What Is a Metaphor?

Examples of Metaphors in Prose, Poetry, Song Lyrics, and Ads

Woman reading on a train journey
"Metaphors transport us; they carry us over from one situation to another" (David Suda, The Moving Image). Hinterhaus/ Getty Images

Some people think of metaphors as little more than the sweet stuff of songs and poems—Love is a jewel, or a rose, or a butterfly. But in fact all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day. They can't be avoided: metaphors are baked right into our language.

Here we'll take a look at a few different kinds of metaphors, with examples drawn from advertisements, poems, essays, songs, and TV programs.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two different things that actually have something important in common. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek word meaning to "transfer" or "carry across." Metaphors "carry" meaning from one word, image, idea, or situation to another.

When Dr. Gregory House (in the old TV series House, M.D.) said, "I'm a night owl, Wilson's an early bird. We're different species," he was speaking metaphorically. When Dr. Cuddy replied, "Then move him into his own cage," she was extending House's bird metaphor—which he capped off with the remark, "Who'll clean the droppings from mine?"

Calling a person a "night owl" or an "early bird" is an example of a common (or conventional) metaphor—one that most native speakers will readily understand. Let's consider some of the various ways a single conventional metaphor can be used.

Conventional Metaphors

Some metaphors are so common that we may not even notice that they are metaphors. Take the familiar metaphor of life as a journey, for example. We find it in advertising slogans:

  • "Life is a journey, travel it well."
    (United Airlines)
  • "Life is a journey. Enjoy the Ride."
    (Nissan)
  • "The journey never stops."
    (American Express)
  • "Life's a journey--travel light"
    (Hugo Boss Perfume)
     

 The same metaphor appears in the lyrics to a song by the punk band the Rabble:

Life's a journey from the word get-go.
See one another from children grow.
If there's a lesson to be known,
You're gonna reap what you sow.
(from the album Life's a Journey, 2011)

And though worded differently, the journey metaphor appears again in the chorus to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," an old pop song composed by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell:

It's a long, long road
From which there is no return.
While we're on the way to there
Why not share?

In one of the final episodes of The Sopranos TV series ("The Second Coming," 2007), mobster Tony Soprano plays with the journey metaphor in an effort to make sense of his mother fixation:

This is gonna sound stupid, but I saw at one point that our mothers are . . . bus drivers. No, they are the bus. See, they're the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey. And the problem is that we keep tryin' to get back on the bus, instead of just lettin' it go.

Poets also make use of the journey metaphor, as in this well-known work by Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Then there's Isaac Asimov's updated version of the metaphor: "Life is a journey, but don't worry—you'll find a parking spot at the end."

These varied examples all make use of the same basic journey metaphor, though in different ways. In More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989), George Lakoff and Mark Turner describe how accustomed we have become to this metaphor:

When we think of life as purposeful, we think of it as having destinations and paths toward those destinations, which makes life a journey. We can speak of children as "getting off to a good start" in life and of the aged as being "at the end of the trail." We describe people as "making their way in life." People worry about whether they "are getting anywhere" with their lives, and about "giving their lives some direction." People who "know where they're going in life" are generally admired. In discussing options, one may say "I don't know which path to take." When Robert Frost says,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

("The Road Not Taken")

we typically read him as discussing options for how to live life, and as claiming that he chose to do things differently than most other people do.

This reading comes from our implicit knowledge of the structure of the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor.

In other words, we think metaphorically—whether we're aware of it or not.

Visual Metaphors

Now let's look at another type of poetic metaphor:

l(a

le
af
fa

ll
s)
one
l

iness

As you may have noticed, this short poem by E.E. Cummings (or, as he preferred, e.e. cummings) is actually a double metaphor. The poet associates loneliness with the falling of a leaf, and also visualizes the experience by isolating letters as they fall down the page.

Modern advertising relies heavily on visual metaphors. For example, in an ad for the banking firm Morgan Stanley (circa 1995), a man is pictured bungee jumping off a cliff. Two words serve to explain this visual metaphor: a dotted line from the jumper's head points to the word "You"; another line from the end of the bungee cord points to "Us." The metaphorical message—of safety and security provided in times of risk—is conveyed through a single dramatic image.

More Examples of Metaphors

In Using Similes and Metaphors to Enrich Our Writing, we consider how these figures of speech are more than just ornaments or decorative accessories. Metaphors are also ways of thinking, offering our readers (and ourselves) fresh ways of examining ideas and viewing the world.

After studying the following creative metaphors (and there are many more here), try your hand (and head) at fashioning a few fresh figures of your own.

  • "Love is the wild card of existence."
    (Rita Mae Brown, In Her Day)
  • "Love is a homeless guy searching for treasure in the middle of the rain and finding a bag of gold coins and slowly finding out they're all filled with chocolate and even though he's heart broken, he can't complain because he was hungry in the first place."
    (Bo Burnham, "Love Is")
  • "Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times."
    (Rita Rudner)
  • "Time, you thief"
    (Leigh Hunt, "Rondeau")
  • "Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food."
    (Austin O'Malley)
  • "Life is a zoo in a jungle."
    (Peter De Vries)
  • "Life is a game played on us while we are playing other games."
    (Evan Esar)

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