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What is a Metaphor?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A metaphor is a figure of speech or trope. The rhetorical figures are divided into tropes, which use language in a way that goes beyond literal sense, and the schemes, which use language literally, but employ particular arrangements that have proved effective.

Though metaphors are similar to similes because they are both figures that deal with comparison, a simile is a comparison that is explicitly stated using a word such as like or as, a metaphor is a comparison that literally states that one thing is another, and requires the reader or listener to perceive that this is not a factual statement, but one that must be figuratively interpreted. So, while a simile might say “O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose,” a metaphor would say, “O, my Luve’s a red, red rose,” — to misquote Robert Burns — and leave it to the reader to work out.

A second difference between metaphor and simile is that the first can be played out in more detail, in which case, it is called an extended metaphor. A famous example is the scene in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (Act III, scene 2) that is argued in terms of music, specifically, recorder playing technique, with Hamlet saying,

“You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.”

Here, Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of trying to gain insight into him, deceive him, and manipulate him, and he ends by assuring them that this is not the case. In doing this, he continually speaks of himself as if he were a recorder and they were musicians, but he still leaves something to be inferred by both his listeners and the audience.

Sometimes an extended metaphor is less mysterious and includes a definition of all the correspondences to help the audience understand what is meant, as in this example from Norman Cousins:

“The library is not a shrine for the worship of books. It is not a temple where literary incense must be burned or where one's devotion to the bound book is expressed in ritual. A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas — a place where history comes to life.”

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By giddion — On Dec 11, 2012

I have a friend who speaks in metaphors a lot. On days when I'm feeling groggy, she is a little hard to follow.

She is a writer to the core, and she can't help but speak like one. She rarely uses similes, so I always have to figure out when she is saying that one thing is another.

Metaphors are great for writing, but I think that their use in everyday speech should be kept to a minimum. It can get confusing to the average person or to someone whose head is already full of enough problems!

By feasting — On Dec 10, 2012

Metaphors in poetry are very effective. In fact, I would rather see a poem filled with metaphors or based on a single metaphor than filled with similes and the words “like” or “as.” These words would seem like litter among poetic phrases.

By BambooForest — On Oct 09, 2010

Metaphors have been used since ancient times. I recently finished teaching Beowulf in my British Literature class, and metaphor is rife within the text, as well as in Anglo-Saxon riddles and poetry. One metaphor lesson we spent considerable time on was the concept of a kenning, in which they call Beowulf "hero to the Danes" or otherwise refer to characters or places by what they are or what they have done rather than by name. From Beowulf to Robert Frost, metaphors are a necessary part of literature.

By BoatHugger — On Sep 27, 2010

Here’s a piece of information that I just recently learned: Around 1880, Johnson & Johnson began making surgical dressings to fight off deadly post-op infections. This invention was a huge leap forward in medical care.

The invention came from the work of an English surgeon named Sir Joseph Lister. He used the metaphor “invisible assassins” to describe airborne germs.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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