Technically, the universe began with a metaphor.
After all, “a sudden expansion of the universe” doesn’t quite have the same ring as the “Big Bang.” Even the world’s top theoretical physicists employ a metaphor like this—along with black holes, dark matter, and dark energy—when something overly technical won’t suffice.
Therein lies the magic of metaphors. By using language that reminds us of something else, we can better understand the world around us. Look around, and you’ll see them everywhere: metaphor examples in science, art, famous speeches, even in everyday language.
While most of us get the gist of what makes a metaphor, we often confuse them with similes, exaggerations, and even simple turns of phrase. Let’s dig deep (that’s another metaphor) and master the art of metaphorical language.
What is a Metaphor?
Let’s start with a basic metaphor definition. A metaphor is a direct comparison of two ideas without using “like” