N E W S • F R A M E S • • • • •

About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

General Semantics & framing

I’ve previously linked to an article from ETC: a review of general semantics that discusses George Lakoff’s work on framing from the perspective of General Semantics (the Alfred Korzybski school of thought) – only for the link to go dead.

So I’m temporarily posting the full text below, for reference purposes. If anyone comes across a stable link to the article, please let me know – thanks.

Thinking inside the frame. (CALLING OUT THE SYMBOL RULERS)

By Nora Miller

From ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2005 v62 i2 p202(5)

ONE OF THE few bright spots for me in the recent presidential election ordeal came when I first read about framing in a UC Berkeley News interview with George Lakoff. (Powell, 2003) The information didn’t change the outcome of any race, as far as I know. But for me, and I think, for general semantics, the work of the cognitive scientist and linguist from Berkeley promises some deeply significant reverberations.

Lakoff has a curriculum vitae appropriate for someone in his position in the world of linguistics–fellowships, visiting professorships at international institutions, a long list of published research. For my purposes, his most significant work deals with his growing theory of the role of metaphor in daily language and culture. Historically, most linguists and philosophers relegated metaphor to the realm of creative writing, useful for eliciting emotional responses, but not relevant to the study of meaning. Lakoff has developed a model of metaphor in which metaphors serve a much deeper and more integral purpose in daily language, perception, and thought–namely, to provide a frame for understanding abstract aspects of life in terms of concrete, familiar objects and activities. A metaphor comes equipped with a small constellation of related terms that put flesh on the abstract target, enabling a more certain and complete transfer of meaning. Metaphors put hard-to-grasp abstract concepts in terms of familiar concrete images.

For example, I could tell you that I can really sink my teeth into your idea. Because you understand eating, you get the benefit not only of the basic metaphor that “thought is food,” but also the related notions that “thought is nourishing,” “good thoughts are satisfying to consume,” etc. I don’t have to say any of those things, but you know them nonetheless. These metaphoric constellations generally function without our awareness. Indeed, most of us would have a hard time coming up with a single, fundamental metaphor that governs our language, even though we can recognize metaphors immediately once we hear them. Lakoff gives us many examples in Metaphors We Live By: “Good is up.” (p. 16) “Argument is war.” (p.4) “Love is a journey.” (p.44) We use metaphors so instinctively we might say “they are just a part of the language.” But while some more basic metaphors, based on the physical nature of humans in the environment, figure in nearly all languages, according to Lakoff, many differ from culture to culture. They belong to the cultural fundament, not to the natural world. (pp.39-40). (Where have we heard that before?)

So what does all this have to do with elections?

According to Lakoff, everything–assuming by “everything” you mean, who votes, why they vote and who wins and loses. As the political campaigns started up their organ grinders in late 2003, Lakoff found himself wondering why Democratic Party issues didn’t generate more votes in swing states. The Davis-Schwarzenegger election in California produced some alarming and perplexing data on voter behavior. After hearing a carefully non-partisan description of the platforms of each candidate, voters generally rated Davis’ plan as more likely to favor their personal economic situation. But when asked their likely choice for governor, they generally picked Schwarzenegger. Lakoff wondered why and applied his theory of metaphor and meaning to see if he could come up with an explanation. He thinks he found one.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant, his recent best seller, Lakoff claims that Schwarzenegger won in part because his personality, his celebrity, his movie career, his very body, personify the conservative Republican ideal of the strong father. (p.42) Arnold “was” the metaphor. With that metaphor comes the constellation of adjunct meanings, like security, discipline, comfort, certainty, and control. If you ask most Californians if they want a disciplinarian for a governor, they might hesitate. But with someone like Schwarzenegger running for the office, you don’t have to ask and the voters don’t have to answer. His presence activates the frame of the strong father and the voters bask in the appeal of the parent who will take care of all their problems for them.

Davis on the other hand, presented a blurred, indefinite, almost disturbing message, thanks in part to the way the media framed him, and in part to his own choice of campaign tactics. Lakoff contends that Davis made the same mistakes that the entire party has made for the past several years at least–arguing defensively against a much more certain opponent using the opponent’s language, thereby reinforcing the opponent’s frame and losing the argument in the process.

Conversely, metaphors can also obscure or negate facts that don’t fit into the metaphor. If I want to promote a TV show by telling you that it will “feed children’s brains,” I rely on the “thought is food” frame to trigger the “thought is nourishing” concept, while not having to address the issue of what the show might make children think about. A metaphor makes a concept easier to grasp, but it does not necessarily tell the whole story and it may very well tell a false story.

