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Love Metaphor In English Songs

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4071 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the past, the study of metaphor was limited to literature and most people viewed metaphor as a tool for poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than everyday language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Today, the concept of metaphor situates in the centre of the study of cognition and communication with multidisciplinary implications in physical science, biological science, economics, law, political theory, art and even poetry and so on (Johnson, 1995).

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Not only found in poetry and everyday language, metaphors also widely used in modern English songs, in particular, those songs with a major theme of LOVE. Indeed, love is an abstract concept that is not clearly defined in our life experience and may be unimaginable if not using metaphors in facilitating our understanding (Lakoff & Johnson,1980). Given that Madonna and Lady Gaga are pop singers and their songs have symbolized the 80s and 00s music, the purpose of this paper is to compare love songs of Madonna in 80s and similar love songs of Lady Gaga in 00s for the metaphors they used in a few LOVE concepts, namely, LOVE IS LUST, LOVE IS FIRE and LOVE IS WAR.


Domains, Mapping and Image Schema

With various levels of complexity and organization, domains are conceptual entities containing background information of which lexical concepts in question can be referenced against for understanding and usage purpose. For example, without thorough understanding of the system of temperature, we would not be able to advocate the related terms like HOT, COLD, and LUKEWARM which can be assigned lexical concepts in the domain of TEMPERATURE.

There are practical differences between basic domains and abstract domains within the theory of Frame Semantics. According to Evans and Green (2006), there are some basic domains like SPACE and TIME which originate straightly from the background of our embodied experience, while other abstract domains like MARRIAGE, LOVE or MEDIEVAL MUSICOLOGY are eventually derived from embodied experience that are more complex in nature.

Ungerer and Schmid (2008) mentioned that a number of obvious correspondences or mappings in the two domains are linked metaphorically. Mapping is a cognitive process and can be understood as a source domain (or explained element) matches onto a selected target domain (or explaining element). In essence, through our personal conceptual experiences, the mapping scope of a metaphor can be best described as a set of constraints in regulating with the world around us. As illustrated by an exemplary metaphor LOVE IS A JOURNEY, it is conventional in making use of the ‘A is B’ formula to describe conceptual metaphor in the conceptual metaphor literature (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).

Hence, the metaphor comes into existence by mapping roles from the source domain onto the target domain – LOVERS become TRAVELLERS (We’re at a crossroads), who travel by a specific MEANS OF TRANSPORT (We’re spinning our wheels), travelling along a specific ROUTE (Our relationship went off course), blocked by obstacles (Our marriage is on the rocks).

Furthermore, Lakoff (1987) makes a further study of the mapping by proposing his Image Schema strategy. ‘Image Schema’ is a kind of knowledge that arises directly from zre-conceptual embodied experience (Evans & Green, 2006). There are different kinds of image schemas. The CONTAINER schema defines the most fundamental differences between IN and OUT. Many CONTAINER metaphors are based on the CONTAINER schemas that extend our body-based understanding of things in terms of a large range of related abstract concepts. For instance, the visual field is known as a CONTAINER, e.g., things come into and go out of sight.

SOURCE-PATH-GOAL Schema is another example, which comprise a SOURCE (commencement point), a DESTINATION (final point), a PATH (a series of interconnected locations joining the SOURCE and the DESTINATION), and a DIRECTION (targeting the DESTINATION). We have bodily experience that whenever we move anywhere, there should be a place to start with, a venue we wind up at, a sequence of interconnected locations joining the starting and ending points together with a direction definitely.

Other examples of image schemas comprise a PART-WHOLE Schema, a LINK Schema, a CENTER-PERIPHERY Schema, an UP-DOWN Schema, a FRONT-BACK Schema, a LINEAR ORDER Schema, etc. Lakoff (1987) has commented that image schemas offers particularly vital evidence for the projections from concrete to abstract domains metaphorically.

Meaning of Metaphorical Love

Lakoff (1993) argues that understanding of LOVE concept is led by conceptual metaphors that comprehend the abstract target concept LOVE with concrete source concepts such as ‘container’ and ‘journey’. The conceptual metaphor LOVE IS A CONTAINER implies a correspondence between the lovers and entities inside a container, and between love relationship and container. These correspondences are deduced from expressions such as ‘We fall in love’, ‘We get out of love’, and ‘We’ve got trapped in this relationship’.

LOVE IS A JOURNEY entails correspondences between lovers and travelers, the relationship of love and traveling vehicle, problems in the relationship barriers in the travelling pathways and so on. Propositions, for example, ‘Our relationship are at crossroads’, ‘Love is a two-ways thoroughfare’, and ‘We may have to go our own ways’ are coherent with these correspondences as contained in LOVE IS A JOURNEY. Not only conceptual metaphors assist our use and understanding of fixed, idiomatic expressions, but also situate under our creation and interpretation of novel metaphors (e.g. a ten-year marriage would give anyone saddle tenderness), which only rarely quote descriptive themes again (Lakoff & Turner, 1989).

