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Fear: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Posted by Mapping Metaphor on the 30th of June 2015

This case-study was written by Sarah Muller, one of our Mapping Metaphor research placement students.

In our western societies fear is often written off as a negative emotion that is a sign of weakness. Yet fear is an important human emotion, and some psychologists even argue that fear is an innate emotion. Whether you are a child scared of monsters under your bed or an adult frightened of what the COS 09.JPGfuture holds – we all experience different degrees of fear in certain situations. But how is fear conceptualised in the English language, and how do we use metaphors to talk about the experience of fear?

Using the data from the Mapping Metaphor project, this case study focuses on some of the areas in the English language that have strong metaphorical connections with the concept of fear:

A person who is scared may experience accelerated breathing, increased heart rate, flushed face, increased muscle tension, shaking and sweating. Indeed, the way we talk about fear using conceptual metaphors is heavily anchored in the physical aspects of its symptoms. Experiencing “cold sweat”, getting “cold feet” and “hair that stands up on the back of one’s neck” have become figurative language to talk about fear, yet they are also rooted in its physical experience. When we refer to someone as “nervous,” we draw on the domain of the brain and the nervous system. Furthermore, when someone has “goose bumps” or “chicken flesh”, we compare their skin condition to that of birds to indicate their emotional state. Indeed, individuals who have a tendency to be easily frightened are often compared to animals that are known for being timid such as mice, leverets, chicken or sheep.

We also use terms taken from the category of movement to talk about fear; expressions such as “shudder”, “tremble”, “quiver”, “jumpy”, “the shakes” or “tremulous” all refer to types of movements or physical reactions that people may exhibit when they are frightened. Furthermore, common expressions such as “to make one’s skin crawl” or “to make one’s flesh creep” use words that literally refer to progressive, slow movements to indicate the uncomfortable experience of fear. The words “creepy” and “creeping” can also be used to refer to things or people that make one shudder with fear. Lastly, it seems interesting to point out that at the start of the nineteenth century, calling someone “ticklish” meant they were easily scared. However, this meaning of “ticklish” has been lost over the course of time.

As a result of extreme fear, individuals can sometimes experience paralysis, a state that is also reflected in our metaphors. These draw largely on the domains of atmosphere and weather, as well as geological features. For example, when we are scared we can be “frozen” with fear or “petrified”, which literally means “converted into stone or a stony substance” (OED online, petrified, adjective, sense 1).

Lastly, we also use colour terms to talk about fear. For example, we say that someone turned pale or white, thus referring to their changing skin tone due to the blood being drained from the face. Black, on the other hand, is used to describe horrifying or macabre things that may cause somebody to be scared.