Factors that Influence the Processing of Noun-Noun Metaphors

Juana Park, Faria Sana, Christina L. Gagné, Thomas L. Spalding

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review


We analyzed the processing of noun-noun metaphors (e.g., velvet lips), which have been relatively understudied, compared to other types of figurative expressions, such as X is Y metaphors (e.g., Her lips are velvet) and similes (e.g., Her lips are like velvet). Experiment 1 revealed that noun-noun metaphors are semantically comparable to X is Y metaphors and similes, in the sense that the figurative meaning stays the same across these three different formats (e.g., participants agree to similar degrees that Lips are velvet, Lips are like velvetand velvet lips all mean that lips are soft). Experiment 2 showed that noun-noun metaphors behave similarly to compound words: In the same way that compound words with semantically opaque heads (e.g., jailbird) are processed slower than compounds with transparent heads (e.g., strawberry), noun-noun phrases with metaphorical heads (e.g., relationship patch) are processed slower than noun-noun phrases with literal heads and metaphorical modifiers (e.g., bandaidsolution). Experiment 3 determined that noun-noun metaphors behave similarly to X is Y metaphors: In the same way that X is Y metaphors require the inhibition of irrelevant features (e.g., Some barrels are wooden interferes with the interpretation of Some stomachs are barrels because the former activates irrelevant features of barrel that later need to be suppressed), noun-noun metaphors also involve inhibition (e.g., jean patch interferes with the interpretation of relationship patch because the former activates certain features of patch, such as being made of cloth, that are irrelevant for the proper comprehension of the noun-noun metaphor).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-44
Number of pages25
JournalMetaphor and Symbol
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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