The "Love is Fire" Metaphor in Selected Popular Music. Lakoff and Johnson’s Understanding of a Conceptual Metaphor in "Metaphors We Live By" (1980)

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2020

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background

3. Material and Methods

4. Analysis and Results
4.1 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as a feeling of comfort
4.2 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as falling in love
4.3 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as a measurement of intensity
4.4 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as falling out of love
4.5 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as a feeling of discomfort

5. Discussion
5.1 Meaning-Making of the Metaphor +LOVE IS FIRE+
5.2 The +LOVE IS FIRE+ Metaphor in Numbers
5.3 Reflection

6. Conclusion

7. Appendix

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Its presence makes us feel warm, its absence makes us freeze from within: The rather abstract notion of what love is can be conceptualized in many different, yet oftentimes sensorily tangible ways. Lakoff and Johnson already proposed in their groundbreaking work Metaphors We Live By (1980) how highly abstract concepts such as LOVE can become graspable through conceptual metaphors and their mapping between target and source domains. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) quite vividly illustrate how extensive and oftentimes subconsciously established the use of conceptual metaphors appear in everyday language, especially when it comes to everyday mundane topics like the omnipresent concept of LOVE. In the tradition of the post-Lakoff-and-Johnsonian wave of linguistic studies on mundane conceptual metaphors (like ARGUMENT and TIME) this paper reworks the metaphorical concept of LOVE as a sensorily tangible sensation, best pronounced by the formula +LOVE IS FIRE+ via analyzing popular love song lyrics which draw comparisons between the inexplicable sensation of love and the actual bodily sensation of heat, which both seem interconnected within the Anglophone music culture of at least the past 50 years. The paper at hand is meant to contribute to Lakoff and Johnson’s stance on how mundane, yet abstract domains are understood in terms of another more concretely realized concept. With the analysis of a distinct corpus of popular love songs from the 1960ies until today, the manifold interpretations and utilizations of the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor will be investigated. To outline the extent of the scientific contribution and of the present paper itself, the following bullet points give a description of the major aims of my research:

i. Explaining the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor and proving its cognitive comprehensibility in Lakoff and Johnson’s understanding of a conceptual metaphor.
ii. Providing evidence of the significance of the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor by naming and analyzing love metaphors in a selected corpus of popular love songs from the 1960ies up until now, proving its conventionality and its wide spectrum of meaning.

To build a first foundation of theoretical knowledge this paper starts off with background information on Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) fundamental work on the cognitive linguistic analysis of conceptual metaphors and Schmid and Ungerer’s (2006) crucial additions to the phenomenon of mapping between domains. To make the findings at hand more transparent, the used material, namely a pre­existing playlist of popular love songs, and the utilized methods are introduced and explained to an adequate extent. Subsequently, the selected material will be analyzed and the results are then thoroughly and critically discussed. Why the +LOVE IS FIRE+ formula proves itself to be not only highly comprehensible but also highly productive within Anglophone music culture will be determined in the following chapters.

2. Theoretical Background

The concept of metaphors has its basis in talking and to a significant extent in thinking about one concept in terms of another (Semino, 2008: 1). A metaphor, therefore, occurs as soon as a concept is understood via the transfer of another semantic field to talk and think about a phenomenon (Montgomery, 2007: 118). Metaphors make subjective and complex experiences more comprehensible in that they make use of simpler and more relatable experiences, that share a certain similarity and are therefore easier to grasp. The so-called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) organizes metaphors as reflections of conceptual systems we make use of to establish sense primarily in our language-based surroundings (Lakoff Johnson, 1980: 3 f.). Conceptual metaphors, therefore, map certain corresponding aspects between target (abstract concept) and source domain (concrete concept) and constituent elements of the source are brought together with constituent elements of the target (Kövecses, 2010: 4). The understanding of highly complex things is therefore put in analogy with an easier concept (Goatly, 2007: 14 f.). The motivation behind the study of conceptual metaphors according to CMT is the fact that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 3). According to the works of Lakoff and Johnson (1980), as well as Kövecses (2002), there are three kinds of conceptual metaphors:

1. The structural metaphor, where one concept is structurally understood in terms of another. Structural metaphors are highly common and productive, i.e. ‘She attacked me‘, as an expression for the +ARGUMENT IS WAR+ formula.
2. The orientational metaphor, where immaterial concepts are organized via physical orientation (oftentimes bound to binary ideas like up, down, high, low, front, back), i.e. ‘Feeling down‘ as an expression for SADNESS.
3. The ontological metaphor, which treats abstract concepts as concretely reasonable, categorizable and measurable objects, i.e. containers as in ‘How did you get into this situation?‘.

