Both the term ’figurative language’ and the rhetorical figure of metaphor are rooted in traditional stylistic analysis, but the latter has undergone a cognitive re-interpretation. Following Lakoff and Johnson, metaphor is now understood as a mapping of conceptual content from a source domain onto a target domain. It is the aim of this paper to show how the cognitive view of metaphor can be used to describe figurative language as a gradient of figurativity, based on different types of metaphors and their degree of entrenchment/conventionalization or innovation.
Starting from the target domain, it is obvious that Lakoff and Johnson (and in their wake also Kövecvses) are overwhelmingly concerned with abstract or complex concepts such as argument, idea, emotion concepts), which are supported by mappings from concrete, specific and rich source domains, often event concepts like journey, fire, boiling kettle etc. It is easy to see that this conceptual transfer of concrete conceptualization has a figurative effect and that a scale of figurativity can be established if the elaboration of the metaphor and its degree of entrenchmen/conventionalization or innovation are taken into account. This scale of figurativity can be extended at the lower end if Lakoff and Johnson’s generic metaphors are considered as well – ontological metaphors like personification or the famous container metaphor, and also orientational metaphors like happy is up or sad is down, i.e. metaphors based on embodied image schemas, which are still more deeply entrenched than specific metaphors. Since the source domains person, container, up and down are also more general than journey or fire, they have a lower figurative potential, at least when used in ‘pure’ generic metaphors (e.g. in expressions such as Life has cheated me, His life contained a great deal of sorrow or I'm feeling up). Including these examples of metaphorical transfer and allowing for transitional cases between pure generic and specific metaphors (He's at the peak of health, He dropped dead or We had to cheer him up) one arrives at a fairly differentiated scale of figurativity, which also mirrors the reverse cline from deep entrenchment/conventionalization to innovative creative combinations.
Yet what remains unexplained is the cut-off point that is generally assumed between (even low) figurative meaning and literal meaning. Here it is helpful to take recourse to the notion of conceptual categorization in terms of persons, concrete objects, container objects (e.g. body, house), actions (e.g. walking, eating) and spatial orientation (up/down) that govern our interaction with the world around us and yields the literal meaning of the conceptualized entities and actions. These categories of ‘primary categorization’ can also be applied to word-formation, where the process of ‘re-categorization’ may produce a literal word meaning (as in baker, gardener, whiten), but may also involve a slight effect of figurativity (as in hopeful or downfall). More important in our context, this conceptual tool is also available for the re-categorization of abstract and complex entities (emotions, idea, argument etc) as persons, objects or containers or in terms of embodied orientation. And since no conceptual access to the world is possible without it, categorization is also relevant for the source domains of more specific abstract target metaphors.
It is obvious that this view of categorization and re-categorization overlaps with the notion of generic metaphor: Re-categorization processes can be seen as ‘re-categorization metaphors’ and vice versa. However, the categorization approach not only accounts for the gradient of figurativity in figurative language, but also for the transition from literal to figurative language and is thus more comprehensive than the concept of generic metaphor.
The picture becomes more complex if one considers metaphors with concrete target domains, e.g. achilles is a lion, Juliet is the sun or a car is a jaguar, which are in fact often quoted as prototypical metaphors in stylistic analysis, but are neglected by Lakoff and Johnson and their followers. Since the target domain (achilles, juliet, car) is already well equipped with conceptual content and sufficiently categorized as persons or objects, the mapping from source onto target domain is generally more limited and additional categorization support (as person, object) largely superfluous, and this reminds of certain types of metonymies (We are all ears etc; Ruiz de Mendoza 2000). Taken together these metonymies and concrete target domain metaphors also support different, though generally lower, degrees of figurativity along the parameters of limitation/elaboration and conventionalization/creativity.
Altogether, combining the analysis of abstract and concrete target domain metaphors with the categorization approach promises a fairly satisfactory cognitive description of figurativity as a scalar phenomenon.