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Addressing representativeness through case studies

The representativeness of the metaphors of death, disease, and sex in a TV series corpus

Adeline Terry


Cet article propose une étude des métaphores des sujets tabous de la mort, de la maladie et du sexe dans un corpus constitué des deux premières saisons de cinq séries télévisées américaines (Six Feet Under, House, M.D., Grey’s Anatomy, Sex and the City, How I Met you Mother). La question sous-jacente à cette étude était la suivante: les métaphores dans les séries télévisées sont-elles représentatives de celles qui sont trouvées dans la conversation naturelle? La première partie de l’article expose le cadre théorique pour l’étude de la métaphore (Conceptual Metaphor Theory) et la méthodologie utilisée pour la collecte des données (MIP, Pragglejaz group). Les résultats obtenus sont brièvement exposés dans la seconde partie: 393 occurrences métaphoriques ont été relevées (122 métaphores pour death, 127 métaphores pour sex, 144 métaphores pour disease). Ces occurrences ont été classées en fonction de leur domaine source. Dans une troisième partie, ces résultats ont été comparés à ceux obtenus dans d’autres études sur la métaphore dans des corpus non fictionnels (Semino et al. 2017 pour les métaphores du domaine disease, Crespo Fernández 2017 pour les métaphores du domaine sex, et Bultinck 1998 pour les métaphores du domaine death). L’objectif principal était de déterminer si les domaines sources utilisés étaient similaires dans la conversation naturelle et dans le dialogue des séries télévisées. L’étude se conclut sur les différences entre les métaphores dans ces différents types de discours, et notamment les différences de fonctions.

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1. Introduction

1In the past decade, a significant number of scholars have become interested in studying TV series, which is not surprising given the proliferation of TV series, particularly in the United States. These programmes are watched by a large public worldwide and present an interest in various fields, from sociology to linguistics. Some linguists (Quaglio 2009, 2016; Richardson 2010; Beers Fägersten 2016) have become interested in the study of TV dialogue and compared it to naturally occurring conversation. These studies raised several questions, among which are the following: is TV series dialogue representative of naturally occurring speech? Is it possible to bring out some common characteristics? How different are they? Many answers were provided but no study has focused on metaphor so far. Therefore, the present study aims to compare the metaphors of sex, disease, and death in five American TV series (How I Met your Mother, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy, House M.D.) to the metaphors of sex, death, and disease in naturally occurring conversation. Allan and Burridge (2006: 1) define taboo as “a proscription of behaviour that affects everyday life”. “Behaviour” here designates social behavior as well as linguistic behavior. Taboo topics were chosen in this study because they lead to the creation of numerous X-phemisms (Allan and Burridge 1991, 2006). “X‑phemism” is a superordinate term that designates all the means used by speakers to mention taboo topics (going from euphemisms to dysphemisms, which are the opposite of euphemisms, that is to say expressions that are deliberately offensive and that are used to offend the co-speaker). Metaphor seems to be the most productive means of lexical or semantic creation, especially when it comes to X-phemisms. It allows the speaker to conceptualize a taboo domain by means of a domain that is less taboo, and therefore it allows the speaker to hide the most offensive characteristics of the taboo domain. Studying the metaphors used to mention taboo topics therefore ensures a significant number of metaphorical occurrences. It will be argued that although there are some similarities between the metaphors of sex, death, and disease in naturally occurring conversation and in TV series, notably in terms of types of source domains, the metaphors used to mention taboo topics in TV series are not representative of those of naturally occurring conversation. The comparison of the source domains used to conceptualize taboo domains in naturally occurring conversation and in TV series will allow for a more general reflection on taboo metaphors in fictional discourse.

2The first part will expose the theoretical framework and methodology. The results will briefly be given in the second part: the metaphorical occurrences of the TV series corpus will be classified according to their target domains and source domains. In the third part, the results will be compared to the results of studies on metaphors in naturally occurring conversation: more specifically, the types of source domains will be compared (as well as the proportion of metaphorical occurrences for each source domain). Other features such as the linguistic form of metaphorical occurrences will be analysed as well. Finally, the last part will focus on the different functions of metaphors in TV series, as they will be useful to account for the differences between metaphors in TV series and metaphors in naturally occurring conversation.

2. Theoretical framework and methodology

2.1. Metaphors and taboo topics

3The theoretical framework used in this study is the Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), which was first developed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and later by many linguists (such as Kövecses 2002, 2008; Sweetser 1990; Steen and Gibbs 1997; Barcelona 2000; Ortony 1993; Giora 1997 and Gibbs 1994, to name a few). According to this theory, metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thoughts and actions, and it helps us understand and experience one thing in terms of another (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3-5). Metaphorical expressions are “reflections of systematic metaphorical concepts that structure our actions and thoughts” (1980: 55). Source domains (the domain used to conceptualize the taboo domain) and target domains (taboo domains) will be written in small capital letters, as well as the conceptual metaphors (target domain is source domain) from which metaphorical expressions derive.

  • 1 Only the source domains of death, disease, and sex were selected because all three of them are link (...)

4The study of the source domains used to conceptualize taboo domains1 in naturally occurring conversation is indicative of our relationship towards taboo topics. For example, the systematic conceptualization of sex in terms of war or violence shows that the concept of male domination is deeply anchored in our minds and language. The study of disease metaphors can show how an individual thinks about their relationship to their disease: some patients use war metaphors a lot because they think of the disease as an enemy that has to be overcome, while others reject it and find it too harsh (Sontag 1979). The study of the metaphors of death shows that we conceptualize death as an absence of life or a second life because we do not know what happens after death – aside from the physiological effects of death, which are hidden because the role of most death metaphors is a euphemistic one (Bultinck 1998). Source domains show how we think in a given culture; the source domains used to conceptualize taboo target domains are therefore representative of a society’s or an individual’s relationship to taboo topics. Similarly, the study of the source domains used to conceptualize taboo topics in TV series reveals how taboo topics are represented in TV series, which will be the main focus of this study. The corpus is therefore constituted of several TV series.

