A metaphor (MET-a-for) is an exact comparison between two unrelated things used for dramatic or poetic effect. This figure of speech has two parts: a tenor (the object or concept being described) and a vehicle (what the object or concept is compared to). For example, in the sentence “This soup is a masterpiece,” soup is the tenor and masterpiece is the vehicle.
The word metaphor comes from middle French, by way of Latin and Ancient Greek, meaning “a transfer.” Its roots put it close to metamorphosis, which means “to change,” often in a physical and drastic way.
Examples of Metaphors
- “My children are little pigs.” Pigs are typically considered lazy, dirty animals with no self-control. While the children probably do not root around in mud, the metaphor playfully implies they have some undesirable, piggish qualities.
- “A child’s laughter is music.” Music has the power to make people happy and put them at ease. So, though a child’s laughter may not sound like a cello, it might put you in a good mood the same way your favorite piece of music does.
- “She is my rock.” Rocks are solid, heavy, and immovable. They can be used to hold things in place, so calling someone your rock means they are a dependable person who keeps you grounded.
- “A hug from my mom is the supplement that gets me through the week.” A supplement is something you take to stay healthy and strong, like a multivitamin. While hugs contain no potassium or zinc, they can improve your emotional health.
Common Types of Metaphor
There are many types of metaphors. The kind of effect or comparison a writer wants to make dictates which type they use.
A conventional metaphor is one people wouldn’t notice in everyday speech because the concept is so common and accepted in our collective consciousness. For example: “I have to catch up on my sleep.” It is not possible to “catch up on,” or make progress with, sleep, but most English-speaking American people would instantly understand that the speaker hasn’t been sleeping enough and intends to sleep more.
Unlike a conventional metaphor, creative metaphors are instantly noticeable as something unique. These metaphors are meant to be striking and provocative. Consider this stanza from Langston Hughes’s poem “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Comparing life to a barren, snow-covered field is not something people hear in everyday conversation. Hughes uses this metaphor to imply that a life without the beauty of dreams is an empty, uninteresting place.
Implied metaphors make a comparison without explicitly naming the vehicle. In the sentence “She’s got her claws in him,” the woman in question is being compared to an animal that has claws. However, the metaphor is unspecific about the type of animal, instead relying on readers’ understanding that the presence of claws implies a type of predator. Thus, the writer would convey that the woman has captured the man and is in some way more powerful than he is.
An extended metaphor, also known as a conceit, is a comparison that is repeated several times in a work. It can extend several lines or sentences, or, in the case of many songs or pieces of literature, the entire work. Consider the song “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas:
On a stormy sea of moving emotion
Tossed about I’m like a ship on the ocean
I set a course for winds of fortune
But I hear the voices say
The entire song calls to mind the image of a weary traveler, and this verse uses the metaphor of a boat on the ocean to imply the tumultuous nature of life and the narrator’s attempt to navigate those rocky waves. This verse is interesting, as it contains a simile—“I’m like a ship on the ocean”—but the surrounding material maintains the ship at sea imagery through metaphor with the phrases “stormy sea of moving emotion” and “I set a course.”
Catachresis (cat-a-CREASE-iss), also known as a mixed metaphor, is like comparing apples and oranges. It is a blending of two well-known metaphors or aphorisms in a way that doesn’t make sense. Often, to show that a character is confused, frazzled, or just not very bright, a writer will have them say a mixed metaphor, like “People in glass houses should not wear their hearts on their sleeves.” For this reason, it is a common comedic device in stories—and not just in books.
For example, in the “Office Olympics” episode of the workplace sitcom The Office, dim-witted but well-meaning manager Michael Scott says, “I’m an early bird and I’m a night owl. So I’m wise, and I have worms.” While Scott was clearly trying to say that he is a man of many strengths, implying there are parasites in his stomach is not something to brag about.
In an abstract metaphor, the tenor and vehicle cannot be separated cleanly because the concept being expressed is too large or complex to distill into two distinctly related parts. Think about all the ways “light” is equated with “knowledge” or “truth.” Saying something “brings light to the situation” implies that it provided understanding without exactly stating that “light” is synonymous with “understanding.”
Metaphor vs. Simile and Analogy
In addition to metaphor, there are other types of comparative figures of speech—most notably similes and analogies. All three of these terms equate two unrelated things for emphasis, but they are slightly different in execution and effect.
A simile uses like or as to show that what would be considered the tenor and vehicle are similar, but not exactly the same:
Simile: “She’s like a magician.”
Metaphor: “She is a magician.”
An analogy extends the comparison by adding context:
Analogy: “She’s as crafty as a magician, always pulling solutions out of thin air.”
