What Is a Metaphor? Definition and Examples
What Is a Metaphor? Definition and Examples
Image by rangizzz on Shutterstock
A metaphor draws a direct comparison between two seemingly unrelated ideas. Used in many forms of writing as well as other forms of creative expression, metaphors can add meaning, expressive power, and beauty to a piece.
Let’s dive in and explore different ways to use this literary device.
What Is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is a semantic transposition where a word or idea that belongs to one context is used to describe another. In Greek, the word “metaphero” literally means “to transfer.” It transfers meaning from one realm to another.
So every metaphor has a source domain, the actual world, and a target domain, the imagined world.
The trick when creating metaphors is to see which features from both domains are compatible with each other. This becomes clear by looking at common metaphors like:
“I’m feeling blue.” The source domain is the realm of feelings; the target domain the world of colors. The feature “blue” here is mapped onto the feeling of sadness because they relate well.
“This is breaking my heart.” This one is less direct since there are two target domains here to describe the source domain of feelings. The first target domain is human organs, since the heart is taken to be the vessel of our emotions. The second target domain is physics, since the action of breaking a solid piece of material corresponds well to what happens when our feelings get hurt.
“I’m pushing a boulder up a hill” relates to Sisyphus from Greek mythology, and evokes the idea that a task is impossible to complete.
“All the world’s a stage.” This iconic line from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It directly draws the comparison between a source domain; the world we live in, and a target domain; the world of theater. This famous early use of metaphor indicates that, while there are no literal spotlights and cameras aimed on us, people do live that way, wearing a costume and presenting themselves as a fictive character to others from day to day.
Having covered the basics, it should now be easy to recognize a metaphor. You will in fact find that you are already using them by the dozens every day. Next, we will see that different types of metaphors can be more direct or indirect in their description.
Types of Metaphors
Image by Burhan Bunardi on Shutterstock
There are five types of metaphors:
A standard metaphor directly states the comparison between two entities as if they were synonyms. Most common metaphors fall under this category. Some examples:
“She’s the light of my life.”
“He’s a paper tiger.”
“America is a patchwork of people.”
Be wary that metaphors can quickly lose their impact when overused. Sometimes it’s better to get creative and devise a new twist of English to say the same thing. For example, we could combine metaphor with alliteration and phrase something like “L.A. Galaxy’s new left-winger is a low-lying lion looking to lunge.”
In an implied metaphor, we don’t reveal the comparison between two entities directly, but imply it by a subtle shift in wording. Here are a few examples:
“The singer howled some high notes to wrap up her concert.” The implied metaphor here compares the woman to a wolf, a creature unable to be a real musician.
“My Mustang is a real gas-guzzler.” Here, a car is indirectly compared to a living creature—twice.
Here we can also get creative and make up our own language without directly revealing the meaning.
For example, instead of “Can you pick up the kids?” we could say “Can you go and harvest the sprouts?” The relationship between kids and baby vegetables is not made explicit but needs to be inferred from the context.
Johnson Wax Headquarters, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image by Tony Savino on Shutterstock
In a visual metaphor, it’s not the language but an image that draws a connection between two dissimilar conceptual realms.
It is most recognizable in luxury car brand logos, like Ferrari’s stallion suggesting untamed strength and speed, and Rolls-Royce’s winged lady representing the ecstasy felt when the experience of driving a car becomes like soaring through the sky.
Visual metaphors are most powerfully used in advertising, where images and animations evoke certain feelings, associations, and ideas without directly revealing the meaning. For example:
The lion of the eponymous chocolate bar stands for the power felt when breaking its crunchy layers.
The way ice cream commercials show molten chocolate is intended to evoke the same sensual pleasure as experienced when eating the ice cream.
Some SUV car brands insert a rhinoceros in their advertisements to signify their vehicle’s unrivaled power.
A World Wildlife Federation campaign about global warming depicted the world as melting ice cream—two unrelated concepts, but the meaning is clear at first glance.
The idea of the visual metaphor is also used to make icons more graspable in graphical user interfaces since the heyday of modern operating systems. Common desktop metaphors now taken for granted are often based on real-world manipulations or physics, such as:
The trash bin for discarded files.
Folders for file collections.
Cutting, pasting, plus drag-and-drop actions to move files from one location to the other.
Visual metaphors extend beyond two-dimensionality into architecture and product design:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the Johnson Wax Headquarters includes giant mushroom-shaped pillars to evoke the sense that buildings are part of the natural world.
Works by Le Corbusier, Rietveld, and most notably the Centre Pompidou in Paris express the idea that buildings are like machines.
The Senseo coffee maker was explicitly given a bowing posture to reinforce its personality as a subservient butler.
The bird-shaped whistle on Michael Graves’ tea kettle design for Alessi suggests that everyday products are alive like animals. So instead of an onomatopoeia that sounds like what it describes, this product looks like what it sounds like.
When expressing a new idea by transferring a recognizable element from a representative realm onto the real world, it’s not difficult to get creative:
An olive oil bottle could be shaped like an Erlenmeyer flask to indicate that cooking should be approached like a chemical experiment.
A television camera could be shaped like a bazooka to emphasize the intrusive nature of filming and the warzone sensation journalism can create.
A video game controller could be shaped like a dog bone to reflect the situation being all about short-term rewards.
A USB stick could be shaped like a walnut which symbolizes the brain, in turn indicating the intelligent content on the device for a more hidden metaphoric meaning.
An extended metaphor is used to draw a sustained similarity between one concept and another, usually for the sake of creative expression. Multiple features of the target domain are used along the course of a text to describe what’s happening in the actual world.
A striking example is Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem O Captain, My Captain about Abraham Lincoln’s leadership of the nation through a journey all the way up to his death.
When using extended metaphors, the risk is that overusing metaphorical elements can render it into a parody of itself. So always make sure that every comparison is apt and done in good taste. It’s essential that such texts are meticulously crafted to the point of perfection where the metaphor truly hits home.
The extended metaphor also doesn’t work to make a serious point or construct an argument, since being a comparison between two incompatible realms it will inherently contain critical fallacies. In other words: since the two realms aren’t the same in the first place, it will be easy to pinpoint holes in these arguments. Use the extended metaphor for humor or creative expression only.
A metaphor is dead when it is so often used that its meaning is immediately understood and it has lost all imaginative power. Since the phrasing is now simply part of common vocabulary, its use is no longer clever or witty.
Falling in love.
Hanging up the phone.
Shooting some footage.
Approaching a deadline.
Hands on a clock face.
Many words in common use now are dead metaphors that once upon a time conjured up specific associations. For example, “creativity” evoked ideas of a divine creator, whereas now the word has lost the connection and has simply come to stand for human activity.
Other Types of Comparison
Image by fran_kie on Shutterstock
The question “What is a metaphor?” often arises out of confusion with other modes of figurative language like analogy, simile, metonymy, and synecdoche. Remembering that the hallmark of a metaphor is its comparison of two features from entirely unrelated domains, the distinctions will become clear.
Some examples of similes:
They’re like two drops of water.
He’s free as a bird.
She’s cute as a button.
An analogy is also a literal comparison. But where a simile mostly serves as an observation or remark, the meaning of an analogy is only clear when seen in the context of making an argument.
For example, the saying “Life is like a box of chocolates…” is an analogy because it leads to a point: “…you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Here are some other examples of analogies:
What a child is to a parent, a novel is to a writer.
Talking about art is like cooking about dancing.
A metonymy is a figure of speech closely related to a metaphor, except that the source and target domain are already related in some way. It’s also not a synonym in that it’s closely related yet not equivalent to the thing it’s describing.
Some examples of a metonymy:
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” The pen here stands for language, the sword for action.
“Hollywood” can mean show business in general.
“Silicon Valley” in the same way represents Big Tech.
The synecdoche is like the metonymy with the subtle distinction that here, one feature of an object represents the whole. For example:
“Jet” can refer to the entire airplane.
“Wheels” can mean “car.”
“Toilet” can mean the entire bathroom.
When to Use Metaphors
Image by fetrinka on Shutterstock
There are several purposes for which to use metaphors. A metaphor can:
Clarify a situation with an immediately graspable symbolic phrase. When using your imagination, see if you can come up with a metaphorical phrasing to replace an otherwise lengthy description.
Deepen the reader’s understanding of the situation by adding another semantic layer, for example to accurately describe a character’s psychological state.
Add expressive power for the language to be less banal, negative, or direct. For example, instead of saying “Ted came home from his tiresome job,” you could say “Ted came home from work with his shoes filled with lead.” This is also used in advertising, for example a candy brand will not state something straightforward like “It tastes great,” but instead suggests that you “taste the rainbow.”
Beautify the reader’s experience with rich mental imagery. Novelists often do this by referring to things like art, music, celestial bodies, or nature to describe everyday situations.
Add humor to lighten up the mood. A well-placed metaphor can make for a witty creative bridge that catches the reader off-guard. Extended metaphors can take the story so far out of its original context that it becomes funny or acquires a different, unexpected meaning.
Image by FOTOGRIN on Shutterstock
In a way, language is a metaphor in its entirety. Spoken utterances compared with objects or events in our day-to-day existence are two dissimilar realms. They get connected by language. So language itself is a device of metaphor.
It’s also a dead one, because we don’t notice the metaphorical aspect of it anymore. We don’t notice how special language is because we use it every day. But that does explain why metaphorical power fades, and why it’s so natural to think in terms of metaphors: our brain simply likes to interlace meaning upon meaning to advance its own ingenuity.
Nonetheless, a well-crafted metaphor can level-up your writing. Writing becomes a play between the conventional and the unconventional, while making readers see things in a different light.
For a metaphor to work, it has to be intelligible yet subtle while adding an expressive charge. So it’s worth spending some time iterating it to perfection to find that Goldilocks moment where the relationship of the thing you’re describing, the target domain, to its signifier, the source domain, is “just right.”