There are broad categories of figurative language which are classified as metaphorical (see Literal and figurative language). The more common meaning of metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another.
Many consider metaphor to be at the heart of poetry (or even to define in part what it means to be human): the figure of speech that links dissimilar objects or concepts, establishing a non-deductive relationship. It is a way of expressing an idea, through an implicit paradox, that cannot be conveyed literally. In this sense, it is not only at the heart of poetry, but of science as well: ideas that are fundamentally original and new, can only be conveyed in this manner. Computers, and animals, do not and cannot use metaphor to communicate.
Metaphor is usually distinguished from simile. Both compare two seemingly unrelated objects, but, in the latter, the comparison is made more explicit, usually through the use of the words "like" or "as". "Life is but a dream" is a metaphor, for example, while "getting money from him is like pulling teeth" is a simile. Simile also represents a variety of symbolism, whereas metaphor does not.
The expression, "You are the sunshine of my life" equates someone's beloved with sunshine; something that is impossible in literal terms unless that person becomes a ball of nuclear fusion. The expression "candle in the wind" likens life's fragility to an extinguished candle.
"Life in the fast lane" (left lane of freeway = a fast and/or hectic pace), or "bowels of the ship" (intestines = the inner holds of a ship) or "drowning in money" (drowning = having too much), or "beating your head against the wall" (beating your head = taking ineffectual actions; the wall = the problem), or "he's still wet behind the ears" (he has not completely dried yet, he's still fresh/new), or "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" (he has been drowned).
In political discussions, a ship is often taken as a metaphor for an entire nation; the so-called "ship of state". This metaphor likens a nation to a ship. It implies that, just as a ship needs a captain to make decisions, give orders, and coordinate and control the ship's voyage, so a nation must have a government to coordinate and control the nation's business. Therefore, referring to a nation as a "ship of state," emphasizes the need that nations have for some kind of government. The "figurehead" that appears to lead a government is a submerged nautical metaphor.
Metaphor is one of the most common figures of speech and many words have their origin in metaphor. When a metaphor is so common that people usually take it for granted, it is called a dead metaphor. Understanding, for example, is a dead metaphor, having its origins in the idea that "standing under" something was akin to having a good grasp of it (another, slightly less dead metaphor) or knowing it thoroughly.
Since so many, many words are dead metaphors, attempting to avoid them entirely would end in silence. For instance, consideration is a metaphor meaning "take the stars into account", mantel means "cloak or hood to catch smoke", gorge means throat, and so forth for thousands more.
The mixed metaphor entails using two living metaphors in obvious conflict, such as: "That wet blanket is a loose cannon"; "Strike while the iron is in the fire"; or (said by an administrator whose government-department's budget was slashed) "Now we can just kiss that program right down the drain". On the other hand, to refer to a photograph enlarged too much as "a grainy shot" is not a mixed metaphor, even though both the grain and the shot were originally metaphorical.
For example, Emily Dickinson uses "the white assassin" as a metaphor for frost. Ground may have a blanket of snow where blanket is a metaphor for cover.
Originally, metaphor was a Greek word meaning "transfer". The Greek etymology is from meta, implying "a change" and pherein meaning "to bear, or carry". Thus, the word metaphor itself has a metaphorical meaning in English, "a transfer of meaning from one thing to another".
Amusingly, in modern Greek the word metaphor is used to refer to a cart or trolley; thus visitors to Greek airports will find themselves using metaphors to carry their luggage.
- Ortney, A. Ed. (1993) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
- Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Chicago University Press.
- Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago, Chicago University Press.