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According to Conceptual Metaphor Theory (see Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, 1980), metaphor forms the bedrock for how humans conceptualise our world, enabling us to understand difficult, abstract concepts by comparing (or mapping) them to concepts more familiar to us. Romantic love is the ultimate abstract concept. However, we manage to make sense of it by conceiving it as having start and end points, a uni-directional and typically linear trajectory, the potential to take various forms at different times, and to contain both joys and sorrows.

Essentially, we conceptualise romantic love as a journey that commences when a couple ‘embarks’ upon a relationship: ‘obstacles’ may be thrown in their ‘path’; they may find themselves ‘stumbling’ over ‘rough terrain’; they may be presented with multiple different ‘routes’; they may reach a ‘crossroads’ and be unsure which ‘way to turn’; they may ‘look back’ frequently at ‘where they have come from’, and yearn for ‘greener pastures’ that may ‘lie ahead’. The rather pedestrian expressions used above are all linguistic realisations of a fundamental conceptual metaphor which enables us to adequately capture the vicissitudes of romantic love: LOVE IS A JOURNEY.

But, while the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor structures much of our thinking on this topic, this is certainly not where our conceptualisation of romantic love begins and ends. Rather, we have developed myriad ways of understanding and describing our experiences of love, comparing it to a vast array of more concrete, familiar entities. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) identify at least three different types of conceptual metaphor – ontological, structural and orientational – and our conceptualisations of love operate across all three categories.

Ontological metaphors concretise the more abstract domain that we are trying to describe; examples of ontological love metaphors include describing love variously as a unity (for example, ‘joining’ a couple together in matrimony); a bond (‘they bonded over time’); an economic exchange (‘she was worth her weight in gold’); a nutrient (‘his love was nourishing’); light (‘the light of his life’); or as a physical substance (‘she threw his love away’). Structural metaphors, on the other hand, apply the underlying form of the more familiar entity to the more abstract entity; so, for example, descriptions of love as a journey (‘they parted ways’) or as a container (‘he poured all his love into the relationship’) are structural metaphors. Finally, orientational metaphors evoke spatial relationships; examples of orientational metaphors of romantic love underpin expressions such as being ‘loved up’ – which links to the common HAPPINESS IS UP metaphor – and falling ‘head over heels in love’, which also evokes the loss of control typically associated with romantic love.

Of the many possible ways of describing love, the conceptualisation of love as fire is particularly well-used, with the conceptual domain of fire providing us with a wide variety of characteristics to draw upon. Love is described, for example, as ‘burning’, ‘all-consuming’ and ‘unquenchable’ on the one hand, or as having ‘fizzled out’ or been ‘extinguished’ or ‘doused’ on the other. And of course, the ‘love is fire’ metaphor particularly captures the nature of physical attraction, with desire often referred to as a ‘flame’ that can quickly ‘burn’ out of control. Similarly, love is commonly perceived as food, and desire as a form of hunger: we speak of lovers being ‘hungry’ for one another, ‘starved’ of affection, or having their passion ‘sated’. Love is hence accorded the same status as food: that of metaphoric ‘staff of life’.

In other types of communication, love is often conceptualised in increasingly novel, innovative ways. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 draws upon a common ontological metaphor – that of personification – to represent love as a sentient entity capable of ‘altering’ and ‘bending’. However, it then proceeds to represent love as “the star to every wand'ring bark”, an unusual mapping which foregrounds a star’s constancy: here, it is not simply the lover that is perceived as steadfast, but rather love itself is the “ever-fix’d mark” that “looks on tempests and is never shaken”.  

In Romeo’s famous description of Juliet as “the sun” what is conveyed is not only the warmth and magnetism of her personality, but also that she is now essential to his life. This metaphoric expression then undergoes a process of extension: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, / Who is already sick and pale with grief, / That thou her maid art far more fair than she” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II). Here a previously untapped characteristic of the sun is now emphasised: the sun is being exhorted to “kill” that “envious moon”. While it is tempting to dismiss this extension as whimsical figurative language, there is no doubt that the tragic violence which concludes the play is being foreshadowed here. Reinterpreted retrospectively, the metaphor illustrates not only the strength of Romeo’s feeling but also hints at the ‘dark side’ of love, and the perils of getting too close to the sun.

In song lyrics too, love can be conceptualised in creative and unusual ways. While common conceptualisations abound – the UK’s bestselling love song Wet Wet Wet’s “Love is All Around” (1994) treats love as a physical substance one can feel in both “fingers” and “toes” – there are plenty of songs in which the concept of love is defamiliarised, that is, represented in an unusual manner that may cause us to re-think our perceptions of love. In their 1991 song “Love is Blindness”, U2 cleverly extend the common idiomatic metaphor ‘love is blind’, moving away from representing love as being aesthetically undiscerning to instead capture not only the feelings of helplessness but also the wilful ignorance love can induce: “Love is blindness / I don’t wanna see / Won’t you wrap the night / Around me?”.

For very different reasons, it is also interesting to consider Bob Dylan’s “Love is a Four-Letter Word” (1968), a title and refrain which, ostensibly, don’t contain a metaphor, being, rather, a statement of fact. However, we are attuned to seeking the metaphoric where we expect it to be found and are therefore likely upon listening to conjure up various four-letter words which link most closely with our own experiences of love.

To slightly misappropriate Shakespeare, then, love both is and “is not love”. Its continued representation in new and interesting ways, especially in genres such as literature and song, shows how unique and individual the experience of love is, differing from one person to the next. However, we can also take comfort in the knowledge that our most common conceptualisations of love are shared across international and cultural boundaries, a timely reminder of our shared humanity.

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