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In language, a metaphor (from the Greek: metapherin) is a rhetorical trope defined as a direct comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects. In the simplest case, this takes the form: "The [first subject] is a [second subject]." More generally, a metaphor 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.

Within rhetorical theory metaphor is generally considered to be a direct equation of terms that is more forceful and assertive than an analogy, although the two types of tropes are highly similar and often confused. One distinguishing characteristic is that the assertiveness of a metaphor calls into question the underlying category structure, whereas in a rhetorical analogy the comparative differences between the categories remain salient and acknowledged. Similarly, metaphors can be distinguished from other closely related rhetorical concepts such as metonymy, synecdoche, simile, allegory and parable.


Aspects of metaphor

A 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.

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 quote 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 woman" are a secondary tenor and "players" is the vehicle for this secondary tenor.

The metaphor is sometimes further analyzed 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 have their exits and their 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' and 'vehicle' in George Lakoff's terminology are target and source. In this nomenclature, metaphors are named using the convention "target IS source", with the word "is" always capitalized; in this notation, the metaphor discussed above would state that "humankind IS theater".

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 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.
  • A mixed metaphor is one that leaps, in the course of a figure, to a second identification inconsistent with the first one. Example: "He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns," where two commonly used metaphors 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 stand 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.
  • 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.'" (Black Adder)
  • A synechdochic 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 Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock. 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. Example: "You are my sun."
  • 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. Example: "He has the wild stag's foot." This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring.
  • An absolute or paralogical metaphor (sometimes called an antimetaphor) is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Examples:
    • "The couch is the autobahn of the living room."
    • "Six Flags is the aquarium of roller coasters."
  • 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 one in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Example: "Cool it". In this example, the vehicle, "cool", is a temperature and nothing else, so the tenor, "it", can only be grounded to the vehicle by one attribute.
  • A root metaphor is the underlying association that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding life as a dangerous journey, seeing life as a hard test, or thinking of life as a good party. 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.
    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 Coined in his essay Politics and the English Language George Orwell calls a dead metaphor one that has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of developing original language to express an idea. It is all but dead. In short, it is 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.

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


Originally, metaphor was a Greek word meaning "transfer". The Greek etymology is from meta, implying "a change" and pherein meaning "to bear, or carry".

In modern Greek, the word metaphor also means transport or transfer.

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" or "as." 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); in this case, metaphor is the umbrella term for making comparisons between unlike concepts, and simile describes the figure where one makes the comparison explicit.

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.

Despite the similarity of the two figures, the distinction between them is often focused upon when the terms are introduced to students. "Not knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor" is sometimes used as a euphemism for knowing little about rhetoric or literature and many lists of literary terms define metaphor as "a comparison not using like or as", showing the emphasis often put on this distinction.

Although in practice their use is often synonymous, in a rigorous sense, their meanings can be understood to be quite different. Whereas simile explicitly describes a comparison, metaphor asserts an identity. A simile always expresses something trivially true (anything can be likened to anything else), whereas a metaphor always expresses something patently false (which the listener must then make sense of). In other words, one could argue that when listening to an active metaphor, the listener always visualizes something false before analyzing the phrase metaphorically. On the other hand, a simile requires a different kind of analysis: the listener is explicitly asked to compare two objects rather than being forced to when confronted with an otherwise nonsensical phrase. In both cases, this analysis depends on the assumption that listeners think of the literal meaning first, which is only guaranteed when a comparison is fresh.

There are cases where the use of a simile rather than a metaphor makes a clear difference in meaning or listener expectation. Using a simile as opposed to a metaphor can clarify an 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 at least a second interpretation, that the reason for the posture is in question. Using a simile rather than a metaphor can add meaning by calling attention to the process of comparison, as in, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." The point is not to compare a person to a fish, but to ask the reader to consider how the woman is like the fish. Similarly, when speakers wish to call attention to a particularly unexpected comparison, they typically use a simile rather than a metaphor, as in the Magnetic Fields line, "When I'm with you, it's like I'm on the moon; I can hardly breathe but I feel lighter." 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. A final difference is that in practice, often-used metaphors can "wear away" into dead metaphors as listeners come to learn metaphorical meanings by rote rather than making sense of seemingly nonsensical assertions, whereas a simile, because it explicitly calls attention to the act of comparison, is not as susceptible to the loss of metaphoricity. Thus, although for fresh comparisons metaphors are typically seen as "stronger" than similes, similes can retain their metaphorical nature more consistently than metaphors precisely because they are not likely to be reanalyzed as secondary meanings of words or phrases.

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)

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.
  • Max Black. (1962). Models and Metaphor. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
  • Donald Davidson. (1978). "What Metaphors Mean." Reprinted in Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation. (1984). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Jacques Derrida. (1982). "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." In Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Turner (1989). More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • I. A. Richards. (1936). The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Paul Ricoeur. (1977). The Rule of Metaphor. Trans. Robert Czerny. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
  • Sheldon Sacks ed. (1978). On Metaphor. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Roger M. White. (1996). The Structure of Metaphor:The Way the Language of Metaphor Works. Oxford, Basil Blackwell Publishing.

External links

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