A political cartoon by illustrator S.D. Ehrhart in an 1894 Puck magazine shows a farm woman labeled "Democratic Party" sheltering from a tornado of political change.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another.[1] It may provide (or obscure) clarity or identify hidden similarities between two different ideas. Metaphors are usually meant to create a likeness or an analogy.[2]

Metaphors are often compared with other types of figurative language, such as antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, and simile.[3] One of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature comes from the "All the world's a stage" monologue from As You Like It:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. At first, the infant...
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7[4]

This quotation expresses a metaphor because the world is not literally a stage, and most humans are not literally actors and actresses playing roles. By asserting that the world is a stage, Shakespeare uses points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the behavior of the people within it.

In the ancient Hebrew psalms (around 1000 B.C.), one finds already vivid and poetic examples of metaphor such as, "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" and "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want". Some recent linguistic theories view all language in essence as metaphorical.[5]

The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek term meaning 'transference (of ownership)'. The user of a metaphor alters the reference of the word, "carrying" it from one semantic "realm" to another. The new meaning of the word might be derived from an analogy between the two semantic realms, but also from other reasons such as the distortion of the semantic realm - for example in sarcasm.


The English word metaphor derives from the 16th-century Old French word métaphore, which comes from the Latin metaphora, 'carrying over', and in turn from the Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá), 'transference (of ownership)',[6] from μεταφέρω (metapherō), 'to carry over, to transfer'[7] and that from μετά (meta), 'behind, along with, across'[8] + φέρω (pherō), 'to bear, to carry'.[9]

Parts of a metaphor

The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) by rhetorician I. A. Richards describes a metaphor as having two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the object whose attributes are borrowed. In the previous example, "the world" is compared to a stage, describing it with the attributes of "the stage"; "the world" is the tenor, and "a stage" is the vehicle; "men and women" is the secondary tenor, and "players" is the secondary vehicle.

Other writers[which?] employ the general terms ground and figure to denote the tenor and the vehicle. Cognitive linguistics uses the terms target and source, respectively.

Psychologist Julian Jaynes coined the terms metaphrand and metaphier, plus two new concepts, paraphrand and paraphier.[10][11] Metaphrand is equivalent to the metaphor-theory terms tenor, target, and ground. Metaphier is equivalent to the metaphor-theory terms vehicle, figure, and source. In a simple metaphor, an obvious attribute of the metaphier exactly characterizes the metaphrand (e.g. "the ship plowed the seas"). With an inexact metaphor, however, a metaphier might have associated attributes or nuances – its paraphiers – that enrich the metaphor because they "project back" to the metaphrand, potentially creating new ideas – the paraphrands – associated thereafter with the metaphrand or even leading to a new metaphor. For example, in the metaphor "Pat is a tornado", the metaphrand is Pat; the metaphier is tornado. As metaphier, tornado carries paraphiers such as power, storm and wind, counterclockwise motion, and danger, threat, destruction, etc. The metaphoric meaning of tornado is inexact: one might understand that 'Pat is powerfully destructive' through the paraphrand of physical and emotional destruction; another person might understand the metaphor as 'Pat can spin out of control'. In the latter case, the paraphier of 'spinning motion' has become the paraphrand 'psychological spin', suggesting an entirely new metaphor for emotional unpredictability, a possibly apt description for a human being hardly applicable to a tornado. Based on his analysis, Jaynes claims that metaphors not only enhance description, but "increase enormously our powers of perception...and our understanding of [the world], and literally create new objects".[10]: 50 

As a type of comparison

"The Asherah is part of a jigsaw in weaving together the feminine threads of a religious history that could be an important new breakthrough for women, she says."[12] An example of mixed metaphor in print.

Metaphors are most frequently compared with similes. A metaphor asserts the objects in the comparison are identical on the point of comparison, while a simile merely asserts a similarity through use of words such as like or as. For this reason a common-type metaphor is generally considered more forceful than a simile.[13][14]

The metaphor category contains these specialized types:

It is said that a metaphor is 'a condensed analogy' or 'analogical fusion' or that they 'operate in a similar fashion' or are 'based on the same mental process' or yet that 'the basic processes of analogy are at work in metaphor'. It is also pointed out that 'a border between metaphor and analogy is fuzzy' and 'the difference between them might be described (metaphorically) as the distance between things being compared'.[This quote needs a citation]

Metaphor vs metonymy

Main article: Metaphor and metonymy

Metaphor is distinct from metonymy, the two terms exhibit different fundamental modes of thought. Metaphor works by bringing together concepts from different conceptual domains, whereas metonymy uses one element from a given domain to refer to another closely related element. A metaphor creates new links between otherwise distinct conceptual domains, whereas a metonymy relies on pre-existent links within such domains.

