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Encyclopedia > Metaphorical

In language, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope where a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated subjects. Typically, a first object is described as being a second object. In this way, the first object can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second object can be used to fill in the description of the first. However, metaphor is not always used to describe the properties of an object; sometimes it is used for purely aesthetic reasons.



Metaphor is present in written language back to the earliest surviving writings. From the Epic of Gilgamesh:

My friend, the swift mule, fleet wild ass of the mountain, panther of the wilderness, after we joined together and went up into the mountain, fought the Bull of Heaven and killed it, and overwhelmed Humbaba, who lived in the Cedar Forest, now what is this sleep that has seized you? - (Trans. Kovacs, 1989)

In this example, the friend is compared to a mule, a wild ass, and a panther to indicate that the speaker sees traits from these animals in his friend.

Even before this example, it is arguable that the stylized cave paintings in the Chauvet-pont-d'arc caves in southern France are a form of visual metaphor. Their highly stylized animal shapes evoke hierarchical relationships and human connections that are not part of the literal depiction.

The first writers to discuss metaphor were the Greek philsophers.

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance. - Aristotle, De Poetica, 322 BCE. While this might arguably be an exaggeration, there is evidence that fundamental aspects of human intelligence, pattern recognition and inference drive the human use of metaphor.

Parts of a metaphor

A metaphor consists of two parts: the tenor which is the subject to which attributes are ascribed, and the vehicle, which is the subject from which the attributes are derived.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances; - William Shakespeare (from As you like it 2/7)

This well known quote is a good example of a metaphor. In this example, "the world" is compared to a stage, the aim being to describe the world by taking well-known attributes from the stage. In this case, the world is the tenor and the stage is the vehicle. "Men and women" are a secondary tenor and "players" is the vehicle for this secondary tenor.

The third line begins selecting the attributes to ascribe from the vehicle onto the tenor. The selection of similar attributes is called the ground. In the play, Jaques continues this metaphor for another twenty lines beyond what is shown here - making it a good example of an extended metaphor.

Types of metaphor

  • An extended metaphor is one that sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. The above quote from As you like it is a good example. The world is described as a stage and then men and women are subsidiary subjects that are further described in the same context.
  • A mixed metaphor is one that leaps, in the course of a figure, to a second identification inconsistent with the first one. Example: "Clinton stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horn". Here, the baseball and the activities of a cowboy are implied. Other examples include: "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".
  • A dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image is not present. Example: "money", so called because it was first minted at the temple of Juno Moneta. To most people though, "money" does not evoke thoughts of the temple at Juno Moneta. Dead metaphors, by definition, normally go unnoticed; people are typically unaware of the origin of words. 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.
  • An active metaphor is one which by contrast to a dead metaphor, is not part of daily language and is noticeable as a metaphor. Example: "You are my sun."
  • An absolute or paralogical metaphor (sometimes called an antimetaphor) is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the idea and the image. Example: "The couch is the autobahn of the living room."
  • A complex metaphor is one which mounts one identification on another. Example: "That throws some light on the question." Throwing light is a metaphor and there is no actual light.
  • A compound or loose metaphor is one that catches the mind with several points of similarity. Example: "He has the wild stag's foot." This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring.
  • A dormant metaphor is one in which its contact with the initial idea it denoted has been lost. Example: "He was carried away by his passions." Here, it is not known by what the man was carried away.
  • An implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: "Shut your trap!" Here, the mouth of the listener is the unspecified tenor.
  • A submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: "my winged thought". Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird.
  • A simple or tight metaphor is one in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Example: "Cool it". In this example, the vehicle, "cool", is a temperature and nothing else, so the tenor, "it", can only be grounded to the tenor by one attribute.
  • A root metaphor is one which is basic or pervasive in human thought. Example: to a fundamentalist follower of a religion, inerrant scripture is the root metaphor. Here, the fundamentalist's belief in the perfect nature of the religious text determines their metaphorical understanding of religious subjects.

Relationship to other figures of speech

A simile is like a metaphor [pun intended] in that both compare one object with another, but while a metaphor is implicit, a simile makes the comparison explicit with a word such as "like," "as," or "than." In this respect, a metaphor is a more concrete assertion of identity, and may result in a confusion if taken literally, whereas a simile is clearly just a comparison.

Metonymy is the substitution of an suggestive or related word for the actual subject. Since no comparison is actually made, it is not a metaphor. This applies to synechdoche too since synechdoche (referring to a whole by one of its parts) is simply a part of the metonomy whole.

Allegory is an extended section of prose or verse which carries a meaning or message about something other than its literal subject. This can be described as an implicit metaphor.

In some cases, hyperbole is a form of metaphor. An example: "I nearly died when I heard the news." Typically though, hyperbole is non-literal but not a metaphor either.


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.

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.

Related topics


  • Rhetoric Terms: Metaphor (http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/gallery/rhetoric/terms/metaphor.html)
  • A short history of metaphor (http://tscp.open.ac.uk/t185/html/resources/r2history.htm)
  • 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.

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