Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

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


TB871: Metaphorical linguistic expressions

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

Activity P2.9 asks us to identify “metaphorical linguistic expressions used by stakeholders when describing or making sense of situations” in my area of practice. I’m focused on the use of libraries, in general but particularly in Northumberland. More specifically, issues affecting their use.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the population think that libraries are quiet, unexciting places. So if pushed for a metaphor, we might find words like ‘sanctuary’ or ‘refuge.’ Librarians and those who love books (like me!) might see things differently, and use terms such as ‘diving into research’ or ‘unlocking a treasure trove of information’ which makes things sound a bit more exciting.

In addition to the Dewey decimal system, libraries tend to have collections of books which have been arranged around a theme. This ‘curation’ by librarians is akin to what art galleries might do with works of art, and putting books on display treats them as less of a commodity and more like art works.

Libraries are more than just about physical books, though, and as I sit in Morpeth library there is a corner dedicated to ‘Business & IP Centre North East’ whose materials enjoin visitors to ‘Join a thriving business community in your local library.’ Although I’ve only ever seen someone sit there bored, scrolling through their phone, waiting for people to arrive, I suppose the metaphor in use is something akin to knowledge being an ‘engine of growth.’

Some libraries play an important role in teaching digital skills to the community. This can be important particularly if people need to be able to claim benefits or look for jobs, which these days are both digital-first activities. Council members or senior administrators might therefore talk about ‘investing in digital infrastructure’ and then ‘harvesting data’ from users to improve services.

So we have a range of metaphors in play with libraries: everything from art galleries, to construction, to agricultural metaphors. As Laura and I have explained on the WAO blog, metaphors are powerful things which can unlock mental models in audiences that lead to different actions being taken. I can’t help but think that library services could do a better job about being more intentional about the metaphors they use in their communications.

TB871: Metaphor, ambiguity, and conceptual blending

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’m managing to skip quite a few activities in this module because I’ve thought through the impact of metaphor and ambiguity before, in quite some depth. In fact, I’ve got a whole other blog on it. This post is prompted by the mention of ‘conceptual blending’ in the module materials:

Cognitive scientists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002) have written about what they call conceptual blending, which is the human mind’s general ability to match two or more different inputs – such as images, words, events, frames, identities or even embodied actions – and to selectively project elements from those different inputs and create a new, blended mental space that has its own structure that retains a connection to those original inputs. They share a range of examples where new mental spaces are produced, including life-stage rituals, sporting achievements and political commentary.


Significantly, the theory of conceptual blending argues that positions, such as ideas or arguments derived in the blended mental space, can have an effect on our thinking. Consequently, perceptions and judgements about situations involving any of the initial input spaces are modified. Metaphor seems to fit with this way of understanding the mind because it brings together two different notions into a single whole. The boss and dinosaur become an imaginary boss–dinosaur composite. Tutsi and cockroach become a single conceptual blended whole, which could then influence cognition and behaviour in relation to Tutsis or cockroaches.

(The Open University, 2020)
Two overlapping circles, on labelled 'connotative aspect' and one labelled 'denotative aspect'. There is an arrow pointing to the overlap.

Very briefly, then, when we yoke together two ideas we create a zeugma or syllepsis — for example ‘digital literacy’. Or more simply, if we look at prehistoric example, the idea of a “lion man”. Is the emphasis on the first of these (digital/lion) or on the second (literacy/man)? In other words, are we talking about literacy of the digital, or digital forms of literacy. Likewise, are we talking about a man who act like a lion, or a lion that resembles a man?

At the overlap of what something denotes and what it connotes is a space of ambiguity. This is where space is opened up for new ideas and creative/playful thinking. However, there are different types of ambiguity, which I’ve written about in length, including in my thesis, but which I’ll summarise here using this diagram:

Continuum of ambiguity ranging from Generative Ambiguity, through Creative Ambiguity, Productive Ambiguity, and 'Dead Metaphors#

Given that all communication is in some way ambiguous, what we’re trying to avoid are what Richard Rorty calls “dead metaphors”. These are terms which may have had some explanatory power but which have now devolved into cliche.

This is how disinformation works: it creates a space between things that definitely exist and puts them together in people’s minds in such a way that it creates connections that just aren’t there. Political slogans, marketing materials, and even the way that society in general refers to certain groups can be made more or less ambiguous. For change to happen, I’d argue, things need to be productively ambiguous.