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What Are the Different Uses of Illness as Metaphor?

By Bryce Clinton
Updated May 17, 2024
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Throughout history, the use of illness as metaphor has existed in almost every mode of communication. Metaphors of sickness and disease have been used widely in writing, politics, and everyday speech to reference things considered bad or threatening. In novels and political discourse, the use of illness as metaphor is sometimes ongoing and thematic, with complicated literary or rhetorical dimensions. In other types of language, sickness or disease is used metaphorically for effect by means of comparisons, similes, and figures of speech.

The different uses of illness as metaphor go hand in hand with the human tendency to compare things to the human body. Analogies to the human body occur everywhere in language, and they include broad metaphors such as the body of a political system, the brains of an organization, or the heart of a business. Anything that is expected to function in a certain way can be said to be healthy or unhealthy, and particular physical and mental ailments become effective metaphors for describing situations when things aren't functioning the way they should, or when things aren't functioning as someone perceives that they should.

Simple uses of illness as metaphor include applications to things broken or in poor condition. Machines and technology are often described in terms of their health: for example, an unhealthy-sounding engine or a sick computer with a virus. Grass, trees, and fields are similarly described: for example, an unhealthy lawn, a sick tree, or a diseased crop. This might extend to neighborhoods or parts of a country. Likewise, interpersonal, social, economic, and political relationships are all frequently referenced in terms of good or poor health: for example, an unhealthy marriage, a sick society, an ailing business, or a diseased justice system.

Specific illnesses are also used as analogies in arguments and descriptive language. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia, ADD (attention deficit disorder), and Alzheimer's disease are often used as figures of speech for anything that exhibits qualities of disorganization, lack of focus, or forgetfulness. Obesity is sometimes applied to excess or surfeit, while anorexia to extreme thinning out, denial, or parsimony. Cancer is used rhetorically, especially in political arguments, to describe anything dangerous, pernicious, or insidious. This would include things that are very bad, hard to see, and operating with a hidden, self-serving, or malicious agenda.

In literature and philosophy, authors have extensively used illness as metaphor to describe religious, social, and political ills. The 19th-century Symbolist and Decadent movements frequently used metal illness as an analog for artistic sensibility. Various modern schools of literature and philosophy, such as Existentialism, made frequent analogies between sickness and spiritual, social, and political corruption or malaise. In the late twentieth century, extensive scholarly attention was given to the many literary uses of sickness and disease, making illness and pathology a popular trope for literary criticism and theory.

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Discussion Comments

By discographer — On Oct 10, 2014

I used this type of metaphor today. I read a film script and said that the script is suffering from attention deficiency disorder. I said so because the script is all over the place, it's not uniform and the transmission from one scene to another is very poorly done. It's a good metaphor isn't it?

By candyquilt — On Oct 09, 2014

@stoneMason-- That reminds me of Hamlet, where Denmark's condition is likened to disease and decay. Isn't this line in the beginning of he play "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark?"

But in Hamlet, I think that disease or illness is also a metaphor for people's personality or character. Denmark is rotten because people have become rotten. Hamlet's uncle killing his father, Hamlet's mother marrying his uncle, are all signs of decaying morality in society. Shakespeare talks a lot about carrion -- decaying flesh accompanied by a foul smell. Even Claudius, Hamlet's uncle accept his crime and talks about how the foul odor of his deed could be smelled in heaven.

Shakespeare is a pro at metaphors. He uses them so well and illness is one of his favorites, especially in Hamlet.

By stoneMason — On Oct 09, 2014

In literary works, a country in turmoil is often described as an ill body. And I think that it's a very apt metaphor. A country in conflict or a country suffering from corruption is "unhealthy" just as an ill man.

I actually thinks that this idea actually stems from a man or woman representing a nation. For example, a woman in a story may be symbolic of a "motherland" and if she is ill, it means that the motherland is in trouble. It's suffering, it's in turmoil, it's unwell.

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