In the internet sensation of the day, a house in South Wales has been discovered to look like Adolf Hitler.
It’s in the nature of human cognition: we naturally think in metaphor, by comparing one kind of thing to another. And when our minds settle on a resemblance, something “clicks”.
With me so far? So, here’s a question for you. Whether or not you agree that the house looks like Hitler, do you think that Hitler looks like a house? If so, what kind of house?
It seems that metaphor is a (mostly) one-way street: that there tends to be a natural directionality to the metaphors we use spontaneously. We more frequently think that something looks like a person, than that a person looks like something.
If you’re like me, you can instantly come up with a counter-example. A large person may well be described as “built like a brick outhouse”. But I’m talking about an overall tendency.
James Geary has a stronger example in his book I is an Other. He quotes The Magnetic Fields song “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin”, detailing the many ways love is like gin:
It makes you blind, it does you in
It makes you think you’re pretty tough
It makes you prone to crime and sin
It makes you say things off the cuff.
But the last couplet emphasises the one-wayness of the metaphor:
Love is like a bottle of gin
But a bottle of gin is not like love.
Geary observes: “Metaphorical thinking usually travels one way, appropriating concrete language – the words we use for everyday experiences and physical things and sensations – to describe abstractions like thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas. Juliet is the sun in ways that the sun is not and never can be Juliet.”