In the human conceptual system, conceptual metaphor theorists place two noticeable but related functions for LOVE IS A JOURNEY. First, it is presumed to perform a representational function by structuring understanding of LOVE concept. Miller and Johnson-Laird (1976) comment that such function originates from the rhetoric of ‘cognitive economy’, based on which our mind borrows simple concepts concerning the semantic structure in organizing various aspects of complex concepts. If operating in an independent manner, it might be too inefficient in performing the aforesaid representational function.

Second, LOVE IS A JOURNEY is postulated to perform a process function in which it assists our usage and understanding of particular metaphoric expressions in connection with love. For example, in facing the proposition ‘Our relationship has hit a dead end in discourse’, in semantic memory, we can draw relevance from the conceptual correspondences between LOVE and JOURNEYS (lovers-travelers, relationship-vehicle, problems-barriers, etc.) for the interpretation of the proposition.


LOVE is part of a network that includes concepts such as LOVERS, PASSION, SEX, MARRIAGE, RESPECT, ROSES, FIRE, WAR, LUST and host of others.

For LOVE IS LUST, among the different aspects of interaction, sexual experience has been a universal feature in all cultures including human beings. There are similarities between cultures but the vehicles used to communicate these aspects of sexuality may be different in relation to the definite and obvious cultural concepts. It is questioned that through the integration of the behaviors of males and females, the language of sexual metaphors communicates cultural conceptualizations, and it influences especially in the areas of sexual behavior and the forming of intimacy (Borisoff and Hahn, 1993). The language performs a key function in both expressing and shaping of social ideologies and behaviors. Therefore, metaphor is used as one part of the linguistic repertoire that can mediate in uncovering the power relationships in fields of gender and sexuality.

According to Emanatian (1996), LUST is one of the most important ways in which the inside of the body pervades and is pervaded by another body. Next to eating, sexual acts are said to be ‘a fundamental experience of communion with each other and the world’. Metaphors in sexual relationships tend to be more from masculine point of view rather than capturing female experience in the same field (Weatherall and Walton, 1999). In the study of sexual metaphors in English, Borisoff and Hahn (1993) states the stereotype that women are looking for LOVE while men are counting on LUST may have been somewhat lightened in recent years.

For LOVE IS FIRE, we define FIRE in three stages, namely, ignition, sparks and flame, which can be mapped onto three stages of the LOVE, that is to say, developing a favorable impression of each other, falling in love and becoming soul mates. An emotion is a sudden personal onset of disturbance or upset which is exposed in behavior and in conscious experience, also through widespread changes in the role of internal organs, and which is triggered by forces within a psychological scenario.

Nonetheless, all psychological phenomena eventually depend on physiological processes. Kövecses’ (1986¼‰assumes that physiological effects accompanies LOVE are increase of body heat, increase of heart rate, red in face, and interference with accurate perception. Among all of these, increase of body heat, red in face, and also increase of heart rate are served as the experiential foundation for the FIRE metaphor. It is appropriate for metaphor to realize as a result of these physiological effects.

We found that the FIRE metaphor is perhaps the most powerful one concerning the gravity of love. And one also finds ‘LOVE IS FIRE’ out of which the metaphor ‘I am burning with love’ is constructed. This means that ‘fire and heat metaphors’ are used to describe love (Kövecses, 1986, 1990, 2002).

For LOVE IS WAR, the source, WAR is in connection with, for instance, ‘soldiers’, ‘victims’, ‘wounds’, ‘pain’, ‘sorrow’, ‘victories’, ‘defeats’, etc. LOVE can be a source of insight to a lover, but also a reason for revenge, insecurity, depression, creativity; it can cause a divorce, or the conception of a child. In LOVE is WAR, the slightest similarity between the two domains is that they are engaged in a type of relationship with each other. We could presume that “the target for hurting and killing the enemy” is a characteristic mapped from WAR to LOVE.

In situations of more than two lovers involved in a LOVE affair, we can anticipate a ‘fierce’ fighting for target lover(s) (likened to soldiers in WAR where there will be hurting of feelings happened or even leading to deadly incidents e.g. committed suicide / homicide). Other characteristics that satisfy the requirement for mapping are “becoming victims” (separation / divorce because of the presence of third person in LOVE affair), “being extravagant in terms of lives and resources” (entertain either party’s needs on relationship building or social occasions e.g. spend a 10-day ‘double’ deluxe trip to Europe), “being a source of sadness and sourness” (casualty in war is similar to hurting each other’s feelings in times of relationship row in LOVE affair).

