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Understanding Metaphors for the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mitchell McKee

English Language & Linguistics


Year of study:


The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most cataclysmic events of the 21st century. From a linguistics perspective, one area of research has been examining the metaphors used to discuss aspects of the pandemic. This is because studies have shown that metaphors, especially those used by politicians, can influence how people understand and feel about issues which can then affect their behaviour. With a focus on UK politicians, I extracted the metaphors from a sample of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon’s daily press conferences between March and October 2020. The results suggest that both speakers understand the pandemic primarily as a ‘journey’ which society is on ‘towards normality’. Disrupting this journey, however, is the COVID-19 virus which is described as a powerful agent: it can ‘impact’ society and we need to ‘struggle’ against it. However, a key difference between the speakers is in their use of violence metaphors: Johnson wants to ‘fight’ it, where Sturgeon ‘defends’ against it. What are the potential effects of these metaphors on the public? I will show that this answer is complex as they potentially have political, social and psychological implications. To do this, I will extract the metaphors used in a sample of their daily press conferences between March and October 2020 using a robust metaphor identification technique. Results suggest that the speakers discuss aspects of the pandemic, such as the virus, how it spreads and its infection rates, differently. The implications of these results are significant as the different metaphors used by these politicians reveal different understandings of the pandemic, which could have influenced the public’s reasoning and behaviour during the crisis. This data can be used in future research on the rhetoric used during the crisis across different countries and speakers.

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