Complex Metaphor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Pot boiling over on a stove
"This man was hair-trigger angry, and boiling over with the venom inside of him" (Howard Fast, Power, 1962). Elisabeth Schmitt/Getty Images

A complex metaphor is a metaphor (or figurative comparison) in which the literal meaning is expressed through more than one figurative term or a combination of primary metaphors. Also known as a compound metaphor.

In some ways, a complex metaphor is similar to a telescoped metaphor. Myers and Wukasch define telescoped metaphor as "a complex, permutating metaphor whose vehicle becomes the tenor for the next metaphor, and that second tenor gives rise to a vehicle which, in turn, becomes the tenor of the next vehicle" (Dictionary of Poetic Terms, 2003).

Examples and Observations

  • "At least three of the four simple metaphors for intensity seem to characterize this complex metaphor [ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER]: HEAT, QUANTITY, and SPEED. If we lose our cool, we become very angry; anger welling up in someone indicates less intense anger than anger coming over or overcoming someone; and a person flaring up is more intensely angry than someone doing a slow burn. But maybe the fourth intensity metaphor also plays a role in this anger metaphor. For instance, an outburst of anger indicates very intense anger as well as the forcefulness of the outbreak. Be that as it may, the point is that the extremely simple local metaphors that are based on basic correlations in human experience jointly apply to this complex metaphor and make it a very natural conceptual metaphor for anger.
    "This situation shows very clearly that complex metaphors are based on simple ones, which are in turn based on tight, local correlations in experience."
    (Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • Heartbreak
    "A familiar example in which primary metaphors are combined to form a more complex metaphor is 'heartbreak' or 'broken heart.' Strong emotion causes the heart to beat noticeably faster, which in itself provides the basis for an association between love and heart. This association is probably strengthened by the heart's location near the center of the body, and by its crucial role in the circulation of blood. It is also strengthened by cultural beliefs in which the heart and other central organs (especially stomach and liver) are associated with emotions and even with reasoning. This association gives rise to a family of conceptual metaphors that includes COURAGE IS HEART, HOPE IS HEART, and, germane to the present discussion, LOVE IS HEART . . ..
    "A different set of experiences links failure and disappointment with physical damage and breakage, giving rise to a conceptual metaphor, FAILURE or BEING DISAPPOINTED IS BEING BROKEN OR SPOILED, expressed in metaphors like 'broken dreams,' 'a broken marriage,' 'spoiled chances,' and 'a ruined career.' Combine these two metaphors, and the result is a composite conceptual metaphor DISAPPOINTED LOVE IS HEARTBREAK."
    (Ritchie, L. David. Metaphor. Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Primary and Complex Metaphors
    "Lakoff and Johnson ([Philosophy in the Flesh] 1999, 60-61) suggest that the complex metaphor A PURPOSEFUL LIFE IS A JOURNEY is composed of the following cultural belief (reformulated here as two propositions) and two primary metaphors:
    Whereas the two primary metaphors (PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS and ACTIONS ARE MOTIONS), based on common bodily experience, are likely to be universal, the complex metaphor (A PURPOSEFUL LIFE IS A JOURNEY) is less so. This is because its validity in a particular culture depends on this culture's holding the combination of the two propositions (PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE PURPOSES IN LIFE and PEOPLE SHOULD ACT SO AS TO ACHIEVE THEIR PURPOSES) and the two primary metaphors, as listed above."
    (Yu, Ning. "Metaphor From Body and Culture." The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought.  ed. by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • Complex Metaphors and Moral Discourse
    "For those of us interested in how moral discourse works, a fascinating aspect of this complex metaphor system begins to emerge when we notice that expressions used to talk and think about how people interact morally often include words from the monetary or marketing domains. The expression, 'She owed me an apology and she finally gave it to me,' implies that I have gained some kind of moral and social capital in the interaction. This is how moral action and causality is often conceptualized, in terms of financial transaction or commodity exchange."
    (Howe, Bonnie.  Because You Bear This Name: Conceptual Metaphor And the Moral Meaning of 1 Peter. Brill, 2006)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Complex Metaphor." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Complex Metaphor. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Complex Metaphor." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).

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