For metaphors to be understandable, the knowledge about certain mapping scopes must be well-entrenched in everyday life and accordingly in the minds of the members of a certain culture (Ungerer, Schmid, 2006: 120). The mapping scope can consist of image schema (grounded in bodily experiences), basic correlations (understanding events universally) or through culture-dependent evaluation (restricted cultural knowledge) (Ungerer, Schmid, 2006, 120). With conceptual metaphors as an embodiment of conceptual organization, Lakoff and Johnson establish the following cross-domain mapping according to another popular formula: +LOVE IS A JOURNEY+. The following italicized examples are directly taken from Lakoff and Johnson 1980:

Example 1: ‘I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere.‘ Example 2: ‘This relationship is a dead-end street.‘ Example 3: ‘This relationship is foundering.‘

Kövecses (2002: 6) provides the exact conceptual mappings to make the above phrases universally comprehensible:

Fig.1: Cross-domain mapping of +LOVE IS A JOURNEY+ +LOVE IS A JOURNEY+

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source Domain: JOURNEY Target Domain: LOVE

This exemplary mapping does not only explain examples 1-3, it also proves Grady’s notion of asymmetrical direction within metaphors (2007, 191) and Schmid and Ungerer’s (2006) statements on well-entrenched knowledge to fully grasp metaphorical meaning: Love can most definitely be perceived as a journey, yet journeys are not comparable to love and without well-entrenched knowledge about both spheres the metaphor would not be decipherable at all.

Kövecses (2004, 184) also argued for a model on body-based social constructionism, which states that some abstract emotional concepts like LOVE or ANGER have a universal bodily basis, even though cultural differences shape our perception of reality and our conceptual systems significantly. Kövecses illustrated this idea by using the +ANGRY PERSON IS PRESSURIZED CONTAINER+ metaphor. Both pressure of body and pressure of context can be comprehensively combined in a conceptual metaphor because of their primarily bodily motivation that is not dependent on cultural understanding (Kövecses, 2019: 40). The +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor might find its relatable basis in the very same concept of culturally independent bodily sensations that can be mapped from source to target.

All in all the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor functions within the realms of the CMT as a structural metaphor, which conceptualizes inherent well-entrenched knowledge of image schema (grounded in bodily experience of i.e. sensation of warmth when near beloved person) and can best be explained via asymmetrical cross-domain mapping (Lakoff Johnson 1980, Schmid Ungerer 2006, Grady 2007). The established formula can, therefore, be mapped in the following way:

Fig. 2: Cross-domain mapping of +LOVE IS FIRE+ +LOVE IS FIRE+

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source Domain: FIRE Target Domain: LOVE

With FIRE as the source domain, the abstract concept of LOVE becomes more graspable in that the ignited or extinguished fire is also the act of falling in or out of love, while the state of burning can be considered the state of being in love (feeling warm, yet being exposed to something dangerous and potentially painful). The analogy at hand is solely based on a spontaneous, yet logical meaning-making attempt and its reliability is yet to be proved. Still, this cross-domain mapping explains popular expressions like:

Example 4: ‘I am burning for you‘, as the state of being in love.

Example 5: ‘I got my fingers burned on you‘, with the finger as another metaphor and the aspect of burning as the potential danger and painfulness which comes with romances.

Example 6: ‘You set me on fire ‘, as the bodily sensation of warmth when encountering the beloved person.

The structural metaphor of +LOVE IS FIRE+ will be henceforth analyzed in greater detail and by reference to explicit examples in a distinct corpus of love songs. The extracted metaphorical occurrences will then be compared to the very same intuitive cross-domain mapping, to verify whether its analogy is universally understood and to explain the metaphor itself sufficiently.

