Let’s take an optimistic phrase like “raise standards”. If we were to attempt this wildly optimistic task, then fail, we might be “down in the dumps”. While I go get myself a beer, you take a minute and consider what these phrases have in common—hint, it’s two things. If you figure it out before I get back, you can have some of my beer. A little.
I don’t hear any volunteers, unless you’re pounding on your computer screen yelling, “I got it! Gimme a sip!” So let’s add a few more phrases: walking on air, lower expectations, climb the ladder of success, come up in the world, the computer system is down.
Every one of those phrases indicates two things—direction (call it up or down) and an emotional assessment (call it good or bad). More simply, up is good, down is bad. Look at them again and consider it.
With a little effort, we can think of more phrases like this, and I want to make the argument, without overloading this blog entry, that this phenomenon is not just in English, so a few quick examples.
French: They want to raise standards in schools. Ils veulent élever le niveau dans les écoles [élever—to raise].
Russian: raising standards—повышение стандартов [повышение—raising].
Spanish: raise standards—levantar estándares (or elevar los niveles) [levantar, elevar—to raise]
We see this phenomenon show up in language, which is how we express our understanding of the world, but the understanding itself lies deep within the brain, so deep, in fact, that only a very smart person could have realized that we do this. That person was not me. Although I have now given great thought to this idea, I took this example from the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
A metapor is not just something that English teachers use to beat students up with. Hell, I can think of plenty of other reasons to beat students up. Although a metaphor looks like a way of using language, it’s actually part of the way our mind tries to make sense of the world. When we encounter things that are unfamiliar (and starting from birth, that’s a mighty damn lot of stuff), the mind looks for what we already know, and tries to compare. Is this weird new thing at least similar to something I already know, so that I don’t feel so lost and freaked out?
A metaphor is a comparison of two things. You can tell when you’re dealing with a metaphor by asking whether the word or phrase in question is literally, physically true. Is it something I could see with my eyes? Going back to the phrase “raise standards”—am I holding the standards in my hand and lifting them above the floor? No. The phrase is just a metaphor, and up is good.
Why is it true that up is good and down is bad? What I’m going to say here is not based on what smart people have said, but only what I say. Start with the idea that every human being carries this metaphor in their subconscious. If that’s true (and it is), then the answer is probably not based on culture, since there are so many different cultures.
Nevertheless, some interesting possible answers arise before we consider that the answers depend on culture. Mount Olympus, for instance. It’s up high, and the gods live there. Or Heaven is above us and Hell is below. But do you really think Heaven is physically above us? Have our rockets just not flown far enough yet to bump into it? Some other possible answers: kings sit on thrones, rich people live in penthouses. But these are all cultural answers.
Consider instead, if it’s true that every human being carries this metaphor in their subconscious, what do all human beings have in common? We all breathe air, we all eat food, we’re all born, we all have a physical body that exists in the world and is affected by gravity…
Now add in what we have in common that relates to up and down.
able to run—helpless
And of course some smartass will always say “I like sleeping”, but what if you were simply asked “which of these two columns would you say is good, and which is bad?” Up is good, down is bad. By the age of two we’ve experienced enough to already know this. Thus it shows up in our language. Now you can add your own phrase to that list I have up above. In fact, you might do it as a comment, so that other people can see it.
[By the way, up above I used the phrase “understanding itself lies deep within the brain”, in which “lies” and “deep” are both metaphors. We can’t say they are physically true.]