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A nation divided: Metaphors and scenarios in the media coverage of the 2016 British EU referendum

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Abstract

2016 saw the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, in which almost half of the voters went with one option, while just over a half cast their ballot for the other. In this paper, we will investigate what metaphors and scenarios were used in news reports and opinion pieces on the country’s most popular national news websites the day after the vote. Using the Metaphor Identification Procedure (Pragglejaz, 2007), we identified metaphors for the UK electorate and political establishment and analysed them qualitatively. Results show widespread use of spatial and ontological metaphors (e.g. ‘the towns and estates left behind’, ‘deeply divided opinion’). While the spatial metaphor is used to represent the relationship between the electorate and the establishment, the ontological metaphor serves to construe divides within these groups. What is more, the spatial metaphor is perspectivised by image schemas (e.g. FRONT-BACK) whereas the ontological metaphor is specified by particular source domains (e.g. War/Violence:1 ‘voters were bombarded with hysterical threats’). Such specific source domains also motivate more dynamic metaphor scenarios (Musolff, 2006, Semino et al., 2016), i.e. mini-narratives featuring actors, actions and evaluations.
Our analysis provides a data-driven model of the relations between metaphors, image schemas, source domains and scenarios. As such, it adds conceptual complexity to Musolff’s (2006) notion of metaphor scenarios while simultaneously testing Kövecses’ (2017) taxonomy of metaphor against discourse data. We thereby demonstrate how the analysis of discourse can benefit from cognitive semantics and how, vice versa, conceptual metaphor theory can be advanced through empirical studies.