For example, in the phrase "lands belonging to the crown", the word crown is a metonymy because some monarchs do indeed wear a crown, physically. In other words, there is a pre-existent link between crown and monarchy.[18] On the other hand, when Ghil'ad Zuckermann argues that the Israeli language is a "phoenicuckoo cross with some magpie characteristics", he is using metaphor.[19]: 4  There is no physical link between a language and a bird. The reason the metaphors phoenix and cuckoo are used is that on the one hand hybridic Israeli is based on Hebrew, which, like a phoenix, rises from the ashes; and on the other hand, hybridic Israeli is based on Yiddish, which like a cuckoo, lays its egg in the nest of another bird, tricking it to believe that it is its own egg. Furthermore, the metaphor magpie is employed because, according to Zuckermann, hybridic Israeli displays the characteristics of a magpie, "stealing" from languages such as Arabic and English.[19]: 4–6 


A dead metaphor is a metaphor in which the sense of a transferred image has become absent. The phrases "to grasp a concept" and "to gather what you've understood" use physical action as a metaphor for understanding. The audience does not need to visualize the action; dead metaphors normally go unnoticed. Some distinguish between a dead metaphor and a cliché. Others use "dead metaphor" to denote both.[20]

A mixed metaphor is a metaphor that leaps from one identification to a second inconsistent with the first, e.g.:

I smell a rat [...] but I'll nip him in the bud" — Irish politician Boyle Roche

This form is often used as a parody of metaphor itself:

If we can hit that bull's-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards... Checkmate.

— Futurama character Zapp Brannigan.[21]

An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. In the above quote from As You Like It, the world is first described as a stage and then the subsidiary subjects men and women are further described in the same context.

An implicit metaphor has no specified tenor, although the vehicle is present. M. H. Abrams offers the following as an example of an implicit metaphor: "That reed was too frail to survive the storm of its sorrows". The reed is the vehicle for the implicit tenor, someone's death, and the storm is the vehicle for the person's sorrows.[22]

Metaphor can serve as a device for persuading an audience of the user's argument or thesis, the so-called rhetorical metaphor.

In rhetoric and literature

Aristotle writes in his work the Rhetoric that metaphors make learning pleasant: "To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are the pleasantest."[23] When discussing Aristotle's Rhetoric, Jan Garret stated "metaphor most brings about learning; for when [Homer] calls old age "stubble", he creates understanding and knowledge through the genus, since both old age and stubble are [species of the genus of] things that have lost their bloom."[24] Metaphors, according to Aristotle, have "qualities of the exotic and the fascinating; but at the same time we recognize that strangers do not have the same rights as our fellow citizens".[25]

Educational psychologist Andrew Ortony gives more explicit detail: "Metaphors are necessary as a communicative device because they allow the transfer of coherent chunks of characteristics -- perceptual, cognitive, emotional and experiential – from a vehicle which is known to a topic which is less so. In so doing they circumvent the problem of specifying one by one each of the often unnameable and innumerable characteristics; they avoid discretizing the perceived continuity of experience and are thus closer to experience and consequently more vivid and memorable."[26]

As style in speech and writing

As a characteristic of speech and writing, metaphors can serve the poetic imagination. This allows Sylvia Plath, in her poem "Cut", to compare the blood issuing from her cut thumb to the running of a million soldiers, "redcoats, every one"; and enabling Robert Frost, in "The Road Not Taken", to compare a life to a journey.[27][28][29]

Metaphors can be implied and extended throughout pieces of literature.

Larger applications

Sonja K. Foss characterizes metaphors as "nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain".[30] She argues that since reality is mediated by the language we use to describe it, the metaphors we use shape the world and our interactions to it.

