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Metaphor (from the Greek: μεταφορά - metaphora, meaning "transfer") is language that directly compares seemingly unrelated subjects. In the simplest case, this takes the form: "The [first subject] is a [second subject]." More generally, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope that describes a first subject as being or equal to a second subject in some way. Thus, the first subject can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second subject are used to enhance the description of the first. This device is known for usage in literature, especially in poetry, where with few words, emotions and associations from one context are associated with objects and entities in a different context.

For lessons on the topic of Metaphor, follow this link.

A metaphor is generally considered to be more forceful and active than an analogy (metaphor asserts two topics are the same whereas analogy may acknowledge differences). Other rhetorical devices involving comparison, such as metonym, synecdoche, simile, allegory and parable, share much in common with metaphor but are usually distinguished by the manner in which the comparison between subjects is delivered.

Example : The strings of a guitar drive me into the pool of music.


The metaphor, according to I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. Other writers employ the general terms ground and figure to denote what Richards identifies as the tenor and vehicle. Consider: All the world's a stage:-

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7)

This well-known quotation is a good example of a metaphor. In this example, "the world" is compared to a stage, the aim being to describe the world by taking well-known attributes from the stage. In this case, the world is the tenor and the stage is the vehicle. "Men and women" are a secondary tenor and "players" is the vehicle for this secondary tenor.

The metaphor is sometimes further analysed in terms of the ground and the tension. The ground consists of the similarities between the tenor and the vehicle. The tension of the metaphor consists of the dissimilarities between the tenor and the vehicle. In the above example, the ground begins to be elucidated from the third line: "They all have their exits and entrances". In the play, Shakespeare continues this metaphor for another twenty lines beyond what is shown here - making it a good example of an extended metaphor.

The corresponding terms to 'tenor' & 'vehicle' in alternate viewpoint terminology are target and source. In this nomenclature, metaphors are named using the typographical convention "TARGET IS SOURCE", with the domains and the word "is" in small capitals (or capitalized when small-caps are not available); in this notation, the metaphor discussed above would state that "LIFE IS THEATRE". In a conceptual metaphor the elements of an extended metaphor constitute the metaphor's mapping--in the Shakespeare passage above, for example, exits would map to death and entrances to birth.

Metaphors are defined as comparisons without the use of the words "like" or "as", in the average classroom; these comparisons would be called similes.

Terms and categorization

The following are the more commonly identified types of Metaphor:

  • An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. The above quote from As You Like It is a very good example. The world is described as a stage and then men and women are subsidiary subjects that are further described in the same context.
  • An epic or Homeric simile is an extended metaphor containing details about the vehicle that are not, in fact, necessary for the metaphoric purpose. This can be extended to humorous lengths, for instance: "This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you've got a moment, it's a twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof saying 'This Is a Large Crisis.'" (Blackadder)
  • A mixed metaphor is one that leaps from one identification to a second identification that is inconsistent with the first one. Example: "He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns," where two commonly used metaphoric grounds for highlighting the concept of "taking action" are confused to create a nonsensical image.
  • A dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image is not present. Example: "to grasp a concept" or "to gather you've understood." Both of these phrases use a physical action as a metaphor for understanding (itself a metaphor), but in none of these cases do most speakers of English actually visualize the physical action. Dead metaphors, by definition, normally go unnoticed. Some people make a distinction between a "dead metaphor" whose origin most speakers are entirely unaware of (such as "to understand" meaning to get underneath a concept), and a dormant metaphor, whose metaphorical character people are aware of but rarely think about (such as "to break the ice"). Others, however, use dead metaphor for both of these concepts, and use it more generally as a way of describing metaphorical cliché.
  • A synecdochic metaphor is one in which a small part of something is chosen to represent the whole so as to highlight certain elements of the whole. For example "a pair of ragged claws" represents a crab in T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Describing the crab in this way gives it the attributes of sharpness and savagery normally associated with claws.

