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What Is a Metaphor?


What Is a Metaphor?
Question: What Is a Metaphor?

Some people think of metaphors as nothing more than the sweet stuff of songs and poems--Love is a jewel, or a rose, or a butterfly. But in fact all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day. They can't be avoided: metaphors are built right into our language.

Here we'll take a look at some of the different kinds of metaphors, with examples drawn from advertisements, poems, essays, songs, and TV programs.


A metaphor, as defined in our glossary, is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something important in common. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek word meaning to "transfer" or "carry across." Metaphors "carry" meaning from one word, image, or idea to another.

When Dr. Gregory House (in the TV series House, M.D.) says, "I'm a night owl, Wilson's an early bird. We're different species," he's speaking metaphorically. When Dr. Cuddy replies, "Then move him into his own cage," she's extending House's bird metaphor--which he caps off with the remark, "Who'll clean the droppings from mine?"

Calling a person a "night owl" or an "early bird" is an example of a common (or conventional) metaphor--one that most native speakers will readily understand. Let's look at some of the different ways a single conventional metaphor can be used.

Conventional Metaphors

Some metaphors are so common that we may not even notice that they are metaphors. Take the familiar metaphor of life as a journey, for example. We find it in advertising slogans:

  • "Life is a journey, travel it well."
    (United Airlines)

  • "Life is a journey. Enjoy the Ride."

  • "Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride with a GM reward card."
    (General Motors)

  • "Life's a journey--travel light"
    (Hugo Boss Perfume)
The same metaphor appears in the lyrics to the Aerosmith song "Amazing":
Life's a journey not a destination
And I just can't tell just what tomorrow brings.
(from the album A Little South Of Sanity)
And though worded differently, the journey metaphor appears again in the chorus to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," a pop song composed by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell:
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return.
While we're on the way to there
Why not share?
Poets also make use of the journey metaphor, as in this well-known work by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken":
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Then there's Isaac Asimov's updated version of the metaphor: "Life is a journey, but don't worry, you'll find a parking spot at the end."

These varied examples all make use of the same basic journey metaphor, though in different ways. In More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989), George Lakoff and Mark Turner describe how accustomed we have become to this metaphor:

When we think of life as purposeful, we think of it as having destinations and paths toward those destinations, which makes life a journey. We can speak of children as "getting off to a good start" in life and of the aged as being "at the end of the trail." We describe people as "making their way in life." People worry about whether they "are getting anywhere" with their lives, and about "giving their lives some direction." People who "know where they're going in life" are generally admired. In discussing options, one may say "I don't know which path to take." When Robert Frost says,
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference

    ("The Road Not Taken")
we typically read him as discussing options for how to live life, and as claiming that he chose to do things differently than most other people do.

This reading comes from our implicit knowledge of the structure of the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor.
In other words, we think metaphorically--whether we're aware of it or not.

Visual Metaphors

Now let's look at another type of poetic metaphor:




As you may have noticed, this short poem by E.E. Cummings (or, as he preferred, e.e. cummings) is actually a double metaphor. He associates loneliness with the falling of a leaf, and also visualizes the experience by isolating letters as they fall down the page.

Modern advertising relies heavily on visual metaphors. For example, in an ad for the banking firm Morgan Stanley (circa 1995), a man is pictured bungee jumping off a cliff. Two words serve to explain this visual metaphor: a dotted line from the jumper's head points to the word "You"; another line from the end of the bungee cord points to "Us." The metaphorical message--of safety and security provided in times of risk--is conveyed through a single dramatic image.

More Examples of Metaphors

In Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing, we consider how these figures of speech are more than just ornaments or decorative accessories. Metaphors are also ways of thinking, offering our readers (and ourselves) fresh ways of examining ideas and viewing the world.

After studying the creative metaphors collected here, try your hand (and head) at fashioning a few fresh figures of your own.

  • "Love is the wild card of existence."
    (Rita Mae Brown, In Her Day)

  • "Love is a homeless guy searching for treasure in the middle of the rain and finding a bag of gold coins and slowly finding out they're all filled with chocolate and even though he's heart broken, he can't complain because he was hungry in the first place."
    (Bo Burnham, "Love Is")

  • "Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times."
    (Rita Rudner)

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

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

  • "Life is a zoo in a jungle."
    (Peter De Vries)

  • "Life is a game played on us while we are playing other games."
    (Evan Esar)


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