metaphor (figure of speech and thought)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

billboard of metaphors
Four metaphors for life. (Steven Puetzer/Getty Images)


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

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Exercises and Quizzes

    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)
    • "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes."
      (P.G. Wodehouse, The Color of the Woosters, 1938)
    • "Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations."
      (Faith Baldwin, Face Toward the Spring, 1956)
    • "A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind."
      (William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors)
    • "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
      (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
    • "Under neon signs
      A girl was in bloom
      And a woman was fading
      In a suburban room."
      (Joni Mitchell, "In France They Kiss on Main Street." The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
    • "My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind."
      (Roger Angell, "This Old Man." The New Yorker, February 17, 2014)
    • "But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It’s a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, 'smooth as silk.' Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name 'Silk Cut' to suggest a cigarette that wouldn’t give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer."
      (David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)
    • Light Metaphors
      - "Goethe's final words: 'More light.' Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that's been our unifying cry: 'More light.' . . . Light is more than watts and foot candles. Light is metaphor. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom: Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home: Lead Thou me on! Arise, shine, for thy light has come. Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light."
      (John Corbett as Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure)

      - "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
      (John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961)

      - "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity."
      (Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963)
    • Water Metaphors
      - "The rain came down in long knitting needles."
      (Enid Bagnold, National Velvet)

      - "The river runs through the language, and we speak of its influence in every conceivable context. It is employed to characterise life and death, time and destiny; it is used as a metaphor for continuity and dissolution, for intimacy and transitoriness, for art and history, for poetry itself. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James first coined the phrase 'stream of consciousness' in which 'every definite image of the mind is steeped . . . in the free water that flows around it.' Thus 'it flows' like the river itself. Yet the river is also a token of the unconscious, with its suggestion of depth and invisible life."
      (Peter Ackroyd, Thames: The Biography. Doubleday, 2007)

      - "For we are all swimmers ephemerally buoyed by what will engulf us at the last; still dreaming of islands though the mainland has been lost; swept remorselessly out to sea while we spread our arms to the beautiful shore."
      (Peter De Vries, Peckham's Marbles, 1986)

      - "Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown."
      (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin, 2000)
    • The Birth Metaphor in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
      "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . .

      "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
      (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863)
    • Tools and Biological Metaphors
      "Loggers had once assembled their rafts with oversized staples known as 'dogs.' It is, in fact, impossible to talk about tools without resorting to biological metaphors. We refer to the 'head' and 'claw' of a hammer, the 'frog' and 'throat' of a plane, the 'jaws' of a vice, the 'eye' of an adze."
      (Donovan Hohn, "A Romance of Rust." Harper's, January 2005) 
    • Life Metaphors
      - "Life is a charity ball given by the leaders of society. A few dance, get their charity's worth to the last penny, and the poor stand outside the gate and watch with hungry eyes the glint of jewels in the warm air. Then comes the lackey Death and he says: 'Madame and my Master, your carriage waits.' So you go away into the dark and the dancing continues."
      (Austin O'Malley, Thoughts of a Recluse, 1898)

      - "Life's a dance; you learn as you go.
      Sometimes you lead,
      Sometimes you follow.
      Don't worry about what you don't know.
      Life's a dance; you learn as you go."
      (John Michael Montgomery, "Life's a Dance" 1992)

    • Death Metaphors
      "Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor."
      (Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One, translated by Don Bartlett. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
    • The Metaphor of the Melting Pot
      "From its Dutch beginnings in the 17th century, New York was distinguished among the European colonies by its diversity. Conceptually, the melting pot as a metaphor for mixing disparate cultures can be traced at least as far back as 1782 to a naturalized New Yorker from France . . . later to DeWitt Clinton and Ralph Waldo Emerson."
      (Sam Roberts, "The Melting Metaphor." Only in New York. St. Martin's, 2009)
    • Robert Frost on Metaphorical Thinking
      "Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace' metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, 'Why don’t you say what you mean?' We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections--whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

      "I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking. I find some one now and then to agree with me that all thinking, except mathematical thinking, is metaphorical, or all thinking except scientific thinking. The mathematical might be difficult for me to bring in, but the scientific is easy enough."
      (Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry." Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, Feb. 1931)

    • Battle Metaphors in Medicine
      "Doctors working in the hospital repeatedly described themselves as being 'on the front line,' in need of 'getting aggressive' with patients and using 'shotgun therapy' or 'magic bullets.' They commonly described working in the emergency room as being 'in the trenches.'”
      (Deborah Lupton, Medicine As Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body in Western Societies, 2nd ed. Sage, 2003)
    • 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)
    • The Risk of Using Metaphors in Science
      "Are metaphors always good for us? [T]he strength of metaphors also entails a risk. Through the associations and 'aha experiences' they create, they may also tempt people to go too far in utilizing them. The problem is that it is hardly possible to modify a metaphor. One must be able to modify and develop scientific concepts. It is fundamental for a scientific attitude always to be open to revise one’s ideas in the light of one’s experiences of reality. Regarding a metaphor, however, we must either keep it or abandon it completely. . . . Metaphors can contribute to the maintenance  of deceptive conceptions. Empirical analyses from metaphors risk being reduced to predictable, one-sided interpretations."
      (Berth Danermark et al., Explaining Society: Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. Routledge, 2002)
    • 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 Potter)

      - "The simile sets two ideas side by side; in the metaphor they become superimposed."
      (F.L. Lucas, Style, 1955)

      - "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)

      Leslie: Howard, I got the approval for the rapid prototyper you wanted.
      Howard: That’s great, Leslie, thanks.
      Leslie: You scratch my back, I scratch your back. Meow!
      Rajesh: What was all that about?
      Howard: Oh, uh, no big deal. They gave Leslie control over some unrestricted grant money.
      Leonard: Yeah, okay, but what’s with the “back scratching” and the “meow”?
      Sheldon: I believe the “back scratching” metaphor generally describes a quid pro quo situation where one party provides goods or services to a second party in compensation for a similar action.
      Leonard: Thank you.
      Sheldon: The “meow”–that sounded to me like an African civet cat.
      Leonard: Are you done?
      Sheldon: No. Despite what the name suggests, the civet cat, is not a true cat. Now I’m done.
      Rajesh: You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking, Howard wasn’t making a back scratching metaphor. I’m thinking there was some actual scratching involved.
      (Sara Gilbert, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, Johnny Galecki, and Jim Parsons in “The Cushion Saturation.” The Big Bang Theory, 2009)

      Aaron Sorkin: Listen, lady, . . . this is serious. We make horse buggies. The first Model T just rolled into town.
      Liz Lemon: We're dinosaurs.
      Aaron Sorkin: We don't need two metaphors. That's bad writing.
      ("Plan B." 30 Rock, 2011)


    Pronunciation: MET-ah-for

    Also Known As: lexical metaphor