Open Thinkering


TB871: Dead metaphors

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

I did a double-take when I saw this in the module materials:

If you draw on the world of frozen ice crystals and describe someone as a snowflake, then you can, over time, create a new category of ‘snowflake-like people’ – people who might see themselves as unique but can melt away when conditions do not suit them. With repeated use amongst a group of people, ‘snowflake’ stops being a novel metaphor and becomes a label. From that point, it is only a short habitual walk to finding its way into a dictionary as a phrase with its own established meaning.

Many ordinary words come from metaphors in this way – for example the local ‘branch’ of a society, the next ‘step’ in a process, ‘cultivating’ new business relationships, and so on. Some, like ‘filibuster’, ‘shambles’, and ‘bedlam’, have more exotic origins.

Words such as those mentioned above are sometimes called dead metaphors, but dead metaphors can sometimes come back to life.

For instance, targets are fashionable management tools these days, often justified by those taking a first-order cybernetic view of organisations. But the word ‘target’ is the diminutive of the medieval word ‘targe’; a targe was a small shield used by foot soldiers for protection in battle. So maybe it is not that surprising that in organisations composed of humans, managerial ‘target setting’ often has unexpected consequences. This is particularly true when the targets have been imposed or have been set without adequate consultations with the people who are expected to achieve them, and who are most likely to be affected by them too!

Some writers have argued that the brain treats metaphors and categories in much the same way. For ‘he is a plumber’ the brain just gathers up what it knows about plumbers and connects it to ‘he’. For ‘he is a snowflake’ it does just the same, but about snowflakes instead. The difference between fact and metaphor would turn out to be secondary.

(The Open University, 2020)

I haven’t seen the phrase ‘dead metaphors’ outside of my own work, and the very specific part of the world of Pragmatism that I studied as part of my doctoral thesis. The way that it’s discussed here makes it all-too-relevant to the world we live in at the moment, in an increasingly-tribal world of information where labels are applied to groups in an attempt to stifle conscious thought and reasoned debate.

More on all of this over at


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