The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, July 06, 2020

10 ways to tackle coronavocab: #6 Metaphors

Anyone who's ever come across Lakoff and Johnson's classic book "Metaphors We Live By" will know that metaphors are a fundamental part of not just the way we use language, but the way that we think about the world. The concept of metaphor might seem a bit too high brow or literary for the ELT classroom, but it really doesn't need to be. We use metaphorical language all the time and it's an interesting angle for exploring vocab (new and revised) with students. With a couple of examples to get them started, most students catch onto the idea pretty quickly and the images that metaphor is intended to evoke can be really helpful in making vocab memorable for students.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown up a lot of metaphorical language, especially amongst politicians and in the media. As a language nerd, it's something I've been following on Twitter via the #ReframeCovid hashtag. This article by linguist Elena Semino summarizes some background and looks especially at the fire metaphor (more below). It's a long-ish read and fairly academic, so something for your own background reading rather than to use directly with students, but it is very readable.

Below, I've picked out just some of the metaphors that seem to be common to describe the pandemic based on both other linguists' commentary and my own corpus research. Wartime metaphors have been especially prevalent, but also widely criticized as divisive - whilst the virus starts off as the enemy, this narrative can easily set up suspicion of others. If you’re interested, some articles about the problems with wartime metaphors include these from the Conversation, the Guardian and Scientific American. These are probably too long and too challenging to use directly with students, but are worth a skim through and you might find a paragraph here and there that would work as a short reading text and provoke discussion with more advanced classes.

Some examples in context:
We are still in the midst of a war against coronavirus, and our hospitals are the frontline of the battle.
The country's health authorities said they are winning the battle against the virus.
The infected person will then develop the antibodies needed to fight off the coronavirus.
In the long run, a vaccine remains our best hope of defeating this virus for good.
We have tested frontline workers like police and health workers.
We cannot relax in our efforts to conquer this invisible enemy.
Covid-19 casualties have risen by over 100 per cent in the state.

I mentioned the bad weather/storm metaphor in my blog post about the use of the word hibernate to describe businesses who've put work on hold. There are several metaphors in use around the word storm itself and other language typically used to describe people sheltering from bad weather. The term shelter in place is a mostly American English phrase typically used in the context of hurricanes and similar extreme weather events and it seems to have been widely used to describe the idea of staying at home during the pandemic.

Some examples in context:
A perfect storm of coronavirus and economic downturn has resulted in layoffs and budget cuts.
We believe the company is well positioned financially to weather the storm from COVID-19.
Health officials have warned of the danger of a second wave of infection
Many students have been forced to abandon apartments in an effort to shelter in place with parents.
With people continuing to hunker down, Zoom has become a household name.
The park is deserted while tourists are staying at home and sitting out the pandemic.
The industry won't be able to hibernate during the pandemic without government support.

And finally those fire metaphors that got a mention in Elena Semino's article and which I found plenty of evidence for myself when looking at recent corpus data. Some make explicit references to fire, others involve language more commonly found in the context of fire-fighting (fuel, dampen, contain).

Some examples:
If COVID-19 enters prisons, it will spread like wildfire.
As coronavirus swept through the city this spring, he lost his main work in construction.
Public health officials have warned that easing restrictions too soon could spark further outbreaks.
Opening schools could fuel coronavirus spread.
Social distancing has proven to be an effective weapon for dampening the spread of coronavirus.
The district is considered a Covid-19 hotspot in the city.
National governments should make every possible effort to contain the pandemic.
It's led to tensions between officials struggling to tamp down the virus and those eager to get back to business.
There'll be possible periodic lockdowns to snuff out any signs of a resurgence of infections.

  • Highlight examples of metaphors you come across in texts and get students to discuss and classify them. If you don't want to make a whole lesson around a long authentic text on the topic of the pandemic, you could pick short paragraphs from a few different articles that each contain examples of metaphors.
  • Create a gap-fill using a mix of the examples above (with the key words gapped and given in a word pool), then get students to group them (by war, storms or fire).
  • After looking at examples of the metaphors in use, get students to choose which one they prefer or suggest their own. For example, one I particularly like is where people describe the virus like glitter that gets everywhere and sticks to surfaces.
  • Elicit examples of metaphors used to describe the pandemic in students' L1 and compare them to the ones being used in English. Are storm metaphors more likely in parts of the world that experience extreme weather or fire metaphors more likely in places that are familiar with wildfires?
  • This is one of those to topics that once you've introduced the concept, you can follow up whenever metaphorical language comes up in class, just briefly highlighting the metaphor. For some students, the visual/concrete nature of a metaphor could be the 'hook' that makes new vocabulary memorable.

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