2.2. Corpus

5The corpus chosen in this study is a rather small one. Small corpora can be an “enormously rich source of data” in the study of metaphor (Cameron and Deignan 2003: 151); the main problem is that it is very difficult to generalize findings from a small corpus, for two main reasons: “one particular idiosyncratic use” may prevail, and some occurrences may not be in the corpus, or there may be too few of them to generalize. Cameron and Deignan (2003) also argue that there are other problems with large corpora: firstly, the context related to each occurrence may not be specific enough for the purposes of the analysis. Secondly, the “cost and complexity of collecting spoken data” constitutes a major issue. Finally, some occurrences or patterns may be missed because the researcher “usually begins by searching for particular linguistic forms”. In the case of this study, major metaphorical uses may be missed. They conclude that a combination of both is a perfect means to avoid the problems mentioned above. Semino et al. (2017: 61) also explain that “as there does not exist yet any fully automated corpus‑based method for identifying or analysing metaphor, analyses of large datasets often begin with a qualitative analysis of a sample of the data.” However, I would also argue that a small corpus alone may be used depending on the objective of the research. This is one of the reasons why the corpus under scrutiny is a rather small one, along with other reasons, which are explained below.

6The corpus used in this study is constituted of the first two seasons of five different American TV series, all focusing on one particular taboo topic (or two); in other words, the taboo topic is always one of the main subjects of the TV series. I chose at least two TV series by taboo topic and TV series from commercial networks as well as cable networks, on which there is supposed to be less censorship, in order to have varied data. The two TV series used for the metaphors of sex are Sex and the City (1998-2004, HBO) and How I Met your Mother (2005-2014, CBS); Sex and the City was chosen because it was one of the first TV series to have overtly mentioned sexuality on television (Bucaria and Barra 2016: 1-2). How I Met your Mother was included in the corpus because several scholars (such as Sams 2016) have highlighted how innovative and playful the language was in the series. Those two TV series are sitcoms/comedies, which means that the theme of sex is often tackled with a light tone, but it is also discussed rather seriously in many episodes of Sex and the City. The two TV series used for disease metaphors are House, M.D. (2004-2012, Fox) and Grey’s Anatomy (2005-…, ABC); the first one is more focused on the practice of medicine and is quite sarcastic, while the other one is more sentimental and similar to a soap on some aspects. The choice to include those two medical dramas was made because it allowed having a variety of diseases and points of view (those of the patients, of the doctors, and of the families). Finally, metaphors for death were taken from House, M.D. (2004-2012, Fox), Grey’s Anatomy (2005-…, ABC), and Six Feet Under (2001-2005, HBO), which provided metaphors for death from a medical point of view and from the point of view of people who work in a funeral home. TV series which dealt with death but which belonged to the genres of fantasy or science fiction were not selected. Indeed, the choice of taking those five TV series was also motivated by their relative realism.

7The metaphors were identified in the corpus manually. Both videos and scripts that can be found on the Internet were used in order to identify the metaphors; it was impossible to use solely the scripts because they are not the official scripts and some mistakes can be found in them. I carefully watched and read the scripts from my corpus in order to retrieve metaphorical expressions. As mentioned before, this method limits the size of the corpus as it is quite time-consuming, but as Crespo Fernández (2017: 15), who worked on sex metaphors, argues, “it allows for a comprehensive search and considerably reduces the risk of missing significant cases of metaphorical language used in the sample consulted”. Moreover, as the metaphors I looked for were metaphors related to taboo topics, these metaphors were likely to be creative and therefore, there are a lot of isolated cases – most of them context-related – that would have been missed had I used software. Therefore, this method appeared to me to be the most reliable one.

8In order to manually identify these metaphors, I used the MIP (Metaphor Identification Procedure) that was established by the Pragglejaz group (Crisp, Gibbs, Deignan, Low, Steen, Cameron, Semino, Grady, Cienki, Kövecses) (2007: 3):

The MIP is as follows:

1. Read the entire text–discourse to establish a general understanding of the meaning. 

2. Determine the lexical units in the text–discourse 

3. (a) For each lexical unit in the text, establish its meaning in context, that is, how it applies to an entity, relation, or attribute in the situation evoked by the text (contextual meaning). Take into account what comes before and after the lexical unit.

(b) For each lexical unit, determine if it has a more basic contemporary meaning in other contexts than the one in the given context. For our purposes, basic meanings tend to be

—More concrete; what they evoke is easier to imagine, see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.

—Related to bodily action.

—More precise (as opposed to vague)

—Historically older.

Basic meanings are not necessarily the most frequent meanings of the lexical unit. 

(c) If the lexical unit has a more basic current–contemporary meaning in other contexts than the given context, decide whether the contextual meaning contrasts with the basic meaning but can be understood in comparison with it. 

4. If yes, mark the lexical unit as metaphorical.

9Needless to say one main feature was added to those defined by the Pragglejaz group: only the metaphors whose target domains were sex, disease, or death were selected; consequently, all other metaphors were completely eliminated from the corpus. The Pragglejaz group did not take into account dead/lexicalized metaphors, but specified that “researchers may do so if they want”. Following Crespo Fernández (2017: 7), I decided to take them into account according to the following criteria:

[W]hen these metaphors perform a euphemistic or dysphemistic function connected to their metaphorical origin, I decided it could be interesting to look at them and derive some cognitive implications from their use in present-day English.

Therefore, occurrences such as the one below were taken into account:

(1) REBECCA: “My mother passed away three years ago. She had a heart attack, and my father broke his back doing construction.” (House 1x01)

10Pass away is a dead metaphor as the meaning “die” is the meaning recorded in dictionaries, but it is still a euphemism as it is less offensive to the co-speaker than “die”. However, I did not take into account dead metaphors such as patient as it does not fulfill any X‑phemistic role today; “patient” is the orthophemism – that is to say the neutral expression – and is not perceived as a euphemism or a metaphor by speakers at all, contrary to “pass away”. Additionally, extended metaphors were counted as one occurrence of a metaphor. Those are numerous in the corpus, and they are very often creative metaphors extended by one character; it would therefore distort the results to count several occurrences when it is just one long extended metaphor, as in the following example:

(2) HOUSE: “The tumor is Afghanistan, the clot is Buffalo. Does that need more explanation? Ok the tumor is Al Qaeda. Big bad guy with brains. We went in and wiped it out but it had already sent out a splinter cell; a small team of low level terrorists quietly living in some suburb of Buffalo, waiting to kill us all.”

FOREMAN: “Whoa, whoa, you’re trying to say that the tumor threw a clot before we removed it.”

HOUSE: “It was an excellent metaphor, angio her brain for this clot before it straps on an explosive vest.” (House 2x02)

Finally, I decided to include metaphorical comparisons and similes when the source domain was clearly identifiable and was a known source domain; this is also what Semino et al. (2017: 60) did, following the MIPVU, which is an extended version of the MIP developed by Steen et al. in 2010. For instance, this occurrence was included in the corpus:

(3) CHASE: “The brain’s like a big jumble of wires.” (House 1x02)

11I then classified the metaphors according to the conceptual source domains by which they were structured. It could be argued that this classification is not always entirely objective, and it is a problem that was already suggested by the Pragglejaz group. In order to avoid that problem and to make the comparison between my corpus and other studies easier, I largely relied on the works of other people and on the conceptual domains they found; I also tried to gather as many metaphorical occurrences as possible under one conceptual metaphor, so as not to have dozens of conceptual source domains for one target domain. Last but not least, when it was possible, I tried to use similar labels for the source domains related to all three target domains (for example, the source domain journey). The next section very briefly presents the results.

3. Results

Table 1: Number of occurrences by source domain

  • 2 « Others » comprises the linguistic metaphors for a given conceptual metaphors which presented very (...)
  • 3 As there were only two metaphorical expressions using the domain waste, they were counted with the (...)

122 death metaphors

127 sex metaphors

144 disease metaphors

10 source domains

13 source domains

7 source domains

Journey / travel (40)

Loss (22)

Food (18)

The end (14)

Object / machine (9)

Light (7)

Rest / sleep (5)

Others (7)2 (freedom (2), prison (1), person (2))

Food and drinks (25)

Game / sports (21)

Machine / object (16)

Animals (12)

Journey (9)

Hunting (9)

Business / work (9)

Religion (6)

Teaching / sudying (5)

Show (5)

Others (10) (war (4), Politics (4), Drugs (2))

Machine / object (40)

Food (35)3

War / violence / danger (29)

Person (20)

Journey (7)

Games (7)

Animal (6)

12The corpus is constituted of 393 metaphorical occurrences, distributed as follows: 122 death metaphors (10 source domains), 127 sex metaphors (13 source domains), and 144 disease metaphors (7 source domains). The metaphors that were found in the corpus will be compared to previous works on taboo metaphors, and several issues will be examined. To what extent are the source domains identified in the corpus representative of the source domains that are used to conceptualize taboo domains in naturally occurring conversation? In other words, are the same source domains used in naturally occurring conversation and in TV series? Are they used in the same proportions (when it is possible to compare numbers)? How can we account for those differences or for those similarities?

4. Representativeness compared to natural conversation

13A few linguists compared naturally occurring conversation to the dialogues in TV series. Richardson (2010: 4) found that the language of TV series and naturally occurring conversation presented many similarities, although TV series dialogue could not be called “authentic” as it was scripted and not spontaneous. This partly explains why the two differ, although this is also largely due to the discursive genre, as will be explained later on. Quaglio (2009) compared the language used in Friends to that of natural conversation and found that they were fairly similar. However, he mostly focused on “vague language” (hedges, discourse markers, modals, copular verbs…), “emotional language” (intensifiers, expletives, minimal responses), “informal language”, and narrative language. Quaglio (2009, 2016) and Bubel (2006: 255-256), who worked on Sex and the City, concluded that features such as discourse markers, hesitations, pauses, etc. appeared both in naturally occurring conversation and in TV series. The main differences seem to be that there is little variation in the language of TV series (Quaglio 2009) and that elements that make discourse “unintelligible or redundant” (Bubel 2006) are less frequently found in TV series. The dialogues in TV series (at least in those included in the corpus under scrutiny) are a mix of what the writers believe to be authentic (Quaglio 2009: 149) and some improvisation by the actors. Therefore, although the language of TV series cannot be used as a representative sample of naturally occurring conversation and does not replace empirical data, it is a polished version of naturally occurring conversation (Beers Fägersten 2016: 3). However, as far as I know, no study has focused so far on the comparison of the metaphors for taboo topics in TV series and those in naturally occurring conversation.

  • 4 Dialogue is written by scriptwriters before it is learned and spoken by comedians.

14I considered comparing the metaphors in the TV series corpus to a very large one such as the COCA, but one main problem arose: the COCA is not specific to taboo domains and is therefore not specialized enough, and it only provides written data, whereas TV series contain reconstructed oral data; comparing oralized speech4 to written speech might not be relevant. I then considered creating another corpus to compare it to, but constituting such a corpus would have been particularly time-consuming, especially if it was to be specific to taboo topics. I thus decided to compare my findings to those of previous studies on taboo topics, although those studies only focus on one particular taboo topic at a time. The main objective was to compare the source domains used to conceptualize the three taboo topics under scrutiny. I did not compare frequencies as all studies do not mention them. The main two works I relied on are Semino et al. (2017) and Crespo Fernández (2017). They both used the MIP to identify the metaphors in their corpora and added a few modifications that I also added in my method, as mentioned earlier.

4.1. sex metaphors

15Crespo Fernández worked on a corpus he constituted by collecting data on forums; he only studied sex metaphors. As far as I know, it is the largest corpus-based study that has ever been conducted on sex metaphors. He did not conduct a thorough quantitative study but a qualitative one on a rather small corpus. He did however add an appendix to his book, which allowed me to conclude that he had a total of 265 metaphorical occurrences, classified as follows:

Table 2: sex metaphors in Crespo Fernández (2017)

Source domain for sex (CP 2017)

Number of metaphorical expressions











Games and Sports




Heat and Fire


Illness and Insanity




Natural forces


Physical forces








Food and eating


Hunting and riding




Tools and machines


War and violence


16The following chart compares the source domains found in my corpus to those found in Crespo Fernández’ corpus (which will be referred to as “the CF corpus” from now on). When the source domain is found in both corpora, the background is light grey and the numbers he and I found are on the same line. On the other hand, when the source domain is only found in one corpus, the background is white and there is no link between the right and the left columns.

Table 3: Comparison of sex metaphors in the TV series corpus and in the CF corpus (2017)

DOMAINS in the TV series corpus


in the TV series corpus


in the TV series corpus

DOMAINS in the CF corpus

NUMBERS in the CF corpus

PERCENTAGE in the CF corpus

games / sports



game / sport / plaything






food / eating









machine / object



tools / machines












hunting / riding



business / work









war / violence









teaching / studying









natural forces






illness / insanity















physical forces















17In this chart, I gathered games / sport and plaything as the two domains are closely tied; I also took the heat metaphors mentioned by Crespo Fernández out of the chart as they were present in my corpus but I did not take them into account because they mostly refer to sexual attraction and not to sex properly speaking.

18Several observations can be drawn from the comparison of his results to the results I obtained: first of all, it seems that there are more different source domains used to conceptualize sex than to conceptualize death or disease, be it in naturally occurring conversation or in TV series. This may be accounted for by the fact that sex is a playful domain, contrary to death and disease, which are much more “serious” domains; the playfulness of the domain is reflected in the playfulness of language. Secondly, 8 source domains were found in both corpora; 5 appeared only in the TV series corpus, while 10 appeared only in the CF corpus. This difference can partly be accounted for by the fact that the CF corpus is larger than the TV series corpus. The number of metaphors deriving from the same source domain found in both corpora varies but this can also be accounted for by the fact that both corpora are rather small (127 and 237 occurrences, respectively).

19The source domains of metaphors used in TV series are rather representative of those found in naturally occurring conversation, even though proportions vary. Firstly, the metaphorical expressions in the corpus ensue from a large number of conceptual source domains, which is also the case in naturally occurring conversation. Some of them seem to be very productive (for example, eating, journey, game/sports, hunting), while others seem to be resorted to more occasionally (politics or drugs in the TV series corpus, falling or flowers in the CP corpus). The majority of the productive source domains can be found in both corpora – which tends to show that there is a correlation between the source domains which are resorted to in naturally occurring conversation and in TV series dialogue. The multiplication of smaller source domains in both corpora tends to show that a significant number of source domains can be used to conceptualize sex, and that the conceptual metaphors for sex can be very innovative. Therefore, the metaphors found in TV series might be called representative of those found in natural conversation as it shows that when it comes to conceptualizing sex, a few source domains are favored, but many less productive domains may be used. Resorting to different source domains allows different kinds of conceptualizations of sex as different characteristics are projected onto the target domain. The conceptualizations are completely different in these two examples:

(4) MARSHALL: “But you have to promise you’re not going to steal my new twin and leave me with your old, used-up twin.” (HIMYM 2x02)

(5) ROBIN: “I don’t know, we were kind of thinking of going home and dressing up as naked people.” (HIMYM 1x06)

20The first metaphor derives from a sexual partner is an object and is dysphemistic and dehumanizing; the second one derives from sex is a game and presents sex as a playful activity with both players on an equal footing. The multiplicity of source domains is a specificity of sex metaphors as compared to other taboo domains. However, there are also some major differences between the metaphors in the TV series corpus and those in the CP corpus.

  • 5 For further discussion on the degree of lexicalization of metaphorical expressions, see for example (...)

21The most salient difference is that most of the metaphors listed by Crespo Fernández (2017) are lexicalized metaphors – that is to say that they are not novel: they are frequently resorted to by speakers and the metaphorical meaning of the lexical unit can be mentioned in dictionaries5. However, in the TV series corpus, a lot of metaphors are novel metaphors or semi-lexicalized metaphors (the lexical units are not usually used metaphorically, but the source domain used is often resorted to in order to conceptualize sex). Consider the following example, in which the characters have a conversation about the first time they had sexual intercourse:

(6) ROBIN: “You know, Katie, I have wanted to come to the Empire State Building for so long, but I waited to come here with someone special.”

LILY: “Marshall and I have never been to the Empire State Building either. But I’m so glad I waited to do something so important with my fiancé.”


LILY: “No, it doesn’t. Look, have you been to the Empire State Building? No. You’ve only been in the lobby. People don’t buy tickets to get in the lobby. People buy tickets to get to the top. Scooter only got in the lobby, and the lobby doesn’t count.” (HIMYM 2x12)

22Conceptualizing sexual intercourse in terms of a journey is frequent (9 occurrences in the TV series corpus, 22 in the CF corpus). However, the use of the metaphorical expression “go to the Empire State Building” is not. This metaphor is largely context-dependent as the characters are literally visiting the Empire State Building in the TV series when they have this conversation. This is the case in a lot of occurrences in the TV series corpus, but scarcely in the CF corpus. In this respect, the metaphors in the TV series corpus are not representative of the metaphors in naturally occurring conversation. Furthermore, there is a significant amount of extended metaphors in the TV series corpus (such as the example mentioned above), which is not the case in the CF corpus. These metaphors often structure an entire scene or an entire episode, especially in Sex and the City. Consider the following example, which was taken from an episode in which Carrie, the main character, is dating a Yankee; the entire episode (SATC 2x01) is structured thanks to the sex is baseball metaphor:

(7) CARRIE: “As Miranda went on about the new Yankee’s stats, I couldn’t help wondering about my own. Ten years playing in New York. Countless dates. Five real relationships. One serious. All ending in break-ups. If I were a ballplayer, I’d be batting whatever really bad is.”


CARRIE: “She knew it was risky, but a day of watching big men swing their wooden bats proved to be too much for Samantha.”


CARRIE: “There we were, two single gals out on the town with our ballplayers.”


CARRIE: “And there, in the shadow of my island, just four weeks out of my last relationship, I let the new Yankee get to first base.”


CARRIE: “But Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to tell the problem was foul balls.”

23The reason for these differences is that metaphors in TV series and metaphors in naturally occurring conversation tend to have different functions; this will be more extensively discussed in the last part of this paper.

4.2. disease metaphors

24The target domain disease is probably the most studied target domain of all three, both by linguists and medical professionals. A large-scale study is currently being conducted by a research group at Lancaster University; they “built a 1.5-million-word corpus consisting of interviews with and online forum posts by people diagnosed with advanced cancer, family carers and healthcare professionals” (Semino et al. 2017: 3). The head of the project is Elena Semino and one of the researchers is Paul Rayson, who created Wmatrix and the UCREL Semantic Analysis System; they receive funding from different organizations. Although the date when they first started working on the corpus is not specified on the website, it was probably before 2013 as that was the year they published the first paper related to this project. Below is a chart presenting their results and a chart comparing the data from the TV series corpus to their data; it should however be mentioned that they only gave the data for the most frequent conceptual domains found in their corpus.

Table 4: disease metaphors (Semino et al. 2017)




Wholeness / Machines















Religion and the supernatural















Table 5: Comparison of disease metaphors in the TV series corpus and in the Lancaster (2017)

DOMAINS in the TV series corpus

NUMBER in the TV series corpus

PERCENTAGE in the TV series corpus

DOMAINS in the Lancaster corpus

NUMERS in the Lancaster corpus

PERCENTAGE in the Lancaster corpus

Machines / objects



Wholeness / Machines



War / Violence



























Religion and the Supernatural















25For the purpose of this analysis, I gathered the source domains wholeness and machine, as I gathered all my occurrences under machine / object (that is broken and can be fixed). I also left aside the domains restraint, openness, and obstacles, as the occurrences they mentioned are all related to the feelings of the patients and not directly to their diseases.

  • 6 This explanation does not account for all the differences between the two corpora, even though it m (...)

26The results are quite different, even though 5 source domains are resorted to in both corpora (machine/objects, war/violence, journey, game, animals): the proportion of metaphorical expressions using each of these domains is very different. In the Lancaster corpus, most of the metaphorical expressions derive from the source domains journey (30%) and violence (46%). These are the two conceptual domains that are usually mentioned in all the studies on the subject, which tends to confirm that they are the most widely used conceptual domains in naturally occurring conversation. However, in the TV series corpus, machines/objects (28%) and food (24%) are the most widely used source domains. The distribution of the metaphorical expressions according to the source domain in the TV series corpus is not representative of the distribution of the metaphorical expressions according to the source domain in the Lancaster corpus. There can be several explanations for this: firstly, Semino et al.s’ study focuses on cancer, whereas in the corpus under scrutiny, the patients suffer from various medical conditions. Cancer is a very long illness and is usually treated over months if not years, which can explain the higher proportion of journey metaphors in the Lancaster corpus. On the other hand, in medical TV series, the body tends to be conceptualized as a machine or an object that is broken and that has to be repaired. It could be due to the fact that some of them are surgeons (especially in Grey’s Anatomy) who just perform surgery and repair the body rather than accompany the patients in all the steps of their recovery. Even when the doctors are not surgeons – particularly in House, M.D. – each episode is dedicated to one or several patients who will never be seen again, with a few exceptions. This difference of proportions of journey and machine metaphors could also be partly due to the fact that the TV series corpus is constituted of American TV series, while the Lancaster corpus was constituted by British researchers and is therefore supposedly mostly in British English; the discrepancies could partly be explained by cultural differences6. Finally, it can be noticed that the food metaphor is absent from the Lancaster corpus (it is however not one of the most frequent conceptual metaphors in the corpus, contrary to what can be found in the TV series corpus). This particular point is difficult to explain, but one hypothesis could be that the floor is mostly occupied by doctors in TV series. Doctors talking to other doctors tend to use more dysphemistic or humorous metaphors than patients (Allan and Burridge 2006: 40). Metaphors deriving from the source domain food are dysphemistic because the human body is conceptualized as food for a disease or for surgeons. Consider the following examples:

(8) ALEX: “Surgery is the only specialty where we don’t waste time getting to know the patients. They’re slabs of meat, we’re butchers.” (GA 2x01)

(9) HOUSE: “Tell him his life hangs in the balance. Tell him the rash is flesh-eating and the next course in the menu is his frank and beans.” (House 2x05)

  • 7 Medicalese is the specialized terminology of the medical professions.

27The first example is rather dysphemistic as it conceptualizes patients as dead meat – which means that patients are dehumanized; moreover, the surgeon is conceptualized as a violent and bloodthirsty butcher. The second example is dysphemistic and humorous at the same time: the patient is conceptualized as food, but the mention of “frank and beans” is funny for some of the other doctors in the TV series, and even funnier for the viewer, who is at a distance. The first part of the occurrence “the rash is flesh-eating” is a lexicalized metaphor that aims at vulgarization (the rash does not “eat” the flesh, it causes necrosis). However, in the second part of the occurrence, House uses the same conceptual metaphor (the body is food for a disease) but a metaphorical expression that is much more salient as it is not as frequently used to refer to the human body. The novelty of the occurrence (though it was not coined by House, it is recognized by speakers as a metaphor and is not an entry in the OED), combined with the association with the domain of genital organs, contributes to the humorousness of House’s line. Moreover, the machine/object metaphor is also typical of medicalese7 in TV series: doctors in fiction tend to conceptualize the human body as a machine or an object that is broken and that can be repaired rather than – or in addition to – using scientific vocabulary. One of the main reasons for this is probably that most viewers do not have medical training and that scriptwriters have to find ways to make them understand medical issues. Consider this example from GA 2X03:

(10) DR. BURKE: “We went in expecting to simply remove the tumor. Instead it was a little more complicated. The tumor infiltrated into the pericardium causing a tear in the outer muscle of the heart.”

MR. GASTON: “Hum. That’s a lot of medical talk.”

DR. BURKE: “It means, hum… It means… That you had… You had a broken heart, literally. Hum… But now, I am, hum… But now you’re going to be fine.”

This mix of scientific term and metaphorical language in the doctors’ lines mimics the language that doctors use in real life in order to try and make it realistic (Jost 2011: 28), even though dialogue in TV series represents a communicational ideal (Beers Fägersten 2016: 3).

28In naturally occurring conversation, disease metaphors are representative of the way patients conceptualize their diseases: in terms of a journey or in terms of a war against an enemy that has to be overcome. However, disease metaphors in TV series are not representative of the metaphors found in naturally occurring conversation. One of the reasons for this is that those metaphors have different functions from those of the metaphors that are found in naturally occurring conversation; this topic will be further developed in the last part of this paper.

4.3. death metaphors

29Death metaphors will be tackled less thoroughly than disease and sex metaphors because very few corpus studies were conducted on them; it is therefore more difficult to compare the TV series corpus to other corpora. Crespo Fernández (2006) studied Victorian obituaries and found 6 conceptual mappings: journey, joyful life, rest, reward, the end, and loss, but this study should be compared to my results cautiously as it is anachronistic. It is however worth mentioning that the domains he found are similar to those found in more recent studies. Allan and Burridge (1991: 161-164) analyzed 4 conceptual mappings: loss, worries about the soul, journey, beginning of a new life. Finally, Bultinck (1998) probably conducted the most exhaustive study about the metaphors of death and analyzed the following conceptual domains: movement, downward movement, sleep, loss, surrender, light gone out, and end-point. These studies are not quantitative studies. However, the source domains journey/movement, the end, sleep/rest and loss are present in all three studies and metaphorical expressions that are analyzed are fairly similar in all three studies. The metaphors of the domain of death seem to evolve more slowly than the metaphors of the domain of sex, and those of the domain of disease to a certain extent. “Pass away”, for example, has been a euphemism for death for centuries (according to the OED, it first appeared around 1300 and is still used as a euphemism today). In the TV series corpus, the domains that are present in the studies mentioned above are also used, which is not very surprising; these are domains that are commonly used to conceptualize death euphemistically.

(11) DEREK: “She’s too far gone. You have to let her go. Let her go in peace.” (GA 2x03)

(12) DAVID: “Bette and Phil Srisai. I’m David Fisher. I spoke to you on the phone yesterday. I’m so sorry for your loss” (SFU 2x10)

30More generally speaking, all the source domains above are used to conceptualize death as a part of life or in relation to life, and more specifically on the effect of death on the soul. However, they do not take into account the physiological effects of death on the body. In the TV series corpus, even though the journey and loss metaphors are the most numerous ones, conceptualizations of the body as food or as a machine/object are also present. the body is food metaphors are the third most numerous in the TV series corpus (18 occurrences). These metaphors are rather dysphemistic: focusing on the rotting body instead of focusing on the unknown (what happens to the soul after death) highlights all the most crude and trivial characteristics of death. In the following example, taken from SFU 1x13, the characters talk about the death-care industry:

(13) GILARDI: “Once you centralize operations, you’d be amazed how you maximize profits.”

NATE: “So, in the end, we’re all just Human McNuggets.

GILARDI: “Just as we began. I like you, Nate.”

31The corpses are conceptualized as nuggets ready to be fried, but also as being identical and fried on a production line, which makes it a particularly dysphemistic occurrence. the body is food metaphors are also probably more numerous in the TV series corpus because most of the characters are doctors or funeral home employees – that is to say, people who are confronted with death on a daily basis tend to use fewer euphemisms to mention death, and even more importantly, people who are confronted with the physiological effects of death and to dead bodies on a regular basis. Moreover, these metaphors are probably overused in the corpus because the recipient – the viewers – are at a distance and are therefore less easily shocked than they would be, had they been the recipients of those metaphors in naturally occurring conversations.

5. The functions of metaphors in the TV series corpus

32The main function of all metaphors is a conceptual function: metaphors are used to make sense of the world surrounding us and of abstract concepts. A large majority of the metaphors used to mention taboo topics in naturally occurring conversation also have an X-phemistic function: in other words, they are meant to mitigate the denotation of the taboo in order to preserve the face of the co-speaker, or, on the other hand, to highlight some characteristics of the taboo in order to offend the co-speaker (Allan and Burridge 1990, 2006). However, in TV series, co-speakers are fictional characters and the real recipients of the metaphors are the viewers. Therefore, the function of the metaphors used to mention taboo topics in TV series are often different from that of the metaphors used in naturally occurring conversation; for this reason, they are not representative of those found in naturally occurring conversation.

  • 8 Dynel’s model does not fit into a cognitivist theoretical framework and rather draws on pragmatics. (...)

33A large number of the occurrences in the TV series corpus have a humorous function; Dynel (2012: 76-77) argues that metaphors in TV series can have a humorous function at level 1 (that of the characters) and/or at level 2 (that of the viewers)8. The fact that those metaphors are sometimes meant to make the viewers laugh makes it difficult to argue that the metaphors in TV series are representative of those found in naturally occurring conversation. In order to fulfill this purpose, metaphors tend to be more creative, more extended, and to present more incongruous associations, as in the following example:

(14) BARNEY: “You are at the heart of bachelor country, and as a woman, you are an illegal immigrant here. Now, you can try to apply for a sex visa, but that only lasts 12 hours. 14 if you qualify for multiple entries. (HIMYM 2x05)

34Metaphors can also have a humorous function in naturally occurring conversation; however, humorous sex metaphors are probably more frequent in Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother than in naturally occurring conversation because sex is one of the main topics of the protagonists’ conversations and because of the genres of the two TV series (sitcoms / romantic comedies). Moreover, some metaphors are humorous at level 2 but dysphemistic at level 1:

(15) HOUSE: “I, Margo Davis have been informed of the risks which may arise from my refusal of advised medical care. I hereby release…”

MOM: “Who are you?”

HOUSE: “… the Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, its employees agents, and otherwise from any adverse medical conditions resulting from my refusal. It is not the hospital’s fault if my son kicks off.”

MOM: “Kicks off?” (House 1x08)

“Kick off” would scarcely be used in a naturally occurring conversation in such a context; these metaphors are only frequent in the corpus because TV series are fictional and the real recipient is the viewer.

35Some of the metaphors in the TV series corpus – and more specifically in the medical series – fulfill a didactic function. In other words, they contribute to making medical talk available to the general public (the patients on level 1, the viewers on level 2):

(16) WILSON: “The plan is basically to... Reboot your daughter. Like a computer. We shut her down then restart her.” (House 2x02)

(17) SYNDEY: “It’s necrotizing fasciitis.”

ALEX: “The flesh-eating bacteria?” (GA 2x15)

These metaphors are very frequent in naturally occurring conversation as well, and their aim is partially to make medical talk understandable to the general public (patients on level 1 and viewers on level 2). However, in TV series, this function is often faked, as in the following example:

(18) BARNEY: “Okay, let’s take a look. Oh, yeah, that’s a cougar all right. A prime specimen. See, you can identify a cougar by a few key characteristics. Start with the hair. The cougar keeps up with current hairstyles as a form of camouflage. The prey may not realize that he’s engaged with a cougar until he’s already being dragged, helpless, back to her lair. Now, the blouse. The cougar displays maximum cleavage possible to captivate her prey. If you’re watching them bounce, she’s about to pounce. See the claws? Long and sharp, to ward off rival females… Or open alimony checks. Yeah, this one’s a beauty. Okay, let the hunt begin.” (HIMYM 2x06)

36“Cougar” is a lexicalized metaphorical expression for an older woman dating younger men; there is no doubt that speakers – both native and non-native – understand the metaphorical meaning. It is therefore unclear whether this extended metaphor is supposed to be humorous at level 1 – at the level of the characters – or not; the characters do not laugh and seem rather interested in the explanation, acting as though they did not have a clue as to what a cougar is. However, the fake didactic function definitely serves a humorous function at level 2 – the level of the viewers.

37Metaphors in TV series, besides having functions that all metaphors can have in naturally occurring conversations, are also used for characterization. This is the case for the metaphors used by Gregory House in House, M.D., who is depicted as aware of the fact that his use of metaphors is salient compared to that of other characters:

(19) CAMERON: “He’s on 20 different medications to manage his pain and his heart, how often he urinates. His brain is like a waiter that’s got too many…”

HOUSE: “Hey! I do the metaphors.”

CAMERON: “The brain is stressed. An infection’s elsewhere could put it over the edge.” (House 2x12)

38This is also the case of Barney Stinson in How I Met your Mother, who is known for his constant use of metaphors and playful language (Sams 2016). While participating in characterization, metaphors also play a significant role in the construction of the idiolect of a given series, notably with the use of metaphors such as a patient is a puzzle or a disease is a suspect in House, M.D. (which are respectively included in the broader conceptual metaphors a patient is an object and a disease is a person).

(20) WILSON: “You know how some doctors have the Messiah complex, they need to save the world? You’ve got the Rubik’s complex, you need to solve the puzzle.” (House 1x09)

(21) WILSON: “No, she surgically removed her fingerprints to cover up her pathetic lie.” (House 2x11)

(22) CHASE: “None of the usual suspects! Age isn’t right, in apparent perfect health before this incident, MRI and PET scan negative for tumors.” (House 1x12)

These metaphors participate in the construction of House, M.D. as a medical mystery drama.