The Effects of Metaphor
Metaphors help readers better understand unfamiliar concepts or objects, in addition to painting familiar things in a new light. How easily readers can decipher a metaphor depends on the strength of its comparison.
A strong metaphor is surprising but accessible; it says something new without confusing the reader. Consider how Romeo describes Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” Instead of just saying “Wow, Juliet is beautiful,” the young romantic compares her to the sun to imply her beauty brings brilliant light and direction into his life.
A weak metaphor, on the other hand, is confusing or alienating because the comparison does not make sense. Consider this sentence: “The young fighter had a hungry look in his eyes, the kind you get from not eating for a while.” While “a hungry look” suggests the fighter’s desire to begin the match, the metaphor is weakened by the extension “the kind you get from not eating for a while.” The sentence could be strengthened by drawing a better comparison, such as “The young fighter looked like a ravenous dog eyeing a juicy steak.”
Often, weak metaphors are clichés, or overly used phrases that lost their unique, exciting quality. For example, when a character in a romantic narrative says, “I was falling head over heels in love,” they are comparing their emotions to a sudden fall or trip. While once an intriguing way to depict the feeling of love, it is now considered a boring cliché. In this instance, a weak, cliched metaphor is a piece of chewing gum that’s lost all its flavor.
Metaphor in Song Lyrics
Because metaphors create understanding and connection between readers and the writer’s subject, they are a common device used in contemporary music. Songwriters employ metaphors so their audience can better grasp what they want to say. For example, in “Halo,” Beyoncé calls her lover an “angel” for teaching her to love again after heartbreak.
Sometimes, entire albums are dedicated to an extended metaphor. Consider psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The album is a rock opera about a rock star named Pink and how isolation and suppression can affect people. Many of the album’s songs make metaphorical use of wall imagery. In “Mother,” Pink’s overbearing mother is traumatized by her husband’s death in World War II and wants to build a wall around Pink to keep him away from danger. In the three-part song “Another Brick in the Wall,” an oppressive school forces children to conform, molding them into the bricks that build up the wall of tyrannical society. The album concludes with Pink’s hallucination that he’s on trial for shutting out the world; during his sentencing, the jury chants “Tear down the wall!”
Examples of Metaphor in Literature
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus
Kambili is a teenage girl living under the repressive but seemingly loving rule of her powerful father in postcolonial Nigeria. Here, she contemplates the tea her father sometimes shares with her and her brother:
The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue, and if lunch was something peppery, my raw tongue suffered. But it didn’t matter, because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me.
Kambili’s father is strict and, at times, abusive, so Kambili compares his love to burning hot tea. While his affection may cause both metaphorical and physical pain, Kambili nonetheless craves it.
2. The Bible, New International Version, Mark 14:22-26
During the Last Supper, two days before he knows he will be killed, Jesus makes an offering to his followers:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. ‘Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus compares his body and, by extension, his impending sacrifice to food and drink—two life-sustaining things. With this metaphor, he’s telling his followers that, though he’ll no longer be with them in the flesh, his sacrifice will always stay with them and nourish their souls.
3. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Kafka’s famous novel uses an extended metaphor of a man, Gregor Samsa, turning into a cockroach. The meaning behind the transformation, though widely debated, remains open. One take is that Gregor feels small and isolated because of what he considers a life of servitude. In order to help readers understand how Gregor feels, Kafka has him become something most people would step on. Gregor never looked out for himself, which made him small, insignificant, and something reviled by people—much like a cockroach. Because of his low self-worth, he is not even surprised when he turns into the insect.
4. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”
In his affecting and efficient short story, Poe tells the tale of “the red death,” a gruesome fatal disease that terrorizes an unnamed European country. Prince Prospero summons a large group of his favorite people to live in his fully stocked and guarded abbey, hoping to avoid contamination. A few months into their seclusion, Prospero holds a grand masquerade, and everyone is startled when a stranger arrives dressed as the red death. Prospero goes to pull a dagger on this tasteless intruder—only to immediately drop dead himself. The stranger, it turns out, is Red Death personified.
Poe’s story is akin to a fable—albeit an exceptionally dark one—as its portrayal of an indiscriminate plague is both a metaphor and a moral. Prospero believes his affluence can save him and his friends, so the red death enters as an uninvited guest to expose Prospero’s delusion. Despite his best efforts, Prospero cannot save himself from the inevitable simply because of his wealth.
Further Resources on Metaphors
This article in Psychology Today shows how metaphors help us understand.
Jam Campus has a great list of metaphors found in contemporary pop.
TV Tropes has a fun list of mixed metaphors.