In this fairly plain metaphor, only a few characteristics are mapped in which they are not just isolated, but connected to each other. In the war, soldiers fight against the enemy, is definitely at an extensive human, social, time and physical costs in order to kill or hurt the enemy, therefore making victims. Hence, WAR scenarios can be mapped onto a person who argues with her lover, often creating grief to herself, determining to hurt him, therefore creating unhappiness. As a result, allowing the mapping of characteristics from source to target, there usually exist a fundamental relationship between the elements in the source domain and the target domain.  The fundamental character of the mapping makes metaphors interesting, inspiring and convincing. However, unless the content offers us with information about the characteristics that should be mapped metaphorically, the interpreter of the metaphor must make the decision himself/ herself which characteristics are to be mapped.


In this study, love songs from Madonna and Lady Gaga which can give an account of characteristics of words surrounding themes of LUST, FIRE, and WAR will be selected from their great pools of songs database.  The main focus is to examine and compare these three domains with the domain of LOVE, in detail, in which tables will be constructed in an analytical and organized manner so as to map the elements of LUST, FIRE and WAR to the corresponding elements of LOVE with phrases or sentences of lyrics to be listed against, accordingly.  The use of metaphor will be studied by interpreting the key words in the lyrics making reference to the characteristics in relations to LUST, FIRE and WAR. For example, in LOVE IS LUST, the source flirtation is used to map onto when lovers meet; in LOVE IS FIRE, the source lighting of fire is used to map onto when lovers come together; in LOVE IS WAR, the source soldiers is used to map onto lovers.


Key words like ‘LUST’, ‘FIRE’, ‘WAR’, ‘LOVE’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘lyrics’ are being searched in the process to find data. Searching in this manner, websites such as http://www.lyricsmode.com/ and http://search.azlyrics.com/search.php, which provide some general pop star lyrics, can be found and are very useful for this research field. The words ‘Madonna’ and ‘Lady Gaga’ should be used for further searching in these websites as they contain pop stars with initials starting from the alphabet ‘A’ to ‘Z’. As a result, a lot of Madonna and Lady Gaga’s lyrics can be obtained. As a prerequisite in the selection of lyrics, songs were chosen based on their use of metaphors containing LOVE characterization. Out of the metaphors analyzed, respective source and target domains were compiled, fitting under the frame – LUST, FIRE, WAR and LOVE. Following the example of mapping in LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), the tables below contain the mapping of elements of LUST, FIRE and WAR onto the corresponding elements of LOVE.

Source – LUST

Target – LOVE


When lovers meet

Desire / Arousal

The thoughts of lovers


The attractive force towards lovers


Relationship of lovers

Sexual Act

The act of lovers

Sexual Skill / Performance

The performance of lovers

Source – FIRE

Target – LOVE

Lighting of Fire

When lovers come together

Body Heat

Temperature change when being loved

Increase heart rate

Heart beat rate changes when being loved


Biological change in facial appearance

Interference with accurate perception

Fantasy produced by lovers

Source – WAR

Target – LOVE




People who get involved in love


Get hurt by being loved


Sad feeling of being loved


Sorry for being loved





Results & Analysis

Based on the four love songs (totally eight songs) from Madonna (80s) and Lady Gaga (00s), respectively, relevant lyrics were identified and tabulated as below for careful matching of different expressions of lyrics in the songs towards LOVE by making reference to the source domains LUST, FIRE and WAR.

LUST, FIRE and WAR are conveniently-encountered source domains that can be detected to illustrate the concept LOVE in love songs of Madonna and Lady Gaga. Across the time line, the use of LOVE metaphors in songs of 80s and 00s is considerably different in terms of complexity of lyrics. In 80s, Madonna shows more direct expressions in the illustration of LUST, FIRE and WAR metaphors while Lady Gaga euphemistically expresses the three items of metaphors and has other presentation metaphors in singing out the LOVE concept.

In addition, based on the data available as in the tables above, however, it is found that emphasis was put in using LOVE IS LUST as theme while LOVE IS WAR and LOVE IS FIRE themes were hardly detected although they were commonly found in lyrics of many other songs outside this study.


As for the more complicated metaphorical structure of Lady Gaga’s lyrics (00s) when compared with that of Madonna’s (80s), complexity of our society and increase in the mentality of people can be used to explain the above described finding. Owing to the fast and convenient dissemination of information by mass media and internet, people can know everyday news easily and being enlightened by the intelligence of other people through the communication of words and exchange of information including video clips or other audiovisual documents.

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Based on the aforementioned advantages, together with globalization, our society has become more complicated than ever before with much smarter people around. Under these conditions, lovers would not pursue simple love affair as in the past in which direct and clear messages are sent within themselves; or are looking for some complicated relationships like creating love triangle with no concrete or even aimless reasons of being together. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are believed to be exploited to serve the said purpose. Therefore, there are good reasons to explain that lyrics of Lady Gaga love songs (00s) are found more complicated and subtle than that of Madonna in 80s, with various LOVE metaphors for illustration of lovers’ complicated and inconceivable relationships as well as their inner feelings.

