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A Semantic Nightmare by C.S. Lewis: Blus ...

A Semantic Nightmare by C.S. Lewis: Bluspels and Flalansferes

Jun 14, 2024


The essay Bluspels and Flalansferes, originally published in 1939, is a deep dive into the nature of metaphors and their impact on language and thought. C.S. Lewis explores how metaphors, both living and dead, shape our understanding of the world and our communication. The essay examines the distinctions between what Lewis terms the “Master’s metaphor” and the “Pupil’s metaphor” and the consequences of these on how we think and express ideas.

This diagram illustrates the relationship between language, metaphors, and their impact on thought according to C.S. Lewis’s essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare.

  • Language leads to both Metaphors and Literal Language.

  • Metaphors are categorized into Master’s Metaphor and Pupil’s Metaphor.

  • Master’s Metaphor serves as a Teaching Tool.

  • Pupil’s Metaphor functions as a Learning Tool and undergoes Fossilization, leading to:

    • Loss of Original Meaning

    • Impact on Thought

🎨 The Role of Metaphors in Language

Metaphors Everywhere

Language is imbued with metaphors. These metaphors, which may be living, dead, or fossilized, shape how we think and communicate. Lewis points out that even scientific terms are often metaphorical in origin.

Master’s and Pupil’s Metaphor

Lewis distinguishes between the “Master’s metaphor” and the “Pupil’s metaphor.” The Master’s metaphor is one we invent to teach, chosen freely, and used to convey complex ideas. The Pupil’s metaphor, on the other hand, is learned and shapes the learner’s understanding. These metaphors, once internalized, can deeply influence thought.

Dead and Fossilized Metaphors

Over time, metaphors can become dead or fossilized. A dead metaphor is one whose original imagery is forgotten, yet it continues to influence thought unconsciously. A fossilized metaphor is so ingrained in language that it becomes a mere sound without substantial meaning.

🧠 How Metaphors Shape Thought

Independent Thought and Metaphors

Lewis explores whether it is possible to think independently of metaphors. He concludes that while it might seem that we can think without metaphors, in reality, our language and conceptual frameworks are deeply metaphorical.

New Metaphors for Understanding

Creating new metaphors is crucial for maintaining dynamic and meaningful thought. By consciously developing new metaphors, we can better understand and communicate complex ideas.

The Influence of Metaphors on Science

Scientific terms, though seemingly precise, often have metaphorical roots. Recognizing these roots can lead to a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

📜 Historical and Philosophical Context

Debates on Metaphor

The essay references historical debates on the role of metaphors in language and thought. Scholars like Bréal, Ogden, Richards, and Barfield have contributed to the ongoing discussion about whether scientific and philosophical language can ever be truly free of metaphor.

Metaphors in Abstract Concepts

Abstract concepts, such as the soul, are often understood through metaphors. Lewis argues that the imagery associated with these metaphors profoundly impacts our grasp of these ideas.

Evolution of Language

As language evolves, so do the metaphors that shape our thinking. This evolution can lead to the loss of original meanings, but the metaphors continue to influence thought.

🌌 Implications for Communication

Conscious Use of Metaphors

To enhance the clarity and depth of our communication, we must become aware of the metaphors embedded in our language. Recognizing and creating new metaphors can lead to more meaningful expression.

Metaphors in Everyday Language

Lewis highlights that everyday language is filled with metaphors. By understanding these metaphors, we can better navigate and interpret the world around us.

Metaphor and Meaning

The essay underscores that meaning is often derived from metaphor. Without recognizing the metaphorical nature of language, our thinking can become superficial or nonsensical.

🛠 Practical Applications

Enhancing Understanding

By consciously using and understanding metaphors, we can improve our comprehension of complex ideas. This practice is particularly valuable in education and communication.

Creative Metaphors

Encouraging the creation of new metaphors can lead to innovative ways of thinking and expressing ideas. This creativity is essential for intellectual and artistic growth.

Critique and Analysis

Lewis provides a framework for critiquing and analyzing the use of metaphors in language. This framework can be applied to various fields, including literature, science, and philosophy.

💡 Conclusion

C.S. Lewis’s essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare” illuminates the pervasive and powerful role of metaphors in shaping language and thought. By exploring the distinctions between different types of metaphors and their effects on understanding, Lewis provides valuable insights into the nature of communication and cognition. His call for conscious awareness and creative use of metaphors serves as a guide for enhancing clarity and meaning in both everyday and academic discourse.


  1. Metaphor’s Role in Language: The essay argues that metaphors are pervasive in language and crucial for understanding abstract concepts.

  2. Dead Metaphors: Lewis explains how metaphors become ‘dead’ or fossilized, losing their original vividness but still shaping thought.

  3. Master’s and Pupil’s Metaphor: Distinguishes between metaphors created to teach (Master’s) and those learned (Pupil’s), influencing the depth of understanding.

  4. Scientific Metaphors: Discusses how scientific terms are often metaphorical, impacting the way scientific concepts are understood.

  5. Independence of Thought: Analyzes whether thought can be independent of metaphors, concluding that metaphors often limit or shape thinking.

  6. Metaphorical Fossilization: Examines the process by which metaphors become fossilized and their effects on language and thought.

  7. Creating New Metaphors: Stresses the importance of creating new metaphors to enhance understanding and communication.

  8. Historical Debates: References historical debates on the use of metaphors, highlighting their enduring significance in language.

  9. Abstract Understanding: Uses examples like the concept of the soul to show how metaphors shape our understanding of complex ideas.

  10. Evolution of Language: Concludes that as language evolves, the metaphors we use and understand also evolve, often losing their original meanings but continuing to shape thought.


  1. On the pervasiveness of metaphors: “Philologists often tell us that our language is full of dead metaphors.”

  2. On the impact of metaphors: “Our thought is independent of the metaphors we employ in so far as these metaphors are optional.”

  3. On metaphor and meaning: “The meaning in any given composition is in inverse ratio to the author’s belief in his own literalness.”

  4. On the nature of understanding: “We apprehend none of these things except through metaphor.”

  5. On creating new metaphors: “We are never less the slaves of metaphor than when we are making metaphor, or hearing it new made.”

  6. On the limitations of language: “If a man has seen ships and the sea, he may abandon the metaphor of a sea-stallion and call a boat a boat.”

  7. On metaphors in scientific language: “The equations and what-nots are as unreal, as metaphorical, if you like, as the Flatlanders’ sphere.”

  8. On the role of imagination: “Imagination is the organ of meaning.”

  9. On the necessity of metaphors: “When we begin to think of causes, relations, of mental states or acts, we become incurably metaphorical.”

  10. On the evolution of language: “Language evolves, and with it, the metaphors that shape our thinking also evolve, sometimes losing their original meanings.”

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