Containers as metaphors

Daniel Brint Language Leave a Comment

Adele Goldberg has observed that metaphors of containers can suggest obligations and agreements. Here are some examples that fit her description.

– Can you get out of doing the shopping? (Avoid an obligation/something you said you would do)
– I can’t get out of it/there’s no way out.
– I felt I was trapped into going to the dinner. (I was obliged to)
– Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? (What you are agreeing to)
– I think they can be coaxed into paying more. (Persuaded to agree)

Clearly, the expressions used here create the idea of a receptacle acting as a defined area of movement resulting in a limit to flexibility or alternatives. This is why most of these expressions suggest a negative connotation of being controlled or trapped.

In fact, the implications of figurative containers as expressions and metaphors go much further than obligations and agreements. The idea of a container, rather than just a difficult location, lends itself to various images of physical states such as compression, detonation and rupture. Someone ‘in a tight corner’ or with ‘their back up against the wall’ is looking at ways out, but being ‘filled with rage’ or ‘bottled up’ implies potential consequences.

If one ‘keeps things bottled up,’ there is likely to be an emotional price to pay, probably in the form of an upsetting incident. The ‘bottle’ is particularly vivid – anyone who has opened a shaken bottle of fizzy water or coke will be aware of the physics involved. In drama series a ‘bottle episode’ is one where the characters are forced to spend an extended period of time in an enclosed space and thus forms an opportunity for confrontation or confession. An episode of Damages places the two main protagonists in a small airport departure lounge when their plane is delayed due to bad weather. In post-modernist satirical Community, a character joyously declares ‘bottle episode!’ when a group of people are locked inside a college.

Things escaping their container are a threat or danger. In situations of political scandal and rumour we hear that those concerned are ‘trying to keep a lid on the situation.’ Here we have moved from a bottle to a tin or can, evoking the idioms ‘a can of worms’ perhaps.

The administration desperately wants to keep a lid on the situation as they know this can of worms could bring down the president.

Unsurprisingly, the concept of ‘leaks’ has come to describe information escaping a supposedly secure location. ‘Letting the genie out of the bottle,’ is a further way of describing something which has resisted containment, usually with negative consequences.

Not all container metaphors are necessarily negative, however. Consider the following:

We had a wonderful weekend in London and managed to pack in so many visits! (Do a lot of things)

The museum was crammed full of fascinating exhibits. (Contained a lot)

I’m really busy on Monday but I can probably squeeze you in at 11. (Find time)

Please add any other examples of containers as metaphors you come across to the comments section below.

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