What are metaphors?
Metaphor is an ancient Greek term combining the prefix meta (meaning “beyond or over”) and the verb pherein (meaning “to carry”). Today we take metaphor, at its simplest, to mean “a comparison made by referring one thing to another” (silva rhetoricae). The word’s ancient Greek definition is a metaphor itself (it’s self-referential): a metaphor ‘carries’ the meaning of a word ‘beyond or over’ its referent; so the idea that a word can physically carry or move meaning is metaphorical in and of itself.
A more complex definition of metaphors is that they’re figures of speech in which a name, descriptive word, or phrase is grafted onto an object or action different from, but analogous to, the original name, descriptive word, or phrase.
What aren’t metaphors?
I think it’s important to distinguish metaphors from three similar figures of speech: metonymy, synecdoche, simile. (Note: I’ll be quoting some poetry below and you’ll notice slashes [/] within the lines. These indicate line breaks.)
A simile is a straightforward, explicit metaphor that often uses “like” or “as.” Any Duran Duran fans will recall their hit single “Hungry Like the Wolf.” This is a simile. Because they’re so obvious, similes are the weakest form of metaphors. In literary criticism, a bad writer would be considered one who relies heavily on similes to deliver metaphors. A good metaphor shouldn’t need the words “like” or “as” to draw a comparison. Of course this doesn’t mean that smiles have no poetic power. Take Robert Burns’ famous line “O, my love is like a red, red rose, / That is newly sprung in June” (from A Red, Red Rose). Although Burns relies on a simile to deliver the poem’s first line, he continues with eloquent, thoughtful rhymes like:
“Till all the seas go dry, my Dear
And the rocks melt with the sun!
O I will love you still, my Dear
While the sands of life shall run.”
Metonymy is a metaphor where you refer to sometime by naming one of its parts or attributes—there is a relation between the two things; they are contiguous. In a discussion of politics we hear “Parliament passed the bill,” when watching CNN we hear “they’re tracking it in the blogosphere,” or when discussing war we hear “the pen is mightier than the sword.” These statements are all metonymic—Parliament is a reference to the Members of Parliament, the blogosphere is a reference to groups of online political writers, the pen represents the persuasive power of words, and the sword represents military power.
Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy where a referent’s part stands in for the whole referent itself. A classic example of synecdoche is found in the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “It is my lady, O, it is my love!” says Romeo. “O, that she knew she were! / She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that? / Her eye discourses; I will answer it.” Romeo states that Juliet’s eye speaks to him, but the eye metonymically represents a part of Juliet’s beauty as a whole.
As opposed to simile, metonymy, and synecdoche (and numerous other figures of speech), metaphors allow readers or listeners to draw meaning themselves. So, let’s look at a recent example from Barack Obama’s inaugural address:
“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”
Obama doesn’t use a simile (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken amidst a political situation as brutal as a gathering storm”), metonymy (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken when the money has run out”), or synecdoche (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken while John Smith and Jane Doe are being laid off”). Obama uses a clear, eloquent metaphor that allows the audience to implicitly realize that “gathering clouds and raging storms” refers to the current US recession.
Dead metaphors are the most commonly used metaphors in the English language, so much so that they’ve become part of the language. What I mean here is that dead metaphors once were metaphors, but have become everyday words due to popular usage. Some dead metaphors are verbs like running for office, catching the game last night, fishing for complements, breaking the ice, or grasping a concept. Other dead metaphors are nouns like branches of government, seeds of doubt, or apple of my eye. Dead metaphors are similar to, but less complex than clichés—which are metaphorical truisms in the form of a complete sentence (like “kill two birds with one stone”). We use dead metaphors all the time without even realizing it; they’ve lost their original meanings and become entrenched in our language.
An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a primary metaphor with multiple metaphorical levels built into it. Shakespeare was the master of conceits; here’s one of his finest examples:
(As You Like It, 2.7)
The primary metaphor is the world as a “stage,” yet this metaphors has many implications: men and women are “players” (actors or actresses) who play “many parts” (social roles, careers) with entrances (“births”) and exits (“deaths”).