Aristotle’s Metaphor of “Metaphor”

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Introduction: The Untranslatable Nature of Metaphors

I find Stephan George’s 1914 poem entitled Das Wort (The Word) fascinating because it powerfully illustrates the untranslatable nature of metaphors from one language to another. It is about a traveler who was in the habit of bringing back to his country a wonder or a dream from the places he had been. Upon returning to his land, he would bring what he found to Fate (Norn) who would find a word for it in her fount. One time he returned and presented his discovery to Fate, but she could not find a word for it, and consequently, as George expresses it in German, “Worauf es meiner hand entrann / Und nie mein land den schatz gewann,” “Whereupon it escaped my hand / And my country never gained the treasure” (George 1968).

This is the situation with Aristotle’s metaphor of metaphorá. With an application of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) I will argue that his view of metaphor, akin to CMT, is a part of his carefully crafted and untranslatable metaphor of language DICTION IS DWELLING IN A HOUSEHOLD (λέξις τὸ οἰκεῖν ἐστι, léxis tò oikeîn esti). We do not have the words in English that can accurately translate Aristotle’s use of the Greek tò oikeîn (dwelling in a household) as the source domain which motivates his metaphor of μεταφορά (metaphorá), in the target domain léxis (Diction). Diction in this context means “uses of words in prose.” A source domain is the script that provides the vocabulary and conceptual structure which is transferred in part by the listener/reader to provide a way to think about and understand another script, the target domain. I don’t think any of us has thought of the script DICTION as DWELLING IN A HOUSEHOLD. In fact, the thought of it is so foreign to our culture that it is incomprehensible without the necessary commentary, and even with that, it is hard to believe this might be correct.

Scholars have commonly characterized Aristotle and the ancients who wrote about a “metaphor” as presenting “metaphor as a linguistic ornamentation akin to the use of foreign words in a text, not as a way of thinking or a cognitive strategy” (Sullivan 2013, 1). However, the view has been changing. Anna Novokhatko writes that “philosophers from Empedocles, through Aristotle, to Plotinus also considered the cognitive nature of metaphor in transferring meanings and concepts” (Novokhatko 2013). In this essay I would like to take a fine grained look at what Novokhatko points out with a sketch of Aristotle’s view of metaphor through the lens of CMT.


“The kúrion, the oikeîon and metaphorá alone are useful for the diction of everyday speech. A sign of this is that everyone uses only these; for everyone engages in dialogue with [words that are] metaphoraí, oikeía and kuría” (Rhetoric 1404b 31-35). This is the way in which Aristotle categorizes diction (word usage) in non-poetic speech. At the outset I must make clear that according to Aristotle’s definition a metaphorá is an ἀλλότριον ὄνομα, allótrion ónoma “foreign word” (Poetics 1457b6). I will clarify in what sense it is foreign. But what is important now is that an ónoma that is a metaphorá and allótrion ónoma can be understood as interchangeable constructions.

It is evident that translators have had a difficult time interpreting these Greek words as Aristotle used them in the context of diction (See Membrez 2019, 215 for details). If we apply CMT it becomes clear that Aristotle is in fact using the Greek cultural script tò oikeîn (dwelling in a household) as a source domain, the meaning of these terms become clearer. But how can one be reasonably certain that this is the case? Karen Sullivan has given those of us working on metaphor an important insight. She noticed that when a predicating adjective/noun construction is used in a metaphor, the predicate adjective evokes the source domain, and the noun evokes the target domain (Sullivan 2013: 5.3 and 2). And so, in the noun/adjective construction the adjective kúrion evokes the source domain DWELLING IN A HOUSEHOLD and the noun onoma evokes the target domain DICTION. This is confirmed and emphasized by the fact that there are two other adjectives oikeíon and allótrion (as a metaphorá) that evoke the same source frame DWELLING IN A HOUSEHOLD and the nouns they each modify evoke the same target frame DICTION. In a Greek oîkos the adjectives kúrios, oikeîos and allótrios are used to identify the roles people play in relation to dwelling in an oîkos. In the oîkos the kúrios was the male in the role of the governor the household, the oikeîoi were in the role of those that were considered as a part of or members of the household and were under the governance of the kúrios. An allótrios was the member of another oîkos who played the role of being “foreign” to a said oîkos.

If a reader transfers this conceptual structure and its inferences from dwelling in an oîkos to the target domain of DICTION it becomes clearer what Aristotle may very well have meant: 1) a word used as a kúrion has a governing role, 2) the oikeîon word use would in some way have the role of subjugation to the kúrios, and 3) the allótrios would have the role of bringing in something foreign. As one investigates what Aristotle means by the kúrion use of a word it can be seen that the kúrion is the word used in a particular geographical region to refer to something X (Arist. Po.1457b3-6). The something X is viewed metaphorically as an “oîkos” with all its members. This would imply that the oikeîon word would refer to something that was a part of (a member of) this metaphorical “oîkos.” For example, in its use as a kúrion word, the word dóru in some region would refer to a spear as a whole. The oikeía words would be those words that would be under the “governance” of the kúrios word dóru “spear” and refer to parts of the whole like the shank or the tip. The allótrios would be a word conventionally used to refer to something in another “oîkos,” transferred to the “oîkosdóru and used in reference to a part of the dóru to which it is “foreign.” Perhaps for some reason someone would want to refer to parts of a dóru in terms of the human body (HUMAN BODY would be the source domain). For example, one could call the saurōtér (the end opposite the tip) its pugé (butt) or its poús (foot) and the aixmé (spear tip) its kephalé (head). Pugé, poús and kephalé would then be allótria words transferred from the “oîkossōma “body” into the “oîkos dóru “spear.” This transfer would yield a new role for these words. They now provide a new way to “look at” the parts of a dóru, namely, in terms of parts of the human body. This appears to be what Aristotle means in his statement that, “There is a way to use this manner of metaphor [analogy] differently, namely, to deny something of the oikeîoi by calling it the allótrion” (Poetics 1457b30-31).


This short sketch illustrates how CMT can provide us with the possibility of gaining a clearer understanding of the meanings of words in ancient texts by studying their relationships to the source domain that has motived their meaning in a new context. At the same time, it has shown, as his metaphor of metaphorá suggests, that Aristotle was probably conscious that a metaphor is a transfer of concepts and not just words. There is much that has gone unsaid in this short essay. Aristotle has much to say on many topics of interest to cognitive linguists. To state a few, he covers polysemy, prototypes and family resemblances; these will be topics of future essays.


Dancygier, Barbara, and Eve Sweetser. 2014. Figurative Language. Kindle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George, Stefan. 1968. Werke. Ausgabe in zwei Bänden. Düsseldorf und München: Verlag Helmut Küpper vormals Georg Bondi.

Goldberg, Adele E. 2010. “Verbs, Constructions, and Semantic Frames.” In Lexical Semantics, Syntax, and Event Structure, edited by Malka Rappaport Hovav, Edit Doron and Ivy Sichel, 39-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald. 1991. The Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: descriptive application. Vol. 2. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

—. 1987. The Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Theoretical Prerequisites. Vol. 1. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Membrez, Greg. 2019. “Metaphor by any other name. A cognitive linguistic reassessment of Aristotle’s theory of metaphor.” In Toward a Cognitive Classical Linguistics, edited by Egle Mocciaro and Short Michael William, 207-227. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Novokhatko, Anna. 2013. ““Metaphor (‎‎metaphorá‎), Ancient Theories of”.” In Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics, edited by Georgios K. Giannakis. Brill.

Sullivan, Karen. 2013. Frames and Constructions in Metaphoric Language. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.









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