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The Business of Language

What our metaphors lead to – and what leads us to our metaphors

January 23, 2023

Words say something. In the beginning was the Word, after all.

Peek into any standard business meeting today, and you’ll hear the following phrases:

“Quick wins and must-win battles”. “Frontline operations”. “Expanding empires.” “Sales campaigns and targets”. “Strategies to beat the competition and take over markets”. Even “war rooms”. The business world is steeped in military and colonial metaphors, often without second thought.  

The same is true in medicine. “The war on cancer”. “The fight against disease”. “The immune system’s ability to defeat invading cells”. And it’s no different in how we talk about the environment. “Eco-warriors must mobilize in the fight against climate change.”

These observations might seem like quaint yet irrelevant curiosities. That would be to mistake the tip for the iceberg, however. How we do anything is how we do everything. As Mark Johnson and George Lakoff describe in Metaphors We Live By, the metaphors we use shape the world we create.

“Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities,” say Johnson and Lakoff. ”A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.”

The more we use metaphors based on war and colonialism, the more our actions will follow in kind. We’ll take sides, entrench our positions, and fight till the death until our markets are conquered, our enemies are defeated, and our missions are accomplished.

Ironically, there’s no actual war going on in these cases. Since these battles can never be won, we’ll keep fighting forever. A military-based metaphorical worldview is a one-way ticket to burning ourselves out, polarizing society, and pillaging the planet.

We can do our best to clean up our language. Like many of us have tried, we can change every “but” to an “and”, and every “should” to a “want.” While this can be a helpful starting point, linguistic changes will remain hollow if they’re not part of a deeper and wider shift in who we are. As I’ve written about previously, if we don’t change our worldviews, our world won’t change.

Ultimately, it’s not about the words themselves. It’s about where our words are coming from.

War metaphors make sense if our relationship with the world feels like a desperate zero-sum competition where we must be better than others to have the right to exist at all.

If our relationship with the world is instead one based on connection, symbiosis, and collaboration, then different metaphors will emerge organically. They will sprout amongst the undergrowth, fresh from the fertile soil that the “entanglements of living” provide. They will flourish and fade with the seasons, ebbing and flowing with the tides of our times. If we cultivate the conditions for life at their roots, they might even regenerate into seeds of more beautiful worlds—and words—to come.  


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