Metaphors – how to understand them

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Metaphors – definition

metaphors Metaphors are figures of speech in which one thing is compared to another — either directly or by implication.


redbtn Common metaphors in speech:

  • Those people are the salt of the earth.
  • She worked her fingers to the bone.
  • It was a real pea soup morning.
  • They were inundated with orders.

redbtn Well known literary metaphors:

  • Now is the winter of our discontent
  • Life’s but a walking shadow
  • I am the way, the truth and the life
  • The girl with kaleidoscope eyes


redbtn A metaphor often demands that the listener or reader make a powerful leap of the imagination.

redbtn Some metaphors are commonly recognised whilst others are uniquely and even spontaneously created.

redbtn Imaginative writing such as poetry, prose, and drama often create their special effects by use of metaphor.

redbtn Metaphors are often used in advertising and in political speeches.

redbtn One important feature of metaphor is that a significant and comprehensive image may be created by a few key words.

redbtn A metaphor can be created by the article, noun, verb, adjective or any other part of speech.

redbtn NB! In a metaphor two things are said to be the same, whereas in a simile they are only like each other.

redbtn It’s useful to see the concept of metaphor as part of a scale which runs from the literal to the non-literal use of language.

redbtn A literal statement is one which refers to the actual material world in plain terms. For instance — ‘This table is made of wood’.

redbtn At the other extreme, and in the words of a popular song, we find the statement:

‘The sun is a big yellow duster, polishing the blue, blue sky’

redbtn This makes a much bigger demand on our imagination and on our willingness to step outside the rational, literal world.

redbtn This metaphor can be analysed as follows. The sun is being compared to a duster. This idea is interesting because dusters are often yellow like the sun. Further, just as the sun appears to move in the sky, removing grey clouds, a duster moves to polish a surface and clear it of dust. In the context of a pop song, the idea is witty and entertaining in a lighthearted way.

redbtn Contrast this more serious metaphor:

Now does he feel
His filthy murders sticking on his hands

redbtn This is from Macbeth. The image is extremely vivid as the murderer’s sense of guilt is conveyed to the audience by combining the abstract guilt and the material sticky blood.

redbtn Metaphor is extremely economic communication. Several layers of meaning can be conveyed at the same time.

redbtn Advertisers make effective use of metaphor and other images because they have a restricted amount of space, and this space is very costly. A phrase such as ‘the sunshine breakfast’ is more effective than a statement which might read: ‘Have our cereal for your breakfast and you’ll enjoy it. It will give you energy and nutrition because the corn’s been grown in a sunny climate.’

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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