3. Material and Methods

The study at hand aims for the analysis of metaphors in Anglophone love songs which motivate the formula +LOVE IS FIRE+ as a recurring conceptual metaphor. To eliminate culture-specific LOVE metaphors that do not add up to the stated formula, I decided to use a pre-existing corpus solely based on English-speaking artists, which therefore reflect mostly the Western notions of love. My research will be based on a song compilation supplied by, titled ‘Best Lovesongs‘, which entails not necessarily the most successful, but much rather the most memorable lovesongs of the past 50+ years. This thesis, therefore, draws from what is considered a memorable love song in the popular opinion. The pre­existing playlist consists of 50 tracks (effective February 2020), while the individual song lyrics provided by the public web page carried together in a corpus of love songs function as my primary data. To narrow the corpus down for individual metaphor analysis it is then crucial to sample relevant manifestations of the +LOVE IS FIRE+ formula. To find all metaphors related to similar concepts like FIRE, the corpus is then analyzed via basic search tools and the occurrences of the word love in connection to items like heat, light, burn, flame, warm or cold are then analyzed on whether the underlying formula is consistent with +LOVE IS FIRE+. Phrases and formulas with similar structures and comparable meaning are subsequently put together as part of the category FIRE. With explicit examples taken from the corpus and the then acquired formula of the conceptual metaphor possible understandings and thought patterns within the realms of love songs are then discussed. To eliminate the chance of a subjective interpretation of the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor, a quantitative survey with 125 participants is then carried out and its outcome is supposed to give information on whether the metaphor +LOVE IS FIRE+ expressed as the explicit metaphor ‘Love is a fire‘ is generally understood in positive, negative or neutral terms. The major aim is to prove that the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor is productive, omnipresent and not necessarily bound to only one way of interpretation in terms of its positive, negative or neutral connotation.

4. Analysis and Results

The mapping between source (FIRE) and target domain (LOVE), as elaborated in figure two, is mainly based on the inherent culturally independent features of the concept of FIRE. Fire emits warmth and light and stands symbolically for life itself. Its connotation is first and foremost positive in that it is a crucial instrument for human purposes of survival. Fire and any other source of heat and light function as protective shields against the dangers lurking in the darkness, while guarding human beings from the cold. As Leskelä states, fire also serves navigational purposes, appearing either as a bonfire or as the flaming surface of stars (2018, 52). On another note, the formerly positive connotation can turn into a rather negative perception of the concept of fire once it got out of control. Fire is a powerful substance that can potentially hurt or even kill whoever gets too close to its source. The range of meaning of fire is therefore quite ambivalent which is reflected in the following excerpts of +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphors taken from the condensed corpus of lovesongs.

4.1 +LOVE IS FIRE+ as a feeling of comfort

The most natural interpretation of the +LOVE IS FIRE+ metaphor is based on positive features associated with both LOVE and FIRE. With FIRE as a symbol of survival, safety, and comfort, the metaphorical usage can reflect the very same associations of something that ensures human well-being. The pleasant bodily sensation of warmth after a period of coldness, which presumably must be universally and culturally independently entrenched functions as the basis of the following excerpts:

Table 1: Feeling of comfort expressed in song lyrics

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Both M.1 and M.2 describe a change in the bodily state via the sudden occurrence of love induced warmth. M.1 plays with the notion of reviving something that used to be snap-frozen and beyond it being a source of warmth it evokes feelings of empowerment (‘Make me strong/ bold‘), which alludes to the human discovery of fire, hence the title which then translates to ‘experiencing something for the first time‘. M.2 evokes the formula of +LOVE IS THE SUN+ with sunrays or the light emitted by fire warming and protecting the receiver of love. M.3 poses a different change in sensory perception. After a period of darkness (+NO LOVE IS DARKNESS+) the FIRE of the newly acquired LOVE is now the light that illuminates the morning sky. The conceptual metaphor of +LOVE IS FIRE+ attributes warmth, light, protection, and overall hope onto the target domain LOVE. The stated positive changes of bodily sensations are well-entrenched all throughout every culture since they embody basic needs of human corporeality: Light and warmth as life-preserving instruments.


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The "Love is Fire" Metaphor in Selected Popular Music. Lakoff and Johnson’s Understanding of a Conceptual Metaphor in "Metaphors We Live By" (1980)
LMU Munich
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ISBN (Book)
Love, Fire, Metaphors, Metaphors We Live By
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Isabell Rieth (Author), 2020, The "Love is Fire" Metaphor in Selected Popular Music. Lakoff and Johnson’s Understanding of a Conceptual Metaphor in "Metaphors We Live By" (1980), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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