Metaphor (Greek: “To carry over, to carry across”)

Unlike a simile, which only asserts similarity, a metaphor asserts identification. Where a simile might claim that one thing resembles another, the metaphor goes further and claims that one thing is another, figuratively speaking. As M. H. Abrams puts it, ‘in a metaphor, a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action, without asserting comparison’ (A Glossary of Literary Terms). Again, a clue can be found in translating from the Greek: meaning is carried over from one word or phrase to another.

But how is meaning ‘carried over’ in a metaphor?

The interesting thing about metaphors is that from a completely rational point of view, they make no sense at all. Often paradoxical, metaphors tend to describe actions and conjunctions that are not possible, either because they involve the physical co-presence of things that cannot possibly exist in the same place at the same time, or because they deal in abstract concepts. To return to a word we have looked at before, ‘meaning’ is not something that can be lifted up and ‘carried’ as if it were a kitten or a bag of groceries. Yet, despite the fact that this is technically speaking an impossibility, most language users have no problems understanding metaphors of this kind.

As we have discussed, metaphoricity seems to be an innate function of language, because language and semiosis are unstable enough that we can insert new meanings of our own into the cracks between the signifier (how the sign is expressed) and the signified (what it is trying to express). Language is elastic enough for us to carry groceries as well as to carry meaning – we can understand both ideas.

There are many ways in which to designate the elements of a metaphor. I. A. Richards suggested tenor for the subject to which the metaphor is applied and vehicle for the metaphorical term that activates the change in meaning. In our example, ‘meaning’ – being the noun – would be the tenor and ‘to carry’ – being a verb – would be the vehicle. Others have suggested different terms, such as ground/figure and target/source. To be perfectly frank, however, it is very rare for these distinctions to be made in our everyday dealings with literature, and we think that determining which is the passive and which is the active element in the formation of a metaphor might not be that easy. Often, the two elements will seem to be equal in stature.

What really matters about metaphor is that in mixing together two distinctly different objects or experiences, you end up with something that either of them would have been incapable of expressing individually. Or, more briefly: a metaphor is something different from the sum of its parts. By using metaphors you can make language express complex and – let’s be honest – really cool and interesting things of which it is not otherwise capable.

In its semiotic function a metaphor is primarily symbolic, in that the connection between the tenor and the vehicle is not based on resemblance or a relationship of cause and effect. A metaphor is not the same as a symbol, though, because a symbol does not contain a tenor and a vehicle. Instead, a symbol has a meaning which is culturally conventional, such as the way a cross symbolises Christianity or how the Stars and Stripes symbolises the United States of America.


Examples of metaphors, with commentary

Here, we will provide some short examples of how the figure of the metaphor can be used in everyday language as well as in the literary arts. More detailed expositions of figurative language can be found in the other modules, especially the one on poetry.

First, an example which is not necessarily literary:

There is a bottleneck in the road.

This is the simplest form of metaphor in which the qualities of a bottleneck (the vehicle) is applied to the road (the tenor), and the meaning created from the coming together of these two elements is that the road is about to become narrower. A variation of this example could be used to describe an implicit metaphor. In the phrase ‘there is a bottleneck ahead of us,’ the tenor is missing, but we can guess from the context (say, we are currently riding in a car) that it must apply to the road. A ‘bottleneck,’ moreover is a dead metaphor – a stock phrase that we don’t question or wonder about. Note that it does not say ‘the road is like a bottleneck,’ because that would make it a simile.

A more complex example is this:

But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.

(William Shakespeare Hamlet 1.1)

These lines apply the dress and behaviour of a person (the vehicle) to the time of day when the sun rises: the morning (the tenor). Apparently, the morning wears a red cloak and walks across a dew-clad hill. Three things can be noted about this image:

1) Image is an apt word for this metaphor, because it so obviously appeals to the sense of sight. As a visual image it is ambiguous because it evokes both a reddish sunrise as well as the image of a red-caped giant bestriding the land. We know it is meant to represent the former, but the latter image is difficult to ignore. Shakespeare has a knack for visual metaphors which tend to present two ideas at the same time (one mundane and one fantastical), and there tends to be many of them in each play or poem of his, altogether creating vivid and colorful impressions.

2) The identification of the morning with a person gives it agency. Normally, a morning is something that occurs when the sun rises above the horizon, but here it is seemingly acting out of its own will. Giving the forces of nature minds of their own creates a threatening universe wherein it could be dangerous to be a human being.

3) Giving natural phenomena, plants and animals human qualities is known as personification or anthropomorphism.

We should pause here to consider the influence of these metaphors on diction. As you know by now, diction determines the idiom of a particular piece of writing, i.e. its particular style or tone, or what we might call its aesthetic identity. On the one hand, the bottleneck metaphor is a dead metaphor and thus a part of everyday language. If it were to be used in a work of literature it would suit, for example, a naturalistic conversation between regular people in a regular situation. The image of the morning from Hamlet, on the other hand, would be out of place in a naturalistic setting, but it is exactly right for a Renaissance theatre play.

Next: Metonymy and synecdoche