Project Blog Archive

Back to list of blog posts

Metaphors for marriage

Posted by Wendy Anderson on the 16th of July 2013

Ellen, our project research assistant, got married a few days ago, so in her honour we thought we would explore the metaphors for marriage which we are finding in our data.

There are strong, systematic links between the category of ‘Marriage’ and several other categories. The links are most clearly visible in the period since the end of Old English, where our data are fuller, but there is earlier evidence of metaphorical links too.

Probably the strongest link is with our category ‘Mutual relation of parts to whole’, a large and diverse category which shares many lexical items with ‘Marriage’, including: splice, knot, noose, separation, yoke, conjugation, bind, split, and marriage itself. The metaphors here are obvious and systematic, with the social bond of marriage being conceptualised as a physical bond – and the dissolution of a marriage as a physical split. The metaphor is long-standing, with both relevant senses of gesamnung (a join/junction and union in marriage) and geoc>yoke (a device for coupling animals to draw a plough, and spouse/partner) dating back to Old English. Marriage itself is interesting, as this represents a counter-example to the usual direction of metaphorical transfer: here, the sense originates in ‘Marriage’ and is transferred to ‘Mutual relation’ in the sense of ‘fact/action of being joined/joining’ (attested c1420 and explicitly described in OED2 as ‘transferred’ and ‘figurative’).

With the category of ‘Food’ we also find links going in both directions, i.e. with ‘Marriage’ as both Source and Target domain, though here the links are less systematic: matrimony for a mixture of two foods (1813, a slang/dialect item, but instantiating the same basic connection as that shown by marriage in ‘Mutual relation’ above); brown-bagger as a metaphor based on a metonymy for a married man (from the characteristic of carrying a brown bag of food or drink); and the highly unflattering bed and board for conjugal relations.

The links in ‘Birds’ are also bidirectional: a yellow-hammer is both a species of bunting and a jealous husband (OED2 confirms that the latter is a 17th-century expression which is figurative and ‘applied in contempt to a person’). Unmated birds used to be described as widowed (this sense attested in the OED 1730/46-1813). A similar metaphor connects ‘Marriage’ to ‘Land’, with unploughed land qualified as maiden, and while this appears to be a one-off metaphor (attested 1776 in the OED), a closer look across our numerous categories reveals that maiden is also applied to substances like gold and wax which have never been ‘worked’, not to mention to an over in which no runs are scored in cricket or a horse which has never won a race.

There are many more links (the state of not being married seems particularly fertile for metaphor – on the shelf, maiden, spinster) and we hope you’ll explore further with our Metaphor Map when it’s ready. For now, a final metaphor, exemplifying the close and well attested connection between ‘Marriage’ and the notion of similarity: twin, used in the 16th and 17th centuries for a spouse or partner. Congratulations, Ellen, on finding your twin!

Please share your metaphors for marriage with us by leaving a reply.

Wendy, Christian and the Mapping Metaphor team