARE CUTTING INSTRUMENTS metaphor – as in ‘They’re sharp,’ ‘She has a razor wit,’ ‘He has a keen mind,’ ‘We cut their argument to shreds.’ The habit of referring to metaphors in capital letters (A PROBLEM IS A BODY OF WATER, THE BODY IS A CONTAINER FOR THE SELF, THEORIES ARE CLOTH, THE CHANGEABILITY OF A BELIEF IS THE RESILIENCE OF THE OBJECT) is a legacy of the work of George Lakoff, the originator and still the high priest of metaphor studies, who emerged from MIT in the 1960s as a student and antagonist of Noam Chomsky and who by the 1980s led the new field of cognitive linguistics.

Lakoff’s basic idea was that the ‘target’ of the metaphor, an abstract concept like democracy, is explained in terms of the ‘source’, a familiar physical object or process. The analogy would often rely on some lingering ‘folk theory’ about how a process works. For example, according to the folk theory, anger would cause increased body temperature, increased blood pressure and agitation (ANGER IS HEAT). This leads to metonymic expressions such as ‘Don’t get hot under the collar,’ and ‘When I found out, I almost burst a blood vessel.’ Then, a series of ‘entailments’ would cause one metaphor (ANGER IS HEAT) to combine with another (THE BODY IS A CONTAINER FOR THE EMOTIONS) in such a way that a whole new concept results, as if by magic: viz, anger is the heat of a fluid in a container. This means that when someone is filled with anger we can say – or we could say, if we spoke in the language of 1980s English-teaching textbooks – that their blood boils and they have to let off steam before they flip their lid. The assumption is that conceptual metaphors like this reflect and constrain a person’s way of thinking. It’s all a great game, and the spy agencies, Beltway entrepreneurs and hangers-on expect to profit from it.

At IARPA’s Metaphor Program Proposers’ Day Briefing on 13 April, the gathered luminaries (INTELLIGENCE IS A LIGHT SOURCE) from the worlds of cognitive linguistics, computer science and the intelligence industry outlined their various areas of expertise in the hope of making selective alliances as a way of getting ahead of the pack (COMPETITION IS A RACE). Among those present were representatives from Olson Zaltman Associates – a consulting firm that uses ‘metaphor elicitation’ to help global brands (clients include GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Chevron, DuPont, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and the World Bank) ‘target consumers’ implicit thoughts, feelings and knowledge’ – and from Charles River Analytics, which provides expertise in ‘psychology of narratives, cultural language patterns and semantics’ for the Department of Defense. Along with technicians and scientists from Boeing, Raytheon, IBM and Lockheed Martin, other attendees included one of the founders of the journal Metaphor and Symbol and the author of the metaphor article in the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. IARPA, which was founded in 2007, is now based in a sparkling new facility at the University of Maryland, and the links between academia and the intelligence agencies are multiplying. Cognitive linguists have had a nice sideline in commercial consultancy for some time, but IARPA is booming under the Obama administration and offers some interesting and lucrative opportunities.

At the April briefing, the Metaphor Program’s director, Heather McCallum-Bayliss, explained how the scheme works. The teams that get funded will collect large amounts of text in four languages, representing four cultures: Iranian Farsi, Mexican Spanish, Russian Russian and American English. With the help of heavy-duty computer analysis, they will spend the first couple of years identifying conceptual metaphors in each language and listing them in a ‘metaphor repository’ along with their associated ‘affect’, so that LIFE IS A JOURNEY, for example, would be ‘neutral’ (‘That was the road not taken,’ ‘He really is going places’), and LIFE IS A STRUGGLE would be ‘negative’ (‘You have to fight for what you want,’ ‘They’re on a sinking ship with no lifeboat’). Then – the real test, in phase two of the project – the government will issue the teams with three separate ‘case studies’: tough questions that intelligence analysts might want the answers to. What sorts of question these are going to be is barely hinted at in the briefing documents, but the implication is that the metaphor repository may provide the clue to understanding the hidden aims of different factions where some dispute is involved. What would it tell us if it turned out that encoded in the very language of the Iranian people is the concept that LIFE IS A BLAST?

Unfortunately, it may tell us nothing at all. Conceptual metaphors have been big business over the last few years. During the last Bush administration, Lakoff – a Democrat – set up the Rockridge Institute, a foundation that sought to reclaim metaphor as a tool of political communication from the right. The Republicans, he argued, had successfully set the terms of the national conversation by the way they framed their metaphors, in talking about the danger of ‘surrendering’ to terrorism or to the ‘wave’ of ‘illegal immigrants’. Not every Democrat agreed with his diagnosis that the central problem with American politics was that it was governed by the frame of the family, that conservatives were proponents of ‘authoritarian strict-father families’ while progressives reflected a ‘nurturant parent model, which values freedom, opportunity and community building’ (‘psychobabble’ was one verdict, ‘hooey’ another). But his institute – though now defunct – had some influence on the language used by the Obama campaign. In furthering the science of political messaging or propaganda (choose your metaphor at will), Lakoff had some useful tools up his sleeve: metaphors work to change people’s minds. Orators have known this since Demosthenes.

But there’s precious little evidence that they tell you what people think. One Lakoff-inspired study that at first glance resembles the Metaphor Program was carried out in the mid-1990s by Richard D. Anderson, a political scientist and Sovietologist at UCLA, who compared Brezhnev-era speeches by Politburo members with ‘transitional’ speeches made in 1989 and with post-1991 texts by post-Soviet politicians. He found, conclusively, that in the three periods of his study the metaphors used had changed entirely: ‘metaphors of personal superiority’, ‘metaphors of distance’, ‘metaphors of subordination’ were out; ‘metaphors of equality’ and ‘metaphors of choice’ were in. There was a measurable change in the prevailing metaphors that reflected the changing political situation. He concluded that ‘the change in Russian political discourse has been such as to promote the emergence of democracy’, that – in essence – the metaphors both revealed and enabled a change in thinking. On the other hand, he could more sensibly have concluded that the political system had changed and therefore the metaphors had to change too, because if a politician isn’t aware of what metaphors he’s using who is? And then: if a politician knows how to use metaphor, why wouldn’t a terrorist, or a farmer? It’s a challenge to the idea that communication is possible to assume that people are entirely innocent of their meaning when they speak. And in any case, words aren’t meanings. As any really good spy knows, a word is a code that stands for something else. If you take the code at face value then you’ve fallen for the trick.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences