Dead Metaphor Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

chair, table, and bed
The arms of the chair, the body of the lamp, and the foot of the bed might be regarded as dead metaphors. (Camilo Morales/Getty Images)

A dead metaphor is traditionally defined as a figure of speech that has lost its force and imaginative effectiveness through frequent use. Also known as a frozen metaphor or a historical metaphor. Contrast with creative metaphor.

Over the past several decades, cognitive linguists have criticized the dead metaphor theory—the view that a conventional metaphor is "dead" and no longer influences thought:

The mistake derives from a basic confusion: it assumes that those things in our cognition that are most alive and most active are those that are conscious. On the contrary, those that are most alive and most deeply entrenched, efficient, and powerful are those that are so automatic as to be unconscious and effortless.
(G. Lakoff and M. Turner, Philosophy in the Flesh. Basic Books, 1989)

As I.A. Richards said back in 1936, "This favorite old distinction between dead and living metaphors (itself a two-fold metaphor) . . . needs a drastic re-examination" (The Philosophy of Rhetoric).

Examples and Observations

  • "Kansas City is oven hot, dead metaphor or no dead metaphor."
    (Zadie Smith, "On the Road: American Writers and Their Hair," July 2001)
  • the arms of the chair, the legs of the table, the foot of the bed, the hands of the clock, the neck of the river, the eye of the needle, the shoulder of the road
  • "An example of a dead metaphor would be the 'body of an essay.' In this example, 'body' was initially an expression that drew on the metaphorical image of human anatomy applied to the subject matter in question. As a dead metaphor, 'body of an essay' literally means the main part of an essay, and no longer suggests anything new that might be suggested by an anatomical referent. In that sense, 'body of an essay' is no longer a metaphor, but merely a literal statement of fact, or a 'dead metaphor.'"
    (Michael P. Marks, The Prison as Metaphor. Peter Lang, 2004)
  • "Many venerable metaphors have been literalized into everyday items of language: a clock has a face (unlike human or animal face), and on that face are hands (unlike biological hands); only in terms of clocks can hands be located on a face. . . . The deadness of a metaphor and its status as a cliché are relative matters. Hearing for the first time that 'life is no bed of roses,' someone might be swept away by its aptness and vigour."
    (Tom McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • "[A] so-called dead metaphor is not a metaphor at all, but merely an expression that no longer has a pregnant metaphorical use."
    (Max Black, "More About Metaphor." Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., ed. by Andrew Ortony. Cambridge University Press, 1993)

It's Alive!

"The 'dead metaphor' account misses an important point: namely, that what is deeply entrenched, hardly noticed, and thus effortlessly used is most active in our thought. The metaphors . . . may be highly conventional and effortlessly used, but this does not mean that they have lost their vigor in thought and that they are dead. On the contrary, they are 'alive' in the most important sense—they govern our thought—they are 'metaphors we live by.'" (Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction.

Oxford University Press, 2002)

Two Kinds of Death

"The expression 'dead metaphor'—itself metaphorical—can be understood in at least two ways. On the one hand, a dead metaphor may be like a dead issue or a dead parrot; dead issues are not issues, dead parrots, as we all know, are not parrots. On this construal a dead metaphor is simply not a metaphor. On the other hand, a dead metaphor may be more like a dead key on a piano; dead keys are still keys, albeit weak or dull, and so perhaps a dead metaphor, even if it lacks vivacity, is metaphor nonetheless." (Samuel Guttenplan, Objects of Metaphor. Oxford University Press, 2005)

The Etymological Fallacy

"To suggest that words always carry with them something of what may have been an original metaphoric sense is not only a form of 'etymological fallacy'; it is a remnant of that 'proper meaning superstition' which I.A.

Richards so effectively critiques. Because a term is used which was originally metaphorical, that is, which came from one domain of experience to define another, one cannot conclude that it necessarily continues to bring with it the associations which it had in that other domain. If it is a truly 'dead' metaphor, it will not." (Gregory W. Dawes, The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33. Brill, 1998)