Other types of metaphor have been identified as well, though the nomenclatures are not as universally accepted:

  • An active metaphor is one which by contrast to a dead metaphor, is not part of daily language and is noticeable as a metaphor. Examples "You are my sun."
  • An absolute or paralogical metaphor (sometimes called an anti-metaphor) is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the idea and the image. Example: "The couch is the autobahn of the living room."
  • An experiential or learning metaphor is an experience that allows one to learn about more than just that experience. Examples: Board-breaking is used in seminars as a metaphor for breaking through emotional boundaries and climbing Kilimanjaro is used as a metaphor for life in Eric Edmeades Adventure Seminars.
  • A complex metaphor is one which mounts one identification on another. Example: "That throws some light on the question." Throwing light is a metaphor and there is no actual light.
  • A compound or loose metaphor is one that catches the mind with several points of similarity. Examples: "He has the wild stag's foot." This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring. "The bloodhounds of the Wiki's Ban Patrol can sniff this out." This suggests tenacity and determination as well as something doglike.
  • An implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: "Shut your trap!" Here, the mouth of the listener is the unspecified tenor.
  • A submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: "my winged thought". Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird.
  • A simple or tight metaphor is two in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Example: "Cool it". In this example, the vehicle, "I'm ", is a temperature and nothing else, so the tenor, "HOT!!!!!!!", can only be grounded to the vehicle by one attribute.
  • A root metaphor is the underlying worldview that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding health as a mechanical process, or seeing life as the natural expression of an "ideal" form (e.g., the acorn that should grow into an oak tree.). A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption. Andrew Goatly has done extensive research on root metaphors in his book The Language of Metaphors, in which he describes the different levels of root metaphors and gives examples.
Religion provides one common source of root metaphors, since birth, marriage, death and other universal life experiences can convey a very different meaning to different people, based on their level or type of religious conditioning or otherwise. For example, some religions see life as a single arrow pointing toward a future endpoint. Others see it as part of an endlessly repeating cycle. In his book World Hypotheses, the philosopher Stephen Pepper coined the term and proposed a theory of four ultimate root metaphors — formism, mechanism, organicism, contextualism.
  • A conceptual metaphor is an underlying association that is systematic in both language and thought. For example in the Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," the conceptual metaphor of "A LIFETIME IS A DAY" is repeatedly expressed and extended throughout the entire poem. The same conceptual metaphor is the key to solving the Riddle of the Sphinx: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at midday, and three in evening? — A man." Similar to root metaphors, conceptual metaphors are not only expressed in words, but are also habitual modes of thinking underlying many related metaphoric expressions.
Because they both underlie more than just the surface metaphoric expression, root metaphors and conceptual metaphors are easily confused. For example: In the United States, both conservatives and liberals use 'family' metaphors for the national politics, though in different ways. Both types of usage would ultimately resolve to "organic" root metaphors in Pepper's nomenclature, while Lakoff would distinguish between several different varieties of the "A NATION IS A FAMILY" metaphor.
  • A dying metaphor is a derogatory term coined by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell defines a dying metaphor as a metaphor that isn't dead (dead metaphors are different, as they are treated like ordinary words), but has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of inventing an original phrase for themselves. In short, a cliché. Example: Achilles' heel. Orwell suggests that writers scan their work for such dying forms that they have 'seen regularly before in print' and replace them with alternative language patterns.
  • An implied or unstated metaphor is a metaphor not explicitly stated or obvious that compares two things by using adjectives that commonly describe one thing, but are used to describe another comparing the two.
    An example: "Golden baked skin", comparing bakery goods to skin or "green blades of nausea", comparing green grass to the pallor of a nausea-stic person or "leafy golden sunset" comparing the sunset to a tree in the fall.

The category of metaphor can be further considered to contain the following specialized subsets:

  • allegory: An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject
  • catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used by design and sometimes a rhetorical fault)
  • parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

Metaphor and Simile

Metaphor and simile are two of the best known tropes and are often mentioned together as examples of rhetorical figures. Metaphor and simile are both terms that describe a comparison: the only difference between a metaphor and a simile is that a simile makes the comparison explicit by using "like", "as", or "than." The Colombia Encyclopedia, 6th edition, explains the difference as:

a simile states that A is like B, a metaphor states that A is B or substitutes B for A.

