1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email




Metaphors for life


A trope or figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common. Adjective: metaphorical.

A metaphor expresses the unfamiliar (the tenor) in terms of the familiar (the vehicle). When Neil Young sings, "Love is a rose," "rose" is the vehicle for "love," the tenor. (In cognitive linguistics, the terms target and source are roughly equivalent to tenor and vehicle.)

For a discussion of the differences between metaphors and similes, see Simile ("Observations").

Types of Metaphors: absolute, burlesque, catachrestic, complex, conceptual, conduit, conventional, creative, dead, extended, grammatical, kenning, mixed, ontological, personification, primary, root, structural, submerged, therapeutic, visual

See also:


Exercises and Quizzes:



From the Greek, "carry over"

Examples and Observations:

  • "Between the lower east side tenements
    the sky is a snotty handkerchief."
    (Marge Piercy, "The Butt of Winter")

  • "The neurotic circles ceaselessly above a fogged-in airport."
    Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner."
    (Cynthia Ozick, "Rosa")

  • "But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill."
    (William Sharp, "The Lonely Hunter")

  • "I can mingle with the stars, and throw a party on Mars;
    I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars."
    (Lil Wayne, "I Feel Like Dying")

  • "Humor is the shock absorber of life; it helps us take the blows."
    (Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution, 1990)

  • "Time, you thief"
    (Leigh Hunt, "Rondeau")

  • "Love is an alchemist that can transmute poison into food--and a spaniel that prefers even punishment from one hand to caresses from another."
    (Charles Colton, Lacon)

  • "Marriage: a souvenir of love."
    (Helen Rowland, Reflections of a Bachelor Girl, 1909)

  • "Men's words are bullets, that their enemies take up and make use of against them."
    (George Savile, Maxims)

  • "Language is a road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going."
    (Rita Mae Brown)

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

  • "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you."
    (J.K. Rowling, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," June 2008)

  • "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, The Color of the Woosters, 1938)

  • "Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations."
    (Faith Baldwin, Face Toward the Spring, 1956)

  • "A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind."
    (William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors)

  • "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)

  • "Under neon signs
    A girl was in bloom
    And a woman was fading
    In a suburban room."
    (Joni Mitchell, "In France They Kiss on Main Street." The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)

  • "My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind."
    (Roger Angell, "This Old Man." The New Yorker, February 17, 2014)

  • "But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It’s a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, 'smooth as silk.' Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name 'Silk Cut' to suggest a cigarette that wouldn’t give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer."
    (David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)

  • Light Metaphors
    "Goethe's final words: 'More light.' Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that's been our unifying cry: 'More light.' . . . Light is more than watts and foot candles. Light is metaphor. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom: Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home: Lead Thou me on! Arise, shine, for thy light has come. Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light."
    (John Corbett as Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure)

    "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
    (John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961)

    "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963)

  • Water Metaphors
    "The rain came down in long knitting needles."
    (Enid Bagnold, National Velvet)

    "The river runs through the language, and we speak of its influence in every conceivable context. It is employed to characterise life and death, time and destiny; it is used as a metaphor for continuity and dissolution, for intimacy and transitoriness, for art and history, for poetry itself. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James first coined the phrase 'stream of consciousness' in which 'every definite image of the mind is steeped . . . in the free water that flows around it.' Thus 'it flows' like the river itself. Yet the river is also a token of the unconscious, with its suggestion of depth and invisible life."
    (Peter Ackroyd, Thames: The Biography. Doubleday, 2007)

    "For we are all swimmers ephemerally buoyed by what will engulf us at the last; still dreaming of islands though the mainland has been lost; swept remorselessly out to sea while we spread our arms to the beautiful shore."
    (Peter De Vries, Peckham's Marbles, 1986)

  • The Birth Metaphor in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
    "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . .

    "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
    (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863)

  • The Metaphor of the Melting Pot
    "From its Dutch beginnings in the 17th century, New York was distinguished among the European colonies by its diversity. Conceptually, the melting pot as a metaphor for mixing disparate cultures can be traced at least as far back as 1782 to a naturalized New Yorker from France . . . later to DeWitt Clinton and Ralph Waldo Emerson."
    (Sam Roberts, "The Melting Metaphor." Only in New York. St. Martin's, 2009)

  • Robert Frost on Metaphorical Thinking
    "Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace' metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, 'Why don’t you say what you mean?' We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections--whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

    "I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking. I find some one now and then to agree with me that all thinking, except mathematical thinking, is metaphorical, or all thinking except scientific thinking. The mathematical might be difficult for me to bring in, but the scientific is easy enough."
    (Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry." Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, Feb. 1931)

  • Notes
    "Metaphor is embodied in language. . . . The strangest thing that human speech and human writing can do is create a metaphor. That is an amazing leap, is it not?"
    (Dennis Potter)

    "The simile sets two ideas side by side; in the metaphor they become superimposed."
    (F.L. Lucas, Style, 1955)

    "It would be more illuminating to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing."
    (Max Black, Models and Metaphors, 1962)

    "Metaphor is the energy charge that leaps between images, revealing their connections."
    (Robin Morgan, Anatomy of Freedom, 1982)

    "I think of metaphors as a more benign but equally potent example of what chemists call hypergolic. You take two substances, put them together, and produce something powerfully different (table salt), sometimes even explosive (nitroglycerine). The charm of language is that, though it's human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations which aren't."
    (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. Vintage Books, 1990)

    "Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this."
    (Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 1945)

    "To an artist a metaphor is as real as a dollar."
    (Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction. Doubleday, 1971)

  • The Lighter Side of Metaphors
    Lenny: Hey, maybe there is no cabin. Maybe it's one of them metaphorical things.
    Carl: Oh yeah, yeah. Like maybe the cabin is the place inside each of us, created by our goodwill and teamwork.
    Lenny: Nah, they said there would be sandwiches.
    (The Simpsons)

    "Have you guys heard any of my metaphors yet? Well come on, sit on grandpa's lap as I tell you how infections are criminals; immune system's the police. Seriously, Grumpy, get up here: it'll make us both happy."
    (Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House in the "Mirror, Mirror" episode of House, M.D., 2007)

    Aaron Sorkin: Listen, lady, . . . this is serious. We make horse buggies. The first Model T just rolled into town.
    Liz Lemon: We're dinosaurs.
    Aaron Sorkin: We don't need two metaphors. That's bad writing.
    ("Plan B." 30 Rock, 2011)


Pronunciation: MET-ah-for

Also Known As: lexical metaphor

Related Video
How to Write a Book Report in 10 Steps
Internship Resume Tips

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.