At the same time, we can observe that LOVE IS LUST metaphor appears more frequently than LOVE IS FIRE and LOVE IS WAR metaphors. In the American culture, it is commonly seen in using LUST metaphor that refers to sexual acts, such as kissing and sexual intercourse. Some sexually-based acts are involved in all stages of the prototypical scenarios. Although this is not the thing that Americans can merely do within a relationship, due to the openness in the culture, they can express their feelings in words or by actions without restrictions or reservations. Moreover, touch, taste and visual senses are used more than other senses in American lyrics. Obscene words or other sexually offensive words in love songs are often used to mention the physical touch of the opposite sex, which occur in their living places with their strong desire for action. Nonetheless, they use vivid & visual type of lyrics liberally in describing their focused sexual areas of the body like breasts and other sex organs. Therefore, the connection lies between LUST metaphor and visual metaphors.

We can see that not all the words and expressions associated with the element of source domain FIRE that can be technically applied to understandably and agreeably metaphorical expressions relevant to the corresponding elements of the target domain LOVE. In the identification of linguistic encoding of the metaphor, the possible restriction of the use of LOVE IS FIRE is explained by the fact that only passion, semantic properties of the relevant lexicon and co-text of the relevant lexicon can be inherited from the domain of FIRE. The loved ones mindlessly create passion of the lovers by indirectly acting on them. Under this limited application, the use of arsonist and transitive verbs, for example, set fire to, burn, heat, and lighter are ruled out as items for metaphorical expressions since they have the meaning of deliberate, unmediated actions carried out on the lover purposely by the loved one, being understood as an agent.

Even though it is less possible, we can also predict the expressions represent intentional passion creation (e.g. set on fire vs set fire to) or action on the lover indirectly (i.e. action on bodies indirectly related to the lover, e.g. desire, heart) or action by an body in relation to the loved one directly (e.g. behavior). A few examples for illustration: he sets my heart on fire, her behavior fuels my desire for her, and he rekindles our relationship. In these cases, the loved one’s effect on the person in love is not totally under her/his control because the experience of passion is determined by lover’s passion threshold. Furthermore, FIRE is uncontrollable which needs water or sand to put off and sometimes causes disastrous results when firemen fail to come immediately.

Yet, LOVE is a weaker term of emotion, when compared with FIRE, which can be controlled by suppression of feelings if there are some unfavorable conditions appear (e.g. unable to meet the requirement of either one or both of the lovers) or even fade away after some time. Therefore, they are actually very different in nature in which it is difficult to map the element of FIRE metaphors onto that of LOVE metaphors correspondingly. This explains the fact that a few LOVE IS FIRE metaphors are used because of the limitation of the application to FIRE to LOVE.

In our everyday life, LOVE often lead to happy ending, for instance, marriage or creation of next generation. And the use of LOVE IS WAR contains some constraints as they are overused in tragedies when compared to the comedies. In addition, it lacks semantic fields directly related to LOVE (e.g. intimacy/sexual relationships, liking), and there are some characteristics of WAR, such as warfare, lack of living things, place names and massacre that seem to have nothing to relate with love. For instance, some of the items within warfare, defence, and the army successfully reflect the LOVE IS WAR metaphor (Sánchez, 1995). However, some terms in the WAR field are underused in LOVE and, of course, instead of capturing other aspects of the tragedy, the frequent use of elements such as soldier, sword, war, wars, army, battle, armour and navy are easily encountered. With a military history, a few cases of military folk are mentioned.

Last but not least, it is worth to mention that when describing love, even in the tragic story of William Shakespeare, very few WAR related elements can be obtained from Romeo and Juliet, with an exception of the use of swords by having 50% of the occurrences in Romeo and Juliet (in the fight between Benvolio and Tybalt), and also the frequent appearance of the word dagger (in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, and Juliet’s suicide with Romeo’s dagger). This shows that even in the tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, the elements of LOVE IS WAR metaphor can hardly applied, not to say the comedies of many stories mentioned in the lyrics which were sung by Madonna and Lady Gaga.


From the study, it was found that relatively more lyrics are identified as LOVE IS LUST metaphor in love songs of both Madonna (80s) and Lady Gaga (00s) when compared to the frequency of occurrence of LOVE IS FIRE and LOVE IS WAR metaphors. It is interesting to note that lyrics of Lady Gaga’s love songs (00s) are more complicated and implicit than that of Madonna (80s). Owing to the small sample size involved in this study, the said findings can be said to be inconclusive where a larger sample size is warranted in future studies.


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