According to this definition, then, "You are my sunshine" is a metaphor whereas "Your eyes are like the sun" is a simile. However, some describe similes as simply a specific type of metaphor (see Joseph Kelly's The Seagull Reader (2005), pages 377-379). Most dictionary definitions of both metaphor and simile support the classification of similes as a type of metaphor, and historically it appears the two terms were used essentially as synonyms.

Despite the similarity of the two figures, and the fact that they have historically been used as synonyms, it is the distinction between them which is normally focused upon when the terms are introduced to students. Ironically, "not knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor" is sometimes used as a euphemism for knowing little about rhetoric or literature. Of course, someone truly versed in rhetoric understands that there is very little difference between metaphor and simile, and that the distinction is trivial compared to, for example, the difference between metonymy and metaphor. Nonetheless, many lists of literary terms define metaphor as "a comparison not using like or as", showing the emphasis often put on teaching this distinction.

Usually, similes and metaphors could easily be interchanged. For example remove the word 'like' from William Shakespeare's simile, "Death lies on her, like an untimely frost," and it becomes "Death lies on her, an untimely frost," which retains almost exactly the same meaning. However, at other times using a simile as opposed to a metaphor clarifies the analogy by calling out exactly what is being compared. "He had a posture like a question mark" (Corbett, Classical rhetoric for the modern student (1971), page 479) has one possible interpretation, that the shape of the posture is that of a question mark, whereas "His posture was a question mark" has a second interpretation, that the reason for the posture is in question. At other times use of a simile rather than a metaphor adds meaning by calling to attention the process of comparison, as in "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" (Irina Dunn). The point is not to compare a woman to a fish, but to ask the reader to consider how the woman is like the fish. Finally, similes are often more convenient than metaphors when analogizing actions as opposed to things: "Wide sleeves fluttering like wings" (Marcel Proust) does not translate easily from simile to metaphor.

Metaphors in literature and language

Metaphor is present in written language back to the earliest surviving writings. From the Epic of Gilgamesh (one of the oldest Sumerian texts):

My friend, the swift mule, fleet wild ass of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, after we joined together and went up into the mountain, fought the Bull of Heaven and killed it, and overwhelmed Humbaba, who lived in the Cedar Forest, now what is this sleep that has seized you? - (Trans. Kovacs, 1989)

In this example, the friend is compared to a mule, a wild donkey, and a panther to indicate that the speaker sees traits from these animals in his friend.

The Greek plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, among others, were almost invariably allegorical, showing the tragedy of the protagonists, either to caution the audience metaphorically about temptation, or to lambast famous individuals of the day by inferring similarities with the caricatures in the play.

Novelist and essayist Giannina Braschi states, "Metaphors and Similes are the beginning of the democratic system of envy."

Even when they are not intentional, parallels can be drawn between most writing or language and other topics. In this way it can be seen that any theme in literature is a metaphor, using the story to convey information about human perception of the theme in question.

Metaphors in historical linguistics

In historical onomasiology or, more generally, in historical linguistics, metaphor is defined as semantic change based on similarity, i.e. a similarity in form or function between the original concept named by a word and the target concept named by this word[1]. Example: mouse 'small, gray rodent' > 'small, gray, mouse-shaped computer device'.

Some more recent linguistic theories view language as by its nature all metaphorical; or that language in essence is metaphorical.

See also


  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. I. Bywater. In The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. (1984). 2 Vols. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
  • I. A. Richards. (1936). The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Max Black (1954). “Metaphor,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 55, pp. 273-294.
  • Max Black. (1962). Models and Metaphor. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
  • Paul Ricoeur. (1975). The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello, S. J., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1978. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1977)
  • Donald Davidson. (1978). "What Metaphors Mean." Reprinted in Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation. (1984). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Max Black (1979). “More about Metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed) Metaphor & Thought
  • L. J. Cohen (1979). “The Semantics of Metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed) Metaphor & Thought
  • John Searle (1979). “Metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed) Metaphor & Thought
  • Jacques Derrida. (1982). "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." In Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Clive Cazeaux (2007). Metaphor and Continental Philosophy: From Kant to Derrida. New York: Routledge.


  • Cf. Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter, and Blank, Andreas (1998), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, Tübingen: Niemeyer.

External links

Applications and examples
  1. Cf. Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter, and Blank, Andreas (1998), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, Tübingen: Niemeyer.