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  • Thomas Wiben Jensen

When metaphors point: A new perspective on the stain metaphor

Artwork by Jakob Hunosøe

Author: Thomas Wiben Jensen

Metaphors are not only a linguistic figurative device but also a way of making sense of complex phenomena in the world. An illustrative example of this is the ways in which we understand unmoral or socially unacceptable behaviors in terms of something or someone being dirty, filthy, impure, blemished, tainted, contaminated, unclean, polluted, stained etc. In this way the abstract domain of immoral or unethical behaviors is understood and talked about in terms of the more concrete physical domain of dirt, filth and stains. We can talk about “a dirty conscience”, “filthy thoughts” or a “stained reputation” as if immaterial entities like conscience, thoughts, or social reputation have a physical character that could literally be stained.

Likewise, moral virtue is often understood as the absence of filth or contaminating elements such as in spotlessor pure thoughts or behaviors. Within the cognitive literature on metaphor the abundance of similar examples is explained via general metaphorical concepts such as CLEAN IS GOOD and DIRTY IS BAD, as well as the derived metaphor Morality Is Cleanliness (Johnson 1997, Lakoff and Johnson 1999, Gibbs 2017). These metaphors are used in everyday conversation, but examples of the same metaphorical structure can also be found in both literary works such as Lady Macbeth famous “Out, damned spot!” monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) or in the title (and theme) of the acclaimed novel “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000), as well as in popular music such the hard rock album “Dirty deeds done dirt cheap” by AC/DC (1976) or Soft Cell’s pop hit “Tainted Love” (1981). All of these different examples are explained by the same underlying mechanism of mapping structures from the source domain of filth, dirt and stains onto the target domain of unmoral or socially unacceptable behaviors.

However, recently I discovered an example of an unusual use of the stain metaphor that made me think of a hitherto unexplained element in the cognitive structure of this metaphor. In a recorded therapy consultation, a therapist and a female patient talks about a “letter of concern” which the patient has just received from the local municipality. This letter questions the patient’s ability to take care of her daughter due to an incident in the kindergarten. Naturally, the patient is very upset about this, and in the following conversation with the therapist she claims several times that the letter has “left a stain on her”. Inherent in this way of using the stain metaphor is the way it points back to the event (the incident in the kindergarten) that has caused it in the same manner as a stain on your shirt points to the previous action of spilling coffee.

The reason why the stain metaphor so effectively encapsulates the guilty conscience and conflicting emotions of the patient in this context may lie in the way it points to the causal relation between the cause (the behavior of the patient in a certain situation) and the effect (the fear and shame of the possibility of losing her daughter). In other words, it is not the letter itself that is shameful for the patient but the symbol signification it acquires as pointing back to a socially unacceptable type of behavior – both for the patient herself, for her social reputation and in the eyes of the local authorities.

A stain reveals the previous action. In a literal physical sense, it is something that sticks and thereby has a remaining character also after the action is over. If you spill coffee the stain on your shirt reminds you (and the people you meet) that you were clumsy or inattentive for a moment. If you are a kid jumping in the mud (even though you knew you were not supposed to) your stained clothes will later reveal this to your parents since it points back to what you did (and will perhaps get you into trouble). In this way, “stain” involves more than a mapping between a physical source domain and an abstract target domain. It also involves a deictic (from Greek point of reference) element. This is why “stain” is such a powerful metaphor. It points!

I will now point to another member of MetNetScandinavia, Georgios Stampoulidis, from Lund University in Sweden who will write the next blog post on metaphors in street art.

This data is derived from a project supported by the Velux Foundation (Grant no. 10384).

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. The embodied Mind and its challenge to western Thought. Basic Books.

Hoopes, J. 2014. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce. The University of North Carolina Press

Johnson, M. 1997. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. University of Chicago Press.

Gibbs, R. 2017. Metaphor Wars. Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life. Cambridge University Press.