On April 14, 1912—106 years ago, today—the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank a few hours later, killing more than 1,500 people. Since then, the ship has left a remarkable cultural legacy, inspiring massive public interest, works of art, and a blockbuster movie.
It’s also left an enduring impact on the way we speak. For instance, we say that someone is simply “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” if their efforts seem fruitless.
Countless other metaphors and idioms are inspired by the language of ships. We “set sail” and “steer the course,” guided by our “moral compass.” We make sure that others are “in the same boat” and ensure that they don’t “rock the boat.” We “batten down the hatches” to prepare to “weather the storm,” and if things go wrong, we “jump ship.”
More than mere phrases, these expressions illustrate our tendency to think in terms of metaphors that imbue our lives with a sense of meaning and purpose.
A growing body of psychological research suggests we use metaphors to structure our thoughts and make sense of the world. UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff has proposed that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical, and that we use simple, concrete metaphors to understand complex, abstract concepts.
For example, we often think of life as a journey. We view ourselves as navigating a vehicle or ship through time, looking forward to the future in front of us and looking back at the past behind us. We say that life has “twists and turns,” and that we sometimes “hit a crossroads.” We go through a “rough patch,” “change directions,” or “go down the wrong path,” but we eventually “find our way.”
This metaphor may help us make sense of our lives, but it also has consequences for how we think, and, in some cases, behave. In 2014, social psychologist Mark Landau conducted a series of studies where college students were asked to think of their college experience as a “journey” to their ideal academic self in senior year. Other groups of freshman were told to think of each year of college as a separate container, or with no metaphor at all. When the college experience was framed as a “journey,” students put more effort into academic tasks, and even performed better on final exams a week after the study. Landau suggests that this is because the “journey” metaphor makes your future self feel more connected to your current self, leading you put in more effort to achieve your ideal future self.
We also use “journey” metaphors to talk about love. In fact, Lakoff says that he thought of conceptual metaphor theory when he noticed the coherence of our metaphors for talking about love. Lovers admire “how far they’ve come,” but when a relationship “isn’t going anywhere” or has “hit a dead end,” they “go their separate ways.” And talking about love as a journey may change how we think about relationships. Another study, also conducted by Landau, found that framing a love relationship as a “journey,” rather than as a “perfect union,” caused study participants to report higher relationship satisfaction when thinking about conflicts in their relationship.
Perhaps ship metaphors stick with us more than other journey metaphors because the sea powerfully represents the randomness of life. As much as we try to be the captain of our own ship and control our journey, the waves may push us in another direction. This may not be completely negative, though. We can “go with the flow” and enjoy where the currents take us. We can “weather the storms” of life, knowing that they soon will pass.
Ship metaphors also emphasize that we never journey alone, and are often used to describe interactions with other people (“in the same boat,” “don’t rock the boat,” “close quarters”). These metaphors can represent how a group (“are you on board?”), an organization (“running a tight ship”), or a Nation (“ship of state”) navigates these forces. Metaphors about shipwrecks (“it’s a sinking ship”) or crashed vehicles (“it was a train-wreck”) represent when these journeys go awry.
The Titanic—the most famous shipwreck—might be the perfect metaphor for hubris. As the world’s largest ship at the time, previously billed as “unsinkable,” the Titanic is a cautionary tale of the dangers of overconfidence (this point was satirically expressed by The Onion in the 1999 article “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg”). The way we talk about the Titanic draws striking similarities to how we talk about the fall of Rome: as the demise of something thought too big to fail, brought down by hubris. The expression “fiddling while Rome burns” can be used almost interchangeably with “re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” as a way to talk about ineffectual effort in the face of larger problems.
Even if the language of ships is outdated, ship metaphors remain a persistent part of our language. And, as emerging research suggests, these common expressions, which we may not even notice we are using, can powerfully influence how we think. More than just a tool for storytelling, metaphors help us craft stories out of our own lives and make meaning out of the world around us. And because they have such powerful consequences for how we think, rewriting the metaphors in our lives can allow us to rewrite the story of our lives—and rethink the voyage we are on.