A bit up and down – describing emotion with metaphors of height

by Liz Walter
Metaphor is when we use the word for one thing to describe the characteristics of another. For example, if we say ‘This city is a jungle’, we mean that the city is a wild and dangerous place.

That is a clear and obvious example of metaphor, but there are metaphorical ideas that are so common in our language that we hardly notice them. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote about this in their famous book Metaphors We Live By. They say that these ideas are so much a part of our language that they actually affect the way we think and behave.

In this blog I want to look at one example – using words connected with height to describe happiness and depth to describe sadness. Lakoff and Johnson call this an orientational metaphor, meaning that it describes position in space.

To begin with, we often use simple height adjectives for emotion. We can say that someone is feeling a bit down or low. Even the word depressed comes from the literal meaning of being pushed down.

The phrase up and down is interesting – although it would seem to mean ‘sometimes happy and sometimes sad’, it is in fact used to indicate that someone is having a difficult time:

He’s been a bit up and down since his wife left him.

It is possible, but less common, to use up on its own to mean happy, though high usually implies that someone has taken drugs. However, these words are used in other phrases in similar ways to down and low:

They are in high spirits this morning.

            We sang a song to keep our spirits up.

We often use verbs connected with movement up or down to talk about emotion:

His spirits rose/fell when he heard the news.

            The captain tried to raise the morale of the team.

            The music helped to lift our mood.

            It was difficult not to sink into despair.

There are several colourful idioms that use the idea of being very high up to express happiness, for example over the moon, on top of the world, walking on air, and on cloud nine (the number nine is said by some to come from a meteorologist’s classification of a very high type of cloud).

At the other end of the scale, we have at a low ebb, in the depths of despair, and down in the dumps. And the most unhappy people of all have hit rock bottom.

5 thoughts on “A bit up and down – describing emotion with metaphors of height

  1. JW

    I am from Taipei, Taiwan.
    As a self-taught of English, I really do love all your posts. Because you make them easily understood for foreigner like me who homeschool by themselves.
    Thank you so so much. 🙂

  2. Goutam Kumar Mohanty

    Above are appreciated but what is appropriate meaning of metaphor towards happiness may be described.

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