[From IMTFI blog, 30 January 2013, with Kim Wilson]
The book Metaphors We Live By makes
a compelling case that metaphors are much more than mere linguistic artifacts
or literary flourishes: they are conceptual devices through which we structure
our understanding of the world around us. They permit us to relate fuzzier
concepts which cannot be sharply defined (things such as love and peace) in
terms of physical notions which we can experience more directly through our
We thought we’d try their logic on the concept of money. Specifically: what
does how we talk about money tell us about how we conceive it?
In the first instance we tend to look at money as a resource, and
as such it can be earned, spent, set aside, used. We can even make it.
We think of the money resource in very physical terms. It is measurable because
it can have mass (as in he has a ton of money), volume (buckets
of money), or extension (raising or putting up
money). It is appreciable through our full sensory range: he touches
money daily, he reeks of wealth, show me the money, money
talks. Wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of his female protagonist in The
Great Gatsby, “Her voice is full of money (...) – that was the
inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it.” Because of its
importance in daily life, the money resource is often analogized in terms of
basic foodstuffs, as in dough or bacon. Who said money
is no object?
Conceptualizing money as a resource emphasizes the quantity of money. But
sometimes we need to think of money in more probabilistic terms, in which case
the money as a container metaphor seems more appropriate. Your
bet may be in the money when it is likely to go into your
container: it’s potential money. You’re out a dollar when you
lose it or waste it.
But the more
interesting metaphors relate to money as a substance, where it’s
the condition of the substance rather than its quantity that matters. We can
associate money with temperature: readily-available cash burns a hole
in your pocket. In international finance, speculative, short-term capital
flows are hot money. In West African community finance, l’argent
chaud (hot money) are funds constituted from clients’ resources, while l’argent
froid (cold money) is pumped in as credit from the government or a
bank. Hot money is closer to the heart, and thus hot money loans are always the
first to be repaid.
We also think of money in terms of the states of matter. We like to think of
our monetary wealth as being solid: we freeze money, we
name our currencies after weights (pounds in the UK, pesos in
Latin America), we think of people as being loaded. Easily
available or spendable money we tend to see as being liquid: we
speak of regular cash flows, of pouring or hemorrhaging money,
of pooling it into a slush fund. If you manage
your money well you will stay afloat, you will remain solvent,
and you can avoid going under and having to be bailed
out. The act of spending money is akin to vaporizing it: your account dries
up, you burn money.
Money can also
have a tempo. Dubious traders can be out to make a fast buck, while
economists will tell you that more readily convertible forms of money have
Isn’t it remarkable how consistent the metaphors of money are with
elementary physics. The temperature of a substance, its physical state and the
speed of motion of its particles are all manifestations of the same thing: the
amount of energy embedded in the substance. Long-term or ‘locked-up’ savings we
think of as low-energy (cold, slow, solid) whereas ‘available’ money is higher
energy (hot, fast, liquid).
Could this implicit notion of energy refer to the psychological effort we need
to expend daily to maintain the money, i.e. to not spend it? The process of
freezing or slowing down money is about getting it out of our mind (and our
grip) as much as we can.