The power of metaphors

My Observer column for today.

At first sight it looked like an April Fools’ joke. A branch of the US intelligence service called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) announced that it would be pouring millions of dollars into a “Metaphor Programme”. “Perhaps it’s a red herring,” observed a colleague, entering into the spirit of the thing. But then we remembered that the US intelligence establishment doesn’t do jokes, on account of it comprising lots of smart folks whose sense of humour was surgically removed at birth. So I read on.

“The Metaphor Programme,” said the solicitation (ie call for research proposals) from IARPA’s Office of Incisive Analysis (I am not making this up), “will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture. In the first phase of the two-phase programme, performers [IARPA’s intriguing term for researchers] will develop automated tools and techniques for recognising, defining and categorising linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text.”

Ah! So it’s computational linguistics on steroids. But why would US spooks suddenly develop an interest in an area that has hitherto been the preserve of humanities scholars?