Publication details [#4825]

Publication type
Article in book  
Publication language
Place, Publisher
Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


Despite the rapid growth of figurative language research, most studies have focused on its comprehension. Although there have been numerous single case or small sample studies of figurative speech in therapeutic contexts (e.g., Karp, 1996; McMullen & Conway, 1996; Pollio & Barlow, 1975) and in preplanned language in speeches and literary works (e.g., Kreuz, Roberts, Johnson, & Bertus, 1996; Williams-Whitney, Mio, & Whitney, 1992), there have been relatively few rigorous studies of figurative language in everyday conversation. Consequently, as Roberts and Kreuz (1994) observe, there is little understanding of when and why speakers use figures of speech such as idioms, metaphors, and irony in a particular context. In this chapter we explore the production of figurative language as it occurs in the communication of emotional states. We chose the domain of affective communication because the subjective nature of emotional experiences appears to lend itself to figurative expression. As Asch (1958) observed quite some time ago, there is apparently no aspect of nature that does not serve to express psychological realities. Conversely, there are, it seems, hardly any psychological terms sui generis, denoting psychological operations exclusively." (Asch, 1958, p. 87) A casual examination of everyday conversation suggests that English is rife with idioms (e.g., hot under the collar, hit the roof), similes (e.g., mad as a wet hen), metaphor (e.g., down, blue), and other figurative expressions for emotions. The prevalence of these expressions in the conventionalized affective lexicon has been documented by several investigators (e.g., Bush, 1973; Clore, Ortony, & Foss, 1987; Davitz, 1969; Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1989; Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988; Ortony, Clore, & Foss, 1987; Roberts & Wedell, 1994). Studies of language use in psychotherapy likewise are replete with examples of figurative expressions, particularly metaphor (e.g., Davitz, 1969; Davitz & Mattis, 1964; Karp, 1996; McMullen & Conway, 1996; Pollio & Barlow, 1975; Siegelman, 1990). In the remainder of this paper we first briefly reviewing prior research on speakers' and writers' use of figurative language in descriptions of autobiographical emotional experiences in laboratory studies and in therapeutic contexts. We then describe some limitations to our understanding of figurative language use, limitations that stem from using research paradigms in which each participant describes a different, personal, affective experience. Next, we describe a research methodology we have developed that uses objective stimuli - characters' experiences in brief film clips - as the emotional experiences to be expressed and review some of the issues we have been examining using this methodology. We conclude with some observations about areas for future investigation. (Susan Fussell and Mallie Moss)