A metaphorical visualization of the word anger

The term metaphor is used to describe more basic or general aspects of experience and cognition:

Conceptual metaphors

Main article: Conceptual metaphor

Some theorists have suggested that metaphors are not merely stylistic, but that they are cognitively important as well. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but also in thought and action. A common definition of metaphor can be described as a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way. They explain how a metaphor is simply understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another, called a "conduit metaphor". A speaker can put ideas or objects into containers, and then send them along a conduit to a listener who removes the object from the container to make meaning of it. Thus, communication is something that ideas go into, and the container is separate from the ideas themselves. Lakoff and Johnson give several examples of daily metaphors in use, including "argument is war" and "time is money". Metaphors are widely used in context to describe personal meaning. The authors suggest that communication can be viewed as a machine: "Communication is not what one does with the machine, but is the machine itself."[31]

Experimental evidence shows that "priming" people with material from one area will influence how they perform tasks and interpret language in a metaphorically related area.[note 1]

As a foundation of our conceptual system

Cognitive linguists emphasize that metaphors serve to facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain—typically an abstraction such as "life", "theories" or "ideas"—through expressions that relate to another, more familiar conceptual domain—typically more concrete, such as "journey", "buildings" or "food".[33][34] For example: one devours a book of raw facts, tries to digest them, stews over them, lets them simmer on the back-burner, regurgitates them in discussions, and cooks up explanations, hoping they do not seem half-baked.

A convenient short-hand way of capturing this view of metaphor is the following: Conceptual Domain (A) is Conceptual Domain (B), which is what is called a conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor consists of two conceptual domains, in which one domain is understood in terms of another. A conceptual domain is any coherent organization of experience. For example, we have coherently organized knowledge about journeys that we rely on in understanding life.[34]

Lakoff and Johnson greatly contributed to establishing the importance of conceptual metaphor as a framework for thinking in language, leading scholars to investigate the original ways in which writers used novel metaphors and question the fundamental frameworks of thinking in conceptual metaphors.

From a sociological, cultural, or philosophical perspective, one asks to what extent ideologies maintain and impose conceptual patterns of thought by introducing, supporting, and adapting fundamental patterns of thinking metaphorically.[35] The question is to what extent the ideology fashion and refashion the idea of the nation as a container with borders, and how enemies and outsiders are represented. [citation needed]

Some cognitive scholars have attempted to take on board the idea that different languages have evolved radically different concepts and conceptual metaphors, while others hold to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt contributed significantly to this debate on the relationship between culture, language, and linguistic communities. Humboldt remains, however, relatively unknown in English-speaking nations. Andrew Goatly, in "Washing the Brain", takes on board the dual problem of conceptual metaphor as a framework implicit in the language as a system and the way individuals and ideologies negotiate conceptual metaphors. Neural biological research suggests some metaphors are innate, as demonstrated by reduced metaphorical understanding in psychopathy.[36]

James W. Underhill, in Creating Worldviews: Ideology, Metaphor & Language (Edinburgh UP), considers the way individual speech adopts and reinforces certain metaphoric paradigms. This involves a critique of both communist and fascist discourse. Underhill's studies are situated in Czech and German, which allows him to demonstrate the ways individuals are thinking both within and resisting the modes by which ideologies seek to appropriate key concepts such as "the people", "the state", "history", and "struggle".

Though metaphors can be considered to be "in" language, Underhill's chapter on French, English and ethnolinguistics demonstrates that language or languages cannot be conceived of in anything other than metaphoric terms.

Several other philosophers have embraced the view that metaphors may also be described as examples of a linguistic "category mistake" which have the potential of leading unsuspecting users into considerable obfuscation of thought within the realm of epistemology. Included among them is the Australian philosopher Colin Murray Turbayne.[37] In his book "The Myth of Metaphor", Turbayne argues that the use of metaphor is an essential component within the context of any language system which claims to embody richness and depth of understanding.[38] In addition, he clarifies the limitations associated with a literal interpretation of the mechanistic Cartesian and Newtonian depictions of the universe as little more than a "machine" – a concept which continues to underlie much of the scientific materialism which prevails in the modern Western world.[39] He argues further that the philosophical concept of "substance" or "substratum" has limited meaning at best and that physicalist theories of the universe depend upon mechanistic metaphors which are drawn from deductive logic in the development of their hypotheses.[40][41][39] By interpreting such metaphors literally, Turbayne argues that modern man has unknowingly fallen victim to only one of several metaphorical models of the universe which may be more beneficial in nature.[42][39]

