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figurative language


figurative language

Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine, 397


Language in which figures of speech (such as metaphors and metonyms) freely occur. Contrast with literal speech or language.

Figurative language can also be defined as any deliberate departure from the conventional meaning, order, or construction of words. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

"If something happens literally," says children's author Lemony Snicket, "it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters.”
(The Bad Beginning. Thorndike Press, 2000)

See also:



  • "It is midmorning. A few minutes ago I took my coffee break. I am speaking figuratively, of course. There's not a drop of coffee in this place and there never has been."
    (Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction. Random House, 1971)

  • Metaphors
    "Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food."
    (Austin O'Malley, Keystones of Thought)

  • Similes
    "The Duke's moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939)

  • Hyperbole
    "I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far."
    (Mark Twain, "Old Times on the Mississippi")

  • Understatement
    "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse."
    (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, 1704)

  • Metonymy
    The suits on Wall Street walked off with most of our savings.

  • Chiasmus
    "You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget."
    (Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 2006)

  • Anaphora
    "Anaphora will repeat an opening phrase or word;
    Anaphora will pour it into a mould (absurd)!
    Anaphora will cast each subsequent opening;
    Anaphora will last until it's tiring."
    (John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Yale Univ. Press, 1989)

Kinds of Figurative Language
"(1) Phonological figures include alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. In his poem 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' (1842), Robert Browning repeats sibilants, nasals, and liquids as he shows how the children respond to the piper: 'There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling / Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling.' Something sinister has started. (2) Orthographic figures use visual forms created for effect: for example, America spelt Amerika (by left-wing radicals in the 1970s and as the name of a movie in the 1980s) to suggest a totalitarian state. (3) Syntactic figures may bring the non-standard into the standard language, as in US President Ronald Reagan's 'You ain't seen nothing yet' (1984), a nonstandard double negative used to project a vigorous, folksy image. (4) Lexical figures extend the conventional so as to surprise or entertain, as when, instead of a phrase like a year ago, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote a grief ago, or when the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde said at the New York Customs, 'I have nothing to declare but my genius.' When people say that 'you can't take' something 'literally,' they are generally referring to usage that challenges everyday reality: for example, through exaggeration (the hyperbole in 'loads of money'), comparison (the simile 'like death warmed up'; the metaphor 'life is an uphill struggle'), physical and other associations (the metonymy 'Crown property' for something owned by royalty), and a part for a whole (the synecdoche 'All hands on deck!')."
(Tom McArthur, The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)


  • "Figures are as old as language. They lie buried in many words of current use. They occur constantly in both prose and poetry."
    (Joseph T. Shipley, Dictionary of World Literary Terms, 1970)

  • "Traditionally, figurative language such as metaphors and idioms has been considered derivative from and more complex than ostensibly straightforward language. A contemporary view . . . is that figurative language involves the same kinds of linguistic and pragmatic operations that are used for ordinary, literal language."
    (Sam Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)

  • "At no place in Book III [of the Rhetoric] does Aristotle claim that these devices [figures] serve an ornamental or emotional function or that they are in any way epiphenomenal. Instead, Aristotle's somewhat dispersed discussion suggests that certain devices are compelling because they map function onto form or perfectly epitomize certain patterns of thought or argument."
    (Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)

  • "The emergence of nonliteral language as a respectable topic has led to a convergence of many fields: philosophy, linguistics and literary analyses, computer science, neuroscience, and experimental cognitive psychology, to name a few. Each of these fields has enriched the scientific understanding of the relation between language and thought."
    (A.N. Katz, C. Cacciari, R. W. Gibbs,, Jr., and M. Turner, Figurative Language and Thought. Oxford Univ. Press, 1998)

  • "This new view of the poetics of mind has the following general characteristics:
    - The mind is not inherently literal.
    - Language is not independent of the mind but reflects our perceptual and conceptual understanding of experience.
    - Figuration is not merely a matter of language but provides much of the foundation for thought, reason and imagination.
    - Figurative language is not deviant or ornamental but is ubiquitous in everyday speech.
    - Figurative modes of thought motivate the meaning of many linguistic expressions that are commonly viewed as having literal interpretations.
    - Metaphorical meaning is grounded in nonmetaphorical aspects of recurring bodily experiences or experiential gestalts.
    - Scientific theories, legal reasoning, myths, art, and a variety of cultural practices exemplify many of the same figurative schemes found in everyday thought and language.
    - Many aspects of word meaning are motivated by figurative schemes of thought.
    - Figurative language does not require special cognitive processes to be produced and understood.
    - Children's figurative thought motivates their significant ability to use and understand many kinds of figurative speech.
    These claims dispute many beliefs about language, thought, and meaning that have dominated the Western intellectual tradition."
    (Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

  • The Conceptual Metaphor Theory
    "According to the conceptual metaphor theory, metaphors and other forms of figurative language are not necessarily creative expressions. This is admittedly a somewhat unusual idea, as we ordinarily associate figurative language with poetry and with the creative aspects of language. But Gibbs (1994 [above]) suggests that 'what is frequently seen as a creative expression of some idea is often only a spectacular instantiation of specific metaphorical entailments that arise from the small set of conceptual metaphors shared by many individuals within a culture' (p. 424). The conceptual model assumes that the underlying nature of our thought processes is metaphorical. That is, we use metaphor to make sense of our experience. Thus, according to Gibbs, when we encounter a verbal metaphor it automatically activates the corresponding conceptual metaphor."
    (David W. Carroll, Psychology of Language, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)


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