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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Metaphor

The Different Types of Metaphors

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Metaphor

Metaphors aren't merely the candy sprinkles on the doughnut of language.

Metaphors aren't merely the candy sprinkles on the doughnut of language, not just embellishments to the music of poetry and prose. Metaphors (as discussed in What Is a Metaphor?) are ways of thinking--and also ways of shaping the thoughts of others.

All of us, every day, speak and write and think in metaphors. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we'd get by without them. And because figurative comparisons lie at the heart of language and thought, they have been pinned down and picked apart by scholars in a wide variety of disciplines.

Of course, everyone knows what happens when gangs of professors set about to study a subject intensely. They analyze, classify, describe, explain, evaluate, and inevitably rename whatever it is they have been looking at.

And so it has been with metaphors. There are countless ways of looking at them, thinking about them, and using them. But in deference to the metaphorical blackbirds of Wallace Stevens ("The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime"), here are just 13 of them. (For examples of each type of metaphor, follow the links.)

  1. Absolute Metaphor
    A metaphor in which one of the terms (the tenor) can't be readily distinguished from the other (the vehicle).

  2. Complex Metaphor
    A metaphor in which the literal meaning is expressed through more than one figurative term (a combination of primary metaphors).

  3. Conceptual Metaphor
    A metaphor in which one idea (or conceptual domain) is understood in terms of another.

  4. Conventional Metaphor
    A familiar comparison that doesn't call attention to itself as a figure of speech.

  5. Creative Metaphor
    An original comparison that does call attention to itself as a figure of speech.

  6. Dead Metaphor
    A figure of speech that has lost its force and imaginative effectiveness through frequent use.

  7. Extended Metaphor
    A comparison between two unlike things that continues throughout a series of sentences in a paragraph or lines in a poem.

  8. Mixed Metaphor
    A succession of incongruous or ludicrous comparisons.

  9. Primary Metaphor
    A basic, intuitively understood metaphor--such as KNOWING IS SEEING or TIME IS MOTION--that may be combined with other primary metaphors to produce complex metaphors.

  10. Root Metaphor
    An image, narrative, or fact that shapes an individual's perception of the world and interpretation of reality.

  11. Submerged Metaphor
    A type of metaphor in which one of the terms (either the vehicle or tenor) is implied rather than stated explicitly.

  12. Therapeutic Metaphor
    A metaphor used by a therapist to assist a client in the process of personal transformation.

  13. Visual Metaphor
    The representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.

Regardless of the types of metaphors you favor, keep in mind Aristotle's observation 2,500 years ago in Rhetoric: "Those words are most pleasant which give us new knowledge. Strange words have no meaning for us; common terms we know already. It is metaphor which gives us most of this pleasure."

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