Figurative Meaning

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definitions and Examples

In this excerpt from the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1988), the authors distinguish the figurative meaning of an idiom ("cock a snoot") from its literal meaning.


The metaphorical, idiomatic, or ironic sense of a word or expression, in contrast to its literal meaning.

In recent years, a number of researchers (including R.W. Gibbs and K. Barbe, both quoted below) have challenged conventional distinctions between literal meaning and figurative meaning. According to M.L. Murphy and A. Koskela, "Cognitive linguists in particular disagree with the notion that figurative language is derivative or supplementary to literal language and instead argue that figurative language, particularly metaphor and metonymy, reflect the way we conceptualize abstract notions in terms of more concrete ones" (Key Terms in Semantics, 2010).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "In France, there is a saying 'C'est quoi, ce Bronx?' Literally, it means, 'What is this, the Bronx?' Figuratively it means 'What a dump!'"
    (Brian Sahd, "Community Development Corporations and Social Capital." Community-Based Organizations, ed. by Robert Mark Silverman. Wayne State University Press, 2004)
  • "Eccentric first came into English in 1551 as a technical term in astronomy, meaning 'a circle in which the earth, the sun, etc. deviates from its center.' . . .

    "In 1685, the definition slid from the literal to the figurative. Eccentric was defined as 'deviating from the usual character or practice; unconventional; whimsical; odd,' as in an eccentric genius, an eccentric millionaire. . . . The astronomical meaning of eccentric has only historical relevance today, while the figurative meaning is the commonly recognized one, as in this comment in a Wall Street Journal editorial: 'Proper eccentrics are more likely to shrink from the limelight than to slaver at its prospect.'"
    (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. Random House, 2008)

    Cognitive Processes Used in Understanding Figurative Language (Gricean View)

    • "[W]hen a speaker says Criticism is a branding iron, he or she does not literally mean that criticism is a tool to mark livestock. Rather, the speaker intends this utterance to have some figurative meaning along the lines that criticism can psychologically hurt the person who receives it, often with long-lasting consequences. How do listeners comprehend figurative utterances such as Criticism is a branding iron? Listeners presumably determine the conversational inferences (or 'implicatures') of nonliteral utterances by first analyzing the literal meaning of the sentence. Second, the listener assesses the appropriateness and/or truthfulness of that literal meaning against the context of the utterance. Third, if the literal meaning is defective or inappropriate for the context, then and only then, will listeners derive an alternative nonliteral meaning that makes the utterance consistent with the cooperative principle." (Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Intentions in the Experience of Meaning. Cambridge University Press, 1999)

      "Getting Away With Murder"

      • "Interestingly, there are occasions when understanding what someone says automatically leads one to infer a figurative meaning even if the speaker did not necessarily intend that figurative meaning to be communicated. For instance, when someone literally 'gets away with murder,' he also figuratively 'avoids responsibility for his action,' an inference from something a speaker says to a figurative meaning that takes people longer to process than if they simply understand the phrase 'gets away with murder' when used intentionally as having figurative, idiomatic meaning (Gibbs, 1986)." (Albert N. Katz, Cristina Cacciari, Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., and Mark Turner, Figurative Language and Thought. Oxford University Press, 1998)

      Searle on Paraphrasing Metaphors

      • "Because in metaphorical utterances what the speaker means differs from what he says (in one sense of 'say'), in general we shall need two sentences for our examples of metaphor--first the sentence uttered metaphorically, and second a sentence that expresses literally what the speaker means when he utters the first sentence and means it metaphorically. Thus (3), the metaphor (MET):
        (3) (MET) It's getting hot in here
        corresponds to (3), the paraphrase (PAR):
        (3) (PAR) The argument that is going on is becoming more vituperative
        and similarly with the pairs:
        (4) (MET) Sally is a block of ice.
        (4) (PAR) Sally is an extremely unemotional and unresponsive person
        (5) (MET) I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole (Disraeli)
        (5) (PAR) I have after great difficulty become prime minister
        (6) (MET) Richard is a gorilla
        (6) (PAR) Richard is fierce, nasty, and prone to violence.
        Notice that in each case we feel that the paraphrase is somehow inadequate, that something is lost." (John R. Searle, "Metaphor." Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., ed. by Andrew Ortony. Cambridge University Press, 1993)

        False Dichotomies

        • "Explanations and descriptions of metaphors as well as irony usually evoke the dichotomy 'literal' and 'figurative.' That is, metaphors as well as instances of irony are said to have an immediate, basic, or literal meaning, which is easily accessible, and a remote or figurative meaning, which can be reconstructed. The figurative meaning is only accessible to a limited number of participants, while the literal meaning can be understood by all participants. But neither the ironic nor the literal meaning need any different (longer) processing time for comprehension. Consequently, the notion that the literal/non-ironic meaning is prior or basic and the non-literal/ironic builds upon this basis appears questionable. The pervasiveness of irony in everyday discourse coupled with the questionable way of interpreting irony thus require a rethinking of some basic (and often unquestioned) assumptions in the treatment of irony and other types of so-called figurative language. That is, dichotomies like literal and figurative should be re-evaluated." (Katharina Barbe, Irony in Context. John Benjamins, 1995)

          Figurative Meanings of Conceptual Metaphors

          • "When we study similarities and differences in the metaphorical expression of a conceptual metaphor, we need to take into account a number of factors or parameters, including the literal meaning of the expressions used, the figurative meaning to be expressed, and the conceptual metaphor (or, in some cases, metaphors) on the basis of which figurative meanings are expressed. As a fourth parameter, there is also a linguistic form that is used, but this is necessarily (or at least almost always) different in the case of two different languages." (Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

          Literal and Figurative Meanings of Idioms

          • "Experiments carried out by Häcki Buhofer and Burger (1994) have shown that people are often unable to distinguish between the literal and the figurative meaning of an idiom. This means that the literal sense is often mentally present for speakers, even if they use an idiom only in its figurative meaning. Hence the relevant mental image (we call it image component) of a motivated idiom must be regarded as part of its content plane in a broad sense. In certain cases, some relevant traces of the mental image that are fixed in the lexical structure of an idiom must be regarded as part of its actual meaning. As a rule, the image component is involved in the cognitive processing of the idiom in question. What this means for the semantic description of idioms is that relevant elements of the inner form have to be included in the structure of the semantic explication." (Dmitrij Dobrovolʹskij and Elisabeth Piirainen, Figurative Language: Cross-Cultural and Cross-Linguistic Perspectives. Elsevier, 2005)