MED Magazine - Issue 16 - February 2004

What we talk about when we talk about success and failure
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on metaphor


A dictionary is far more than just a list of words in the language with their definitions and details of their accompanying grammatical behaviour. It is a vast repository of information about the culture and attitudes in the countries where that language is spoken. It is a snapshot of the way we see things and feel about things, of the images and metaphors which we use, consciously or unconsciously, when we talk about any subject in our lives. Examining and understanding, en masse, the body of vocabulary and phrases which relates to any given subject is a useful way to discover the ideas and attitudes embedded in the words we use. It is also an interesting and efficient way to expand and enrich one's vocabulary.

Unlike idioms, which generally allow very little freedom for variation or invention, metaphors can be adapted, built upon and played with, so long as the central idea remains intact. Once we have grasped the core ideas relating to a topic in English, we can start to use these to create our own metaphors using synonyms to make our language more fluent, inventive, poetic, or even amusing. These novel uses may even catch on and find their way into future editions of the dictionary.

This month we look at success and failure. What do we talk about when we talk about success and failure?

Success is big; failure is small

When somebody succeeds, we say that they make it big, hit the big time. They are said to have grown. The successful person is called a big beast, a giant, a titan, and they or their success are described as big, bumper, huge, or towering. Meanwhile, when somebody fails or is not particularly successful, they are described as small-time, small fry or small beer. They are dwarfed by the competition.

The success is big and failure is small metaphor can be seen as a sub-metaphor of an overarching good is big and bad is small metaphor that pervades our language. It has parallels in other sub-metaphors such as important is big and unimportant is small. If you are important, you are a big cheese, or a big fish in a small pond. But something that is of little or no significance is described as petty, which comes from the Old French word peti, meaning 'small'. If somebody or something is made to seem less important, it is diminished or belittled — metaphorically, made small.

The success is big and failure is small metaphor is good news for the small in stature. Like Napoleon Bonaparte, a person can be physically small but metaphorically big.

Success is high; failure is low

This metaphor is similar to the metaphor health is up; illness is down discussed in last month's issue. It seems that our view of the successful is that they inhabit a higher plane than the unsuccessful. One of the central images of achievement is the ladder. Where we are seen to be on that ladder is the level of success we have achieved. The top of the ladder is the ultimate success; the bottom rung is for those just starting out or for those who have failed. The image of climbing is central to our view of human pursuits. This is clear from the expressions we use to describe those who are metaphorically 'on the way up' and those who are 'on the way down':

on the way up: upwardly mobile; go up in the world; at the top of the heap; up-and-coming; high-flying; riding high

on the way down: downwardly mobile; go/come down in the world; at the bottom of the heap; go under; on a downer

The first two expressions in each of the two lists above illustrate the highly inventive and self-proliferating nature of metaphorical language — existing metaphors give rise to new metaphors all the time. The expression upwardly mobile led to somebody coining the new expression downwardly mobile, which is generally used humorously in recognition of its punning origins. In the same way, go up in the world was sure to lead to go down in the world to express its opposite. How long will it be before people start referring, humorously, to people they consider failures as down-and-going or low-flying?

Success is moving forward; failure is static or stumbling

We seem to view our undertakings as taking place on two different trajectories: vertically, from top to bottom, as with the ladder; and horizontally, forwards and backwards. Here are some of the words and expressions reflecting this view that can be found in the dictionary:

moving forward: get ahead; coast/cruise/storm/waltz; gain ground; gather momentum; get somewhere; go far; lead the way; ahead (of the game); leading; going places; going strong; on track; pacesetter

static or stumbling: fall behind; lag; founder; stall; lead/go/get nowhere; languish; fall at the first/final hurdle; go down the pan/plughole/tubes; fall flat on your face; come a cropper; on a hiding to nothing; riding for a fall; faltering; shaky; off track; non-starter; lame duck; also-ran

Crashing is also a very common metaphor for failing. When we fail we crash; crash and burn; hit the buffers; go down like a lead balloon; nosedive. These verbs contrast well with the moving forward metaphors for success we have already seen.

Success is swimming; failure is drowning

A similar metaphor used to describe a person's financial situation was discussed in a previous article on money, where we saw the debtor struggling to keep their head above water and being described as in over their head or deep in debt.

The clear opposition in the success is swimming; failure is drowning metaphor is best reflected in an expression which is defined in the dictionary as 'to be left on your own to succeed or fail, without any help': sink or swim.

Here are some examples of this metaphor in English:

swim: on the crest of a wave; home and dry; swimmingly; buoyant

sink: washed-up; dead in the water; tread water; sunk

Like the person in debt, the person who is not succeeding is unable to swim.

Success is life; failure is death and decay

Our actions and undertakings are often described using the language we use to talk about plants, in particular, and living things in general:

life: bear fruit; bloom; blossom; flower; budding; healthy

death and decay: wither on the vine; die a death; disintegrate; give up the ghost; living on borrowed time; sickly/ailing

One of the most common expressions for something that fails is bite the dust, which is defined in the dictionary as 'to fail, die or stop existing', underlining the fact that failing and dying are very strongly linked in our vocabulary.

The legend of Icarus and Daedalus is perhaps the best illustration of the strength and longevity of these metaphors for success and failure. This father and son team made themselves wings of feathers and wax so that they could fly, but Icarus was such a high-flyer that he got too close to the sun and melted his wings. As a result, he nosedived into the sea and ended up dead in the water.

The metaphors and expressions listed above are all taken from the Macmillan English Dictionary and are not intended as a comprehensive list. We would be pleased to hear from any reader who can suggest any other success and failure metaphors in English which are not covered here.

Further reading

The Language of Metaphors, Andrew Goatly (Routledge, 1997)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff and M. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Next in the series

Next month, we will take a look at what we talk about when we talk about words and language.

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