39In the two medical TV series and Six Feet Under, metaphors also have a dramatization function:

(23) DR. SHEPHERD: “She’s a ticking clock. She’s gonna die if I don’t make a diagnosis.” (GA 1x01)

(24) DR. SHEPHERD: “I understand that you’re tired of settling, so don’t. Fight. Fight for your life. Fight for your marriage. Let me operate. And make a decision right now that you’ll never settle again.” (GA 2x20)

40Those metaphors participate in the creation of a tragic dimension; they allow to dramatize the situation at level 1 and to create suspense and emotion at level 2. The characteristics that are projected are quite often drawn from the war / violence source domain. death metaphors with a dramatic function often conceptualize death as the end:

(25) DR. SHEPHERD: “Push one more of epi and one more of drozapine. Come on, come on. You cannot do this Tucker! You cannot quit on me! Come on, keep going. You can’t quit!” (GA 2x17)

death is the end metaphors present a dramatic vision of death, contrary to metaphors which conceptualize death as a second life in the light.

41Finally, some of the metaphors in the TV series corpus also have an aesthetic function; this function – the main function of metaphors for Aristotle – was rejected by cognitivists. Indeed, metaphor has much more than a pure ornamental function as its main function is the conceptual function. However, in works of fiction such as TV series or in literature, metaphors also participate in the general aesthetics of the series, although they are not purely ornamental. The humorous and didactic functions, as well as the fact that metaphors participate in dramatization and characterization naturally partake in the aesthetic function of metaphors. More generally speaking, in Sex and the City, they participate in the women’s reappropriation of metaphors deemed sexist (such as those that derive from the sex is war conceptual metaphor, as they usually conceptualize men as attackers).

(26) MIRANDA: “You can’t create a relationship with a guy because he can caulk your tub.”

SAMANTHA: “Yes you can.” (SATC 2x04)

42In Six Feet Under, metaphors participate in the representation of the daily lives of the characters and of the boredom that overwhelms them. The profusion of lexicalized metaphors – most of them euphemistic –, which are repeated to the families of the departed day after day, shows the repetitiveness of their existence. The alternation of metaphors about the death of the body and those about eternal life in the beyond echo the in-betweenness of the characters, who, as funeral home employees, constantly oscillate between life and death. Metaphors also play a role in narration in the TV series of the corpus: they sometimes structure entire episodes by creating echoes between different scenes:

(27) CRISTINA: “Wish he’s just go into the light alreadu, so I ca, get on another case.”


IZZIE: “Okay, well, I know you probably can’t hear me, and you’re feeling this big push to go towards the light, where everything is all haloes and all-you-can-eat buffets and stuff. And I mean, sharing your organs is really great and all, but I think you have a family.” (GA 1x03)

or ensure some cohesion within the series when they create echoes from one episode to another, as in House, M.D. with the a patient is a puzzle metaphor.

43All these functions intertwine, and in most cases, metaphors in the TV series corpus do not have one function: the conceptual and X-phemistic functions are always present, and they are often mingled with other functions.

6. Conclusion

44The sex, disease, and death metaphors that are found in TV series cannot be taken as a representative sample of sex, disease, and death metaphors because they present some specificities when compared to those that are found in naturally occurring conversation. Even though there are similarities – for example, for each taboo domain, a reasonable number of source domains were found in both the TV series corpus and the corpora of naturally occurring conversation it was compared to – there are a significant number of differences that were accounted for. Firstly, the proportion of metaphorical expressions related to each conceptual domain varies. Secondly, the metaphors in the TV series corpus are more often creative and/or extended than in naturally occurring conversation. Finally, the metaphors in the TV series corpus have different functions from those in naturally occurring conversation. Metaphors for taboo topics in TV series aim at representing a partial vision a reality, play an aesthetic role as they are in fictional works, and have a multiplicity of functions: they are therefore not representative of the metaphors in naturally occurring conversation.

45The language of TV series can however be used to analyze and explain some characteristics of metaphor: even though they are not occurrences of naturally occurring conversation, they are a use of language. They can be taken into account into a larger corpus drawing metaphors from different sources.

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1 Only the source domains of death, disease, and sex were selected because all three of them are linked to religion and the body, contrary to other topics that are considered as taboos in Western contemporary societies, such as money or ethnicity. Moreover, I will include only the metaphors that are directly related to the domain of sex, although a lot of domains are sometimes included with sex in other studies; for example, metaphors for flirting (for sex) will not be taken into account, as they do not refer to sexual activity properly speaking. Metaphors for rape and incest will not be included in the corpus either as they are a form of violence and assault, not a form of sexual activity.

2 « Others » comprises the linguistic metaphors for a given conceptual metaphors which presented very few occurrences, that is, fewer than 5.

3 As there were only two metaphorical expressions using the domain waste, they were counted with the domain food to avoid isolated occurrences.

4 Dialogue is written by scriptwriters before it is learned and spoken by comedians.

5 For further discussion on the degree of lexicalization of metaphorical expressions, see for example Crespo Fernández (2017), Kövecses (2002), or Deignan (2005).

6 This explanation does not account for all the differences between the two corpora, even though it might play a role. All studies conducted on the metaphors in British or American English mention similar domains (mostly the journey and/or violence domains), and as far as I know, no study ever mentioned the possible cultural differences between the two. However, this study is the only quantitative study to have been conducted on a large corpus. It could also be relevant to compare the Lancaster corpus to a British TV series corpus to see if there are fewer differences, but in this study, the main focus was American TV shows.

7 Medicalese is the specialized terminology of the medical professions.

8 Dynel’s model does not fit into a cognitivist theoretical framework and rather draws on pragmatics. The distinction she makes between level 1 and level 2 is nevertheless of particular interest in this study. Level 1 represents the diegetic level, while level 2 represents the extra-diegetic level – that of the viewers, the real target of the utterance.

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Adeline Terry, « The representativeness of the metaphors of death, disease, and sex in a TV series corpus »CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 19 | 2019, mis en ligne le 17 juin 2019, consulté le 26 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Adeline Terry

Université de Lyon (UJM3) & Centre d’Études Linguistiques (EA 1663)

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