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  • Metaphors and Jokes in the Fragments of Cratinus
  • Naomi Scott

What’s the difference between a metaphor and a joke? At first this might seem a strange question. Indeed, the differences are so obvious, and the similarities so much less so, that the question itself sounds like the opening to a joke in the “What’s the difference between an elephant and a blueberry?” style.1 However, in this article, I am going to suggest that the line between these two categories is far from clear-cut. Using examples from the comic poet Cratinus, I will show firstly that the same fundamental mechanism underlies jokes and metaphors, and secondly suggest that Cratinus’s metaphorical language in fact actively exploits the slippage between these two modes of speech to create humour and expose the inherent absurdities of literary language and convention.

An understanding of the potentially ambiguous line between jokes and metaphors, and the extent to which these two modes of speech may not be entirely distinct categories, provides us with a particularly useful insight into the metaphorical language of Old Comedy. Comedy is hugely rich in metaphorical language,2 and its metaphors range from the large-scale [End Page 231] and structural (for example, the polis-as-oikos metaphor which underpins much of the plot of Aristophanes’ Knights),3 to the frequent short metaphors which colour its poetry. Given that the genre is also, needless to say, rich in humour, a model of metaphor which shows its close likeness to jokes and puns may go some way towards explaining the almost excessive fondness which comedy has for metaphorical language.

Old Comedy also seems to be a good place to start when looking to understand how literary (as opposed to everyday) language works. Comedy often operates at the fault lines of language, exposing the impossibilities which, despite their centrality to the function of language (and especially literary language), might otherwise go undetected. Comedy in general, and (as I argue) Cratinus in particular, also has a tendency towards amplification. We therefore find in comedy literary phenomena such as metaphors in a somewhat exaggerated form, and this very lack of subtlety makes for useful case studies. I hope therefore to show not only that theoretical models of metaphor (and especially the model based on joke theory which I shall propose) have much to offer in our understanding of Old Comedy, but also that comic language in its very comicness has much to offer to our theoretical understanding of literary metaphor.


The contention that metaphors and jokes are underpinned by the same fundamental mechanism rests on the observation that, at their core, both involve taking two apparently disparate ideas and mapping them onto one another. In metaphors, this mapping takes the form of the comparison drawn between the vehicle and the tenor (or source and target), whereby one is understood in terms of the other. From the 1990s onward, there has been interest in understanding this relationship between vehicle and tenor from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. This cognitive approach takes as its starting point the idea that metaphorical comparisons involve the mapping not only of linguistic categories, but also of underlying conceptual [End Page 232] domains. Cognitive approaches stress the embeddedness of metaphorical language in everyday speech. For example, common idiomatic expressions such as “the foundations of a theory” or “constructing an argument” are understood to be the linguistic manifestations of an underlying conceptual metaphor THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS.4

Of these cognitive models, the most dominant has been Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s theory of “conceptual blending,”5 which they set out in their 2002 book: The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. According to Fauconnier and Turner, metaphorical language not only involves the two inputs of vehicle and tenor, it also creates a third mental space in which these two inputs are blended together in an impossible way. The most famous and often cited of Fauconnier and Turner’s examples involves an effort in 1993 to break a longstanding sailing record set in 1853. Newspaper reportage described the 1993 ship as being “4 days ahead” of its 1853 predecessor. According to...