Love figuratively

Sometimes we communicate ideas figuratively and express our ideas through comparisons. So last week, we celebrated Valentine’s day not just with our beloveds, but also with our sweetie pies, sweet things, and honeys. Have you noticed that many figurative terms of endearment relate to sugary food? Linguists explain this similarity through conceptual metaphors that serve as a basis for the figurative phrases we create.

Conceptual metaphors are a mapping between a source domain (something understandable) and a target domain (something you want understood). We use the source domain as a lens to make sense of the target domain. Let’s take as an example the conceptual metaphor LOVE IS A JOURNEY. Our source domain is JOURNEY. Journeys involve travelers, destinations, obstacles, and decisions made at crossroads. Our target domain is LOVE. Love involves lovers, relationship goals, difficulties, and decisions made at transition points. Using our understanding of what a journey involves, we might explain difficulties in love using expressions like “I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere” or “It’s been a long and bumpy road.”



A metaphor’s meaning can get lost when translating across languages. One source of confusion is that some conceptual metaphors don’t exist in all cultures. Consider anger. In Zulu, a conceptual metaphor related to this emotion is ANGER IS IN THE HEART. This leads to phrases like:

Phrase: Inhliziyo imane yathi hluthu!
Literal meaning: My heart suddenly went wrenching.
Figurative meaning: I suddenly felt an upsurge of anger.

In English, however, heart is usually associated with love (you won my heart = you gained my affection) while anger is associated with things like fire or heat (he was hot under the collar = he was angry).

Another source of confusion is that aspects of conceptual metaphors can vary across cultures due to the differing worlds we live in. While JOURNEY might be a concept most people around the globe can relate to, the aspect of vehicle might depend on the modes of transportation available in our environment. A person living in a mountainous region might talk of funiculars while someone on an island might talk of ferries. These cultural variations then lead to differences in the expressions we use stemming from conceptual metaphors.

Let’s take a look again at sugary foods used as terms of endearment. One conceptual metaphor that explains the abundance of these phrases is LOVE IS APPETIZING FOOD. But what objects might we associate with the source domain of appetizing food? Chocolate? Peach cobbler? Mochi? Well, that probably depends on what you like to eat, right? Here are just a few terms of endearment I found stemming from this metaphor from different cultures:

Language: French
Phrase: Tu es le sucre de mon tapioca
Literal meaning: You are the sugar of my tapioca.

Language: Spanish
Phrase: Eres mi media naranja.
Literal meaning: You are my half orange.

Language: Swahili
Phrase: Maziwa yangu baby.
Literal meaning: Baby you are my milk.

What other LOVE IS APPETIZING FOOD phrases do you know?

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