Nonlinguistic metaphors

Tombstone of a Jewish woman depicting broken candles, a visual metaphor of the end of life

Metaphors can map experience between two nonlinguistic realms. Musicologist Leonard B. Meyer demonstrated how purely rhythmic and harmonic events can express human emotions.[43] It is an open question whether synesthesia experiences are a sensory version of metaphor, the "source" domain being the presented stimulus, such as a musical tone, and the target domain, being the experience in another modality, such as color.[44]

Art theorist Robert Vischer argued that when we look at a painting, we "feel ourselves into it" by imagining our body in the posture of a nonhuman or inanimate object in the painting. For example, the painting The Lonely Tree by Caspar David Friedrich shows a tree with contorted, barren limbs.[45][46] Looking at the painting, we imagine our limbs in a similarly contorted and barren shape, evoking a feeling of strain and distress. Nonlinguistic metaphors may be the foundation of our experience of visual and musical art, as well as dance and other art forms.[47][48]

In historical linguistics

In historical onomasiology or in historical linguistics, a metaphor is defined as a semantic change based on a similarity in form or function between the original concept and the target concept named by a word.[49]

For example, mouse: "small, gray rodent with a long tail" → "small, gray computer device with a long cord".

Some recent linguistic theories hold that language evolved from the capability of the brain to create metaphors that link actions and sensations to sounds.[50]

Historical theories

Aristotle discusses the creation of metaphors at the end of his Poetics: "But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars."[51]

Baroque literary theorist Emanuele Tesauro defines the metaphor "the most witty and acute, the most strange and marvelous, the most pleasant and useful, the most eloquent and fecund part of the human intellect". There is, he suggests, something divine in metaphor: the world itself is God's poem[52] and metaphor is not just a literary or rhetorical figure but an analytic tool that can penetrate the mysteries of God and His creation.[53]

Friedrich Nietzsche makes metaphor the conceptual center of his early theory of society in On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense.[54] Some sociologists have found his essay useful for thinking about metaphors used in society and for reflecting on their own use of metaphor. Sociologists of religion note the importance of metaphor in religious worldviews, and that it is impossible to think sociologically about religion without metaphor.[55]

See also


  1. ^ "In sum, there are now numerous results from comprehension-oriented studies suggesting that (1) comprehending metaphorical language activates concrete source domain concepts, and that (2) activating particular concrete perceptual or motor knowledge affects subsequent reasoning and language comprehension about a metaphorically connected abstract domain"[32]



