Metaphors – how to understand them
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Metaphors – definition
Metaphors are figures of speech in which one thing is compared to another — either directly or by implication.
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.
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
A metaphor often demands that the listener or reader make a powerful leap of the imagination.
Some metaphors are commonly recognised whilst others are uniquely and even spontaneously created.
Imaginative writing such as poetry, prose, and drama often create their special effects by use of metaphor.
Metaphors are often used in advertising and in political speeches.
One important feature of metaphor is that a significant and comprehensive image may be created by a few key words.
A metaphor can be created by the article, noun, verb, adjective or any other part of speech.
NB! In a metaphor two things are said to be the same, whereas in a simile they are only like each other.
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.
A literal statement is one which refers to the actual material world in plain terms. For instance — ‘This table is made of wood’.
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’
This makes a much bigger demand on our imagination and on our willingness to step outside the rational, literal world.
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.
Contrast this more serious metaphor:
Now does he feel
His filthy murders sticking on his hands
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.
Metaphor is extremely economic communication. Several layers of meaning can be conveyed at the same time.
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.’
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© Roy Johnson 2003
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