Metaphor Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A metaphor is a trope or figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common. Adjective: metaphorical.

A metaphor is said to express the unfamiliar (the tenor) in terms of the familiar (the vehicle). When Neil Young sings, "Love is a rose," "rose" is the vehicle for "love," the tenor. (In cognitive linguistics, the terms target and source are roughly equivalent to tenor and vehicle.) 

For a discussion of the differences between metaphors and similes, see Simile.

Types of Metaphors: absolute, burlesque, catachrestic, complex, conceptual, conduit, conventional, creative, dead, extended, grammatical, kenning, mixed, ontological, organizational, personification, primary, root, structural, submerged, therapeutic, visual

From the Greek, "carry over"

Examples and Observations

  • "Between the lower east side tenements
    the sky is a snotty handkerchief."
    (Marge Piercy, "The Butt of Winter")
  • "The neurotic circles ceaselessly above a fogged-in airport."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner."
    (Cynthia Ozick, "Rosa")
  • "But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill."
    (William Sharp, "The Lonely Hunter")
  • "I can mingle with the stars, and throw a party on Mars;
    I am a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars."
    (Lil Wayne, "I Feel Like Dying")
  • "Humor is the shock absorber of life; it helps us take the blows."
    (Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution, 1990)
  • "Time, you thief"
    (Leigh Hunt, "Rondeau")
  • "Love is an alchemist that can transmute poison into food--and a spaniel that prefers even punishment from one hand to caresses from another."
    (Charles Colton, Lacon)
  • "Marriage: a souvenir of love."
    (Helen Rowland, Reflections of a Bachelor Girl, 1909)
  • "Men's words are bullets, that their enemies take up and make use of against them."
    (George Savile, Maxims)
  • "Language is a road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going."
    (Rita Mae Brown)
  • "Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food."
    (Austin O'Malley, Keystones of Thought)
  • "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you."
    (J.K. Rowling, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," June 2008)

The Need for Metaphors

"[W]e need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:

selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.

How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine.

  Science advances by the use of metaphors–of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language." (James Grant, "Why Metaphor Matters." OUPblog, August 4, 2014)

More Notes on Metaphors

  • "A noble metaphor, when it is placed to an advantage, casts a kind of glory round it, and darts a lustre through a whole sentence." (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, July 3, 1712)
  • "Metaphor is embodied in language. . . . The strangest thing that human speech and human writing can do is create a metaphor. That is an amazing leap, is it not?" (Dennis Potte)
  • "Effective metaphor does more than shed light on the two things being compared. It actually brings to the mind's eye something that has never before been seen. It's not just the marriage ceremony linking two things; it's the child born from the union. An original and imaginative metaphor brings something fresh into the world." (Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting. Writer's Digest Books, 1999)
  • "It would be more illuminating to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing." (Max Black, Models and Metaphors, 1962)
  • "Metaphor is the energy charge that leaps between images, revealing their connections." (Robin Morgan, Anatomy of Freedom, 1982)
  • "I think of metaphors as a more benign but equally potent example of what chemists call hypergolic. You take two substances, put them together, and produce something powerfully different (table salt), sometimes even explosive (nitroglycerine). The charm of language is that, though it's human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations which aren't." (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. Vintage Books, 1990)
  • "Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this." (Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 1945)
  • "To an artist a metaphor is as real as a dollar." (Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction. Doubleday, 1971)

The Lighter Side of Metaphors

Lenny: Hey, maybe there is no cabin. Maybe it's one of them metaphorical things.
Carl: Oh yeah, yeah. Like maybe the cabin is the place inside each of us, created by our goodwill and teamwork.
Lenny: Nah, they said there would be sandwiches.
(The Simpsons)

Dr. Derek Shepherd: I bared my soul to you last night.
Dr. Meredith Grey: It's not enough.
Dr. Derek Shepherd: How can that not be enough?
Dr. Meredith Grey: When you waited two months to tell me, and I had to find out by her showing up, all leggy and fabulous, and telling me herself, you pulled the plug.

I'm a sink with an open drain. Anything you say, runs right out. There is no enough. [leaves]
Dr. George O'Malley: She probably could've picked a better metaphor.
Dr. Izzie Stevens: Give her a break. She has a hangover.
(Patrick Dempsey, Ellen Pompeo, and Katherine Heigl in "Enough Is Enough." Grey's Anatomy, 2005)

"Have you guys heard any of my metaphors yet? Well come on, sit on grandpa's lap as I tell you how infections are criminals; immune system's the police. Seriously, Grumpy, get up here: it'll make us both happy."
(Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House in the "Mirror, Mirror" episode of House, M.D., 2007)

Pronunciation: MET-ah-for

Also Known As: lexical metaphor