Metaphors in Computing

Cyberwarfare – More than a Metaphor?

The concept of WAR is deeply manifested in our cognition and (in at least Western European culture) an often used source domain; i.e. ARGUMENT IS WAR is a culturally bound metaphor which evolved from the source domain being the origin of the target domain, i.e. argument emerged from war. We fight with words, attack our opponent’s position, defend our point and want to win the argument. It needs to be pointed out that we do not simply talk about arguing in terms of war, we conceive of arguing as a war-like situation (Lakoff/Johnson 2003: 4, 9). Metaphorical concepts may be culture-specific and bound to certain contexts or discourse traditions. Nevertheless, universally understood metaphorical concepts prove that metaphors arise from the fundamental principles of human cognition, they are based on human experiences.

Cyberwarfare is defined as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” (Clarke 2010) Here again, WAR is used as a source domain for a rather complex and moreover intangible target: virtual attacks in cyberspace via networks. This short description already proves the extent to which cyberwarefare produces more and more WAR-based metaphorical expressions.

Book titles like the following that clearly demonstrate how well entrenched this metaphorical concept already is and that it is highly productive :

Brenner, S. (2009). Cyber Threats: The Emerging Fault Lines of the Nation State. Oxford University Press.

Carr, Jeffrey. (2010). Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld. O’Reilly.

Ventre, D. (2010). Cyberguerre et guerre de l’information. Stratégies, règles, enjeux. Hermes-Lavoisier.

Threats, fault lines, cyber underworld and strategies are only few metaphorical expressions that belong to a huge semantic and lexical field which is mapped from WAR to CYBERWAR:

Cyber terrorism, cyber espionage, vandalism, sabotage, (cyber)attacks, cyberbattles, digital combat etc. etc.

“Cyberspace has become the fifth domain of warfare, after land, sea, air and space (Economist: Cyberspace 2010).” Statements like this show that a virtual war is not only understood as a war-like situation but even more precisely understood as a conventional war, i.e. we do not conceive of it as war, it is war. Here the borders of a ‘simple’ conceptualization of an abstract concept (in short: waging war via the Internet) and the fact that we are actually dealing with a new war domain, are blurred. Read the following excerpt from an online article of the NY Times on cyberattacks against the USA and you will recognize that it is almost undetectable whether it reports on a conventional or a cyberwar:

The results were dispiriting. The enemy had all the advantages: stealth, anonymity and unpredictability. No one could pinpoint the country from which the attack came, so there was no effective way to deter further damage by threatening retaliation. What’s more, the military commanders noted that they even lacked the legal authority to respond — especially because it was never clear if the attack was an act of vandalism, an attempt at commercial theft or a state-sponsored effort to cripple the United States, perhaps as a prelude to a conventional war. (Sanger 2010, emphases by LJ)

The metaphorical lexical and semantic field of CYBERWARFARE is nowhere near being exhausted. With the steady technological progress computers, networks and hence cyberspace will steadily revolutionize daily life and as a part of it modern warfare. This is not only in terms of politics, communication sciences and technology an important and noteworthy issue, but as well a linguistically highly thrilling topic to trace and to write about…

Therefore, stay tuned 🙂


Clarke, Richard A. & Robert K. Knake 2010. Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. New York: HarperCollins.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. 2003. Metaphors We Live By, ex. Edn. Chicago: Chicago UP.

Sanger, David E. (writer&reporter), Markoff, John and Shanker, Thom (reporters). New York Times: In Digital Combat, U.S. Finds No Easy Deterrent. 25 Jan 2010. [8/10].

The Economist: Cyberwar: War in the fifth domain: Are the mouse and keyboard the new weapons of conflict? 1 Jul 2010. [8/10].

The Economist: The threat from the internet: Cyberwar: It is time for countries to start talking about arms control on the internet. 1 Jul 2010. [8/10].

CyberspSuch statements cleary ace has become the fifth domain of warfare, after land, sea, air and space