It works like this: say you want voters to eliminate the estate tax. Now factually, the estate tax affects a miniscule percentage of the population–in 1997, 98 percent of estates were not required to pay any tax at all. (Gale and Slemrod, p.2) When the Republican Party decided to promote the repeal of this tax (part of a larger strategic policy to rearrange the mechanisms of wealth transfer) they needed a new frame. As Frank Luntz put it in the PBS Frontline episode, “The Persuaders,” “nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die.” So the Republican machine changed the frame by changing the name–the estate tax became the “death tax.” Now, even though 98 percent of people will never pay this tax, and despite the fact that in 1997 this tax generated $28 billion dollars from a mere 45,000 estates, now most people polled favor repeal of this tax, because “taxing at death is immoral.” (p.4)

Lakoff, in collaboration with the Rockridge Institute, wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant primarily to educate the Democratic Party on the use of framing. The project evolved from an issue paper on the Rockridge website titled “Simple Framing” in which Lakoff presents the following “moral principles” of framing:

1. Every word evokes a frame — every word brings with it related concepts and images. If I say “cat” you immediately have at your mental fingertips a wealth of associations: paws, purring, petting, bad luck, chasing mice, etc., etc.

2. Words defined within the frame evoke the frame — the word “purr” in the sentence “Tommy purred and twitched his tail” evokes the “cat” frame and you can tell Tommy is probably a cat without my saying so.

3. Negating a frame evokes the frame — “Don’t think of a cat” paradoxically requires you to think of a cat in order to “not” think of it.

4. Evoking the frame reinforces the frame — because of the way the brain works, every time the “cat” circuit is activated, it becomes stronger. Even negative references to a frame reinforce the life of the frame, making it seem ever more familiar, acceptable, “real.”

You can detect these “moral principles” in many of the political mechanisms of the Republican Party, which has spent millions of dollars in recent decades for research on and development of effective use of language. The resulting elections won and legislation passed has for me validated Lakoff’s theory.

Why should the world of general semantics take notice of this theory?

First and most obviously, framing concerns language, and we have an interest in anything that brings consciousness of language use to the public’s attention. One of the two major parties has begun a fundamental, nation-wide discussion of how the words politicians use can influence the way voters evaluate the issues that should decide elections. The other major party has apparently known about framing for years and has quietly institutionalized it into their national and local organizations. Something that has changed political language this extensively demands our attention and study.

Second, the principles of framing, as described by Lakoff, make use of certain formulations of general semantics, and we might want to consider the implications of this coincidence. For example, we might word the four moral principles this way:

1. The definition of a word depends on the organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment. A word does not exist in a vacuum but relates to many other words and images for its comprehension. (A word evokes a frame.)

2. You understand a word on the basis of a mental map, and you bring to bear the entire map on the matter of understanding. (Words defined within the frame evoke the frame.)

3. Using a word, regardless of purpose, involves traversing the map you use to understand the word. (Negating a frame evokes the frame.)

4. Mental processes build mental habits. The repeated use of a word can lead to familiarity and familiarity can obstruct consciousness of abstraction. (Evoking the frame reinforces the frame.)

Thinking of frames in terms of maps reminds us that the frame cannot convey “all” about the subject any more than the map can fully convey the territory it represents.

I think we could say that Lakoff’s publicizing of the issue of metaphoric framing encourages consciousness of abstracting and delayed reactions. Knowing that politicians or newscasters might use selected words to evoke a frame that will influence your ability to evaluate their messages gives you some chance of avoiding the immediate reaction in favor of a more considered, and possibly contrary, opinion.

For general semantics, as a subject of study and as a tool for personal growth, Lakoff’s model represents an interesting and useful development. I submit that we will benefit from following the development of his work and from observing any influence the theory of framing may have on the political language of tomorrow.


As a sign that the Democratic Party has come to see the value of Lakoff’s insights on language and framing, we note the recent election of former Presidential candidate Governor Howard Dean as the new chair for the Democratic National Committee. Dean has promoted Lakoff’s framing theories within the party and in his election suggests that we can expect more from the Democrats on this subject in the future.


Gale, W., and Slemrod, J. “Resurrecting the Estate Tax.” Policy Brief, 62, Brookings Institute, Washington, DC, 2000.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. 2004. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Lakoff, George. Metaphors We Live By. 1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. “Simple Framing.” 2003. Rockridge Institute. See http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/projects/strategic/simple_framing.

Powell, Bonnie. “Framing the issues.” UC Berkeley News. 27 October 2003. Also at http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff. shtml.

“The Persuaders.” FrontLine. PBS. 9 November 2003. Transcript. See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/etc/script.html.


* Nora Miller, Assistant Editor of ETC, lives near Portland, Oregon, where she has undertaken to discover what joy may come from the form of living called “early retirement.” This involves technical support for a small government website, freelance editing, writing and photography, taking care of an also-retired significant other, and looking for sun wherever she can find it.

Written by NewsFrames

August 17, 2016 at 1:35 pm

%d bloggers like this: