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Cancer is a tumultuous journey: A cross-linguistic analysis of metaphor

Linguistic Colloquium: Dr. Oana David (UC Merced) explores the linguistic use of metaphor in communications about cancer.

Oct 30, 2017
from 03:15 PM to 04:30 PM

Social Science 273

Cancer is a tumultuous journey: A cross-linguistic analysis of metaphor

Oana David
University of California, Merced

The metaphoric construal of cancer has drawn a lot of recent attention in linguistics (Demmen et al. 2015). Because multi-lingual studies of illness metaphors are rare, I seek to address several open questions about potent cancer metaphors such as cancer is a journey and cancer is a war, the latter of which has been shown to be detrimental to patient morale (Hauser & Schwarz 2015). First, to what extent are these metaphors found in languages other than English? Second, should the negative feelings associated with cancer is war be attributed to language-independent conceptual metaphor, or is there something about the language’s lexicogrammatical structures that generate negative affect?

To address these questions I present two studies. Study 1 is a computer-aided investigation of cancer metaphors in a custom-made corpus of English and Spanish patient blogs. This investigation reveals not only cross-linguistic, but also gender differences in how metaphors are employed in first-person narratives. Study 2 is an experiment using vignettes that manipulate the argument structure of sentences conveying violence metaphors in English and Spanish (e.g., the cancer attacked John vs. John attacked cancer). Results indicate that the grammar, rather than the metaphor itself, is yielding effects suggestive of differing degrees of pessimism regarding health outcomes.


Demmen, J., Semino, E., Demjén, Z., Koller, V., Hardie, A., Rayson, P., & Payne, S. (2015). A computer-assisted study of the use of Violence metaphors for cancer and end of life by patients, family carers and health professionals. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 20(2), 205–231.

Hauser, D. J., & Schwarz, N. (2015). The war on prevention: Bellicose cancer metaphors hurt (some) prevention intentions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 1–12

Dr. Oana David received her Ph.D. in 2016 in Linguistics from University of California, Berkeley, one MS in 2010 in Linguistics and Philology and another in 2009 in Japanese Studies, both from Oxford University, and received her BA in Anthropology and Japanese Language & Literature from Boston University in 2003. She is currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Merced, conducting research on computational and experimental approaches to the study of metaphor in communications about immigration, climate change, disease and other societal challenges.


Free and open to the public.