Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

ISBN: 0226468046
ISBN 13: 9780226468044
By: George Lakoff

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About this book

"Its publication should be a major event for cognitive linguistics and should pose a major challenge for cognitive science. In addition, it should have repercussions in a variety of disciplines, ranging from anthropology and psychology to epistemology and the philosophy of science. . . . Lakoff asks: What do categories of language and thought reveal about the human mind? Offering both general theory and minute details, Lakoff shows that categories reveal a great deal."—David E. Leary, American Scientist

Reader's Thoughts


There are a few pages in here that are really relevant to IA and really interesting. I struggled to understand much of the rest of it.


It's not about women or anything feminism related. Rather, it's AMAZING book about cognition and categories of thought.

Kate O'Neill

This book has been an essential piece of my thinking around how we approach the world and frame the concepts we encounter. My work in indexation and taxonomy creation has been heavily influenced by it, and, although it was written well before the digital information onslaught, it continues to provide a relevant framework in dealing with online content and information architecture. A must-read if you want to excel in content strategy.


This book has a lot of interesting information about categories and how they related to human cognition and language. However, it is from the early 90s and voraciously advocates the prototype model of categories, which I think, while useful, has limited application to cognition as a whole. It did provide a useful insight into some of the history of how categories have been viewed and studied across the decade.I stopped after the first half because I began to find the book tedious, and while it would likely hold the attention of a cognitive scientist much longer, my purpose was to read it strictly for the purposes of language.


This book certainly shows you why linguistics is so damn hard: there is an almost infinite number of ways in which concepts can turn out to be related. The title refers to Dyirbal, an native Australian language, where women, fire and dangerous things all end up in the same category, Balan. I just looked this up, to check that I remembered correctly why the Hairy Mary Grub is also Balan. You see, it gives you a painful rash that feels like sunburn, and sunburn is of course related to the sun, and that's like fire...


Tomando como ponto de partida o conceito de categorização em vários povos, Lakoff mostra como modificar o conceito de categorização em si é o mesmo que mudar nosso entendimento do mundo. Grande livro que apresenta uma crítica ao mesmo tempo respeitosa e contundente ao Objetivismo.


A car is usually a self-powered four-wheel vehicle 3-5 meters long that encloses a driver and one to four passengers. This definition is not exhaustive; there has been a three-wheel car, an eight-wheel car; a racecar seats no passengers; early horseless carriages did not enclose the driver and the passengers. Yet the definition describes the prototypical car in the minds of most speakers of English. When asked to draw a car, they would draw something like the prototypical car and not a three-wheeler or an eight-wheeler; when asked, whether a given vehicle is a car or a motorcycle, or a car or a van, they would compare the differences between the vehicle and the prototypical car, the prototypical motorcycle, and the prototypical van. Originally the word meant carriage; when the automobile was invented, the meaning was extended to it; earlier, when the first railroads were built, the meaning was extended to any vehicle moving on rails, whether self-propelled or pulled by a locomotive; thus we have dining cars, sleeping cars and freight cars. An amusement park attraction called the bumper car is a vehicle driven by the visitor that bumps into other such vehicles; it is not self-powered. A toy that looks like a car and has turning wheels is called a toy car. Thus cars are a typical conceptual category of objects: instead of having clear boundaries, with any object inside the boundary as good a representative as any other, there are several prototypical objects, which are linked by analogy and metaphor, and membership in the category is defined by the similarity with a prototype. There must of course be legal definitions of cars in different jurisdictions for the purposes of taxation and licensing, but how did the legislators get the idea of a car? Lakoff argues that categorization is a hugely important part of thinking, and most categories are like that.An Australian Aboriginal language groups nouns into four classes, similar to the three genders of Indo-European languages and the noun classifiers of Chinese. The second class contains women, the Sun, which is connected to women in the tribal mythology, fire, which burns like the Sun, and a poisonous larva, whose poison stings like fire. The metaphorical daisy chain is what transformed the word "Gothic" from "relating to an East Germanic people of the Dark Ages" to "relating to medieval architecture" to "relating to Romantic scary tales set in a castle built in this architecture" to "relating to a subgenre of rock music that evokes the mood of such tales" to "relating to a youth subculture that listens to such music". As the tribe was assimilating into the larger Australian society and its members switching to English and forgetting their mythology and natural history, the second noun class in their speech has been losing members to the fourth class, which contains "everything else", like class 12 of animals in Borges's fictional Chinese encyclopedia. I am still wondering how Chinese ended up with a classifier for lessons, subjects and large guns, and another for people, pigs, and kitchenware.

Petter Nordal

Lakoff's argument is that thinking relies not only on a physical brain, but also on embodied experiences which become metaphors for concepts. A clear headed analysis with far-reaching implicatiions for educators.


The book is kind of old, and the whole premise of "classical categories" not really being a good way of philosophizing/thinking is kind of obvious (though I feel like he sort of misrepresented it), and the rest of it was... ok. I think I'll probably go back and read the first half of the book on types of categories again in the future; I imagine it could be useful to educators or people designing UIs.

Kieran Hamilton

Although prototype theory is no longer current, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, offers valuable insight into the development of cognitive linguistics. With full explorations of the methodology and experimentation used, it gives a full description of the development of the theories and hypothesis expressed. It is this certainly comprehensive in its treatment of the subject matter. Undergraduate readers are encouraged to rather read a Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, as they are equally as comprehensive and far more succinct!


Mi título favorito en un libro de lingüística :P


still reading it, but planning to finish it by the end of this year, it is supposed to be one of the fine work of Linguistic.


This book is not only a fantastic book on linguistics and methods of word categorization, it is also incredibly insightful as to the nature of culture, and how truly different cultural perceptions of the world can be.


This is a well-written, fascinating book about the way that our minds categorize the world around us through metaphor, metonymy, and other grammatical tools. I haven't read such a overwhelmingly academic book since college, and I'm sure I wouldn't have slogged through it if not for reading it with a book club (Ethan and Matt). I'm glad I did stick with it, because it is very interesting. It's the kind of book where as you are reading it, you say, "yes, that's right, yes, oh, I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense" etc. My only gripe is that Lakoff is so determined to present an airtight argument that some of the 600 page book feels redundant. I guess that's what you need to do in the world of academia, but it makes it harder for the layperson to enjoy the book. He spends a lot of time passionately refuting arguments and people I've never heard of. However, I don't think this book was intended for consumption by laypeople, so I guess I can't complain. I am glad I stuck with this book, and I'll take away this: the grammar of a culture's language contains a wealth of information that can help to explain how the culture sees the world and reacts to it.


Delightful. Linguistics theory and application. Perspective on how the words we use affect meaning and meaning affects the words we use, across cultures on many levels.

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