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Language about Aging - Metaphoric Language

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In traditional literary analysis, a metaphor is a figure of speech or a linguistic adornment intended to enhance the expressive qualities of a text. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), however, have shown that metaphoric language constitutes a way of viewing the world that directly influences people's perception of it. A metaphor is an implied comparison, and it has the form A = B (e.g., "John is a snake." Here, the hearer has to fill in certain information generally known about the appearance and behavior of a snake). In this sense, a metaphor describes the unknown in terms of the known. Metaphors are thus powerful cognitive devices, since they allow one dimension of the world to shape another. Thus, metaphors function as a linguistic mechanism that selects and filters certain aspects of the real world and projects these dimensions onto other parts of it. In this constructivist view of metaphor, one in which language shapes our perceptions of reality, a decidedly negative view of older adults and old age emerges. One common geriatric metaphor is OLD AGE IS TERMINAL DECLINE. This conceptual metaphor may produce a negative ageist view of older adults because it considers old age to be a period of deterioration and decadence. This perspective may thus facilitate medical undertreatment of older adults because of its erroneous view of old age as one of irreversible degeneration.

A subcategory of metaphor is metonymy (the use of the part for the whole). Within health care settings, metonymy is a common way to allude to older adults; the use of such expressions as the sick heart, the broken hip, or the cancerous liver are examples. In some respects, these references underlie Western medicine's belief that the human body is a mechanism with replaceable or repairable parts.

Table 1 A Selected List of Ageist Terms and Expressions SOURCE: Author

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