  1. ^ Compare: "Definition of METAPHOR". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 29 March 2016. [...] a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them [... .]
  2. ^ "Definition of METAPHOR". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 4 April 2024.
  3. ^ The Oxford Companion to The English Language, 2nd Edition (e-book). Oxford University Press. 2018. ISBN 978-0-19-107387-8.
  4. ^ "As You Like It: Entire Play". Shakespeare.mit.edu. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  5. ^ "Radio 4 – Reith Lectures 2003 – The Emerging Mind". BBC. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  6. ^ μεταφορά Archived 6 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus.
  7. ^ cdasc3D%2367010 μεταφέρω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus.
  8. ^ μετά Archived 29 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus.
  9. ^ φέρω Archived 12 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus.
  10. ^ a b Jaynes, Julian (2000) [1976]. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (PDF). Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-05707-2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 August 2019. Retrieved 24 October 2019.
  11. ^ Pierce, Dann L. (2003). "Chapter Five". Rhetorical Criticism and Theory in Practice. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780072500875.
  12. ^ "The Wikipedia Library". newspapers.com. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  13. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) pp.653
  14. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th edition)
  15. ^ "Definition of ANTITHESIS". 15 September 2023.
  16. ^ "Definition of HYPERBOLE". 5 September 2023.
  17. ^ Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2nd ed (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1910).
  18. ^ "Definition of METONYMY".
  19. ^ a b Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2020). Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199812790.
  20. ^ Barker, P. (2000). "Working with the metaphor of life and death". Medical Humanities. 26 (2): 97–102. doi:10.1136/mh.26.2.97. PMID 23670145. S2CID 25309973. Archived from the original on 2 February 2019. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  21. ^ "Zapp Brannigan (Character)". IMDb. Retrieved 21 September 2014.
  22. ^ M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015), 134.
  23. ^ Aristotle, W. Rhys Roberts, Ingram Bywater, and Friedrich Solmsen. Rhetoric. New York: Modern Library, 1954. Print.
  24. ^ Garret, Jan. "Aristotle on Metaphor." , Excerpts from Poetics and Rhetoric. N.p., 28 March 2007. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
  25. ^ Moran, Richard. 1996. Artifice and persuasion: The work of metaphor in the rhetoric. In Essays on Aristotle's rhetoric, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, 385–398. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  26. ^ Ortony, Andrew (Winter 1975). "Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice". Educational Theory. 25 (1): 45–53. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.1975.tb00666.x.
  27. ^ "Cut". Sylvia Plath Forum. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  28. ^ "Sylvia Plath Forum: Home page". www.sylviaplathforum.com. Archived from the original on 12 September 2010.
  29. ^ "1. The Road Not Taken. Frost, Robert. 1920. Mountain Interval". Bartleby.com. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  30. ^ Foss, Sonja K. (1988). Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice (4 ed.). Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press (published 2009). p. 249. ISBN 9781577665861. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  31. ^ Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By (IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), Chapters 1–3. (pp. 3–13).
  32. ^ Sato, Manami; Schafer, Amy J.; Bergen, Benjamin K. (2015). "Metaphor priming in sentence production: Concrete pictures affect abstract language production". Acta Psychologica. 156: 136–142. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.09.010. ISSN 0001-6918. PMID 25443987.
  33. ^ Lakoff G.; Johnson M. (2003) [1980]. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-46801-3.
  34. ^ a b Zoltán Kövecses. (2002) Metaphor: a practical introduction. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-514511-3.
  35. ^ McKinnon, AM. (2013). "Ideology and the Market Metaphor in Rational Choice Theory of Religion: A Rhetorical Critique of "Religious Economies"". Critical Sociology, vol 39, no. 4, pp. 529-543. Archived 12 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Meier, Brian P.; et al. (September 2007). "Failing to take the moral high ground: Psychopathy and the vertical representation of morality". Personality and Individual Differences. 43 (4): 757–767. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.02.001. Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  37. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers Shook, John. 2005 p. 2451 Biography of Colin Murray Turbayne on Google Books
  38. ^ Murphy, Jeffrie G. "Berkeley and the Metaphor of Mental Substance." Ratio 7 (1965):176.
  39. ^ a b c Hesse, Mary (1966). "Review of The Myth of Metaphor". Foundations of Language. 2 (3): 282–284. JSTOR 25000234.
  40. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers Shook, John. 2005 p. 2451 Biography of Colin Murray Turbayne on Google Books
  41. ^ The University of Rochester Department of Philosophy- Berkley Essay Prize Competition - History of the Prize Colin Turbayne's The Myth of Metaphor on rochester.edu
  42. ^ The University of Rochester Department of Philosophy- Berkley Essay Prize Competition - History of the Prize Colin Turbayne's The Myth of Metaphor on rochester.edu
  43. ^ Meyer, L. (1956) Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
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  48. ^ Whittock, T. (1992) The role of metaphor in dance. British Journal of Aesthetics, 32:242–249.
  49. ^ Cf. Joachim Grzega (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter, and Blank, Andreas (1997), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  50. ^ "Radio 4 – Reith Lectures 2003 – The Emerging Mind". BBC. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  51. ^ Cf. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle, ed. Friedrich Solmsen (New York: Random House, 1954), 1459a 5–8.
  52. ^ Cassell Dictionary Italian Literature. Bloomsbury Academic. 1996. p. 578. ISBN 9780304704644.
  53. ^ Sohm, Philip (1991). Pittoresco. Marco Boschini, His Critics, and Their Critiques of Painterly Brushwork in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Italy. Cambridge University Press. p. 126. ISBN 9780521382564.
  54. ^ "T he Nietzsche Channel: On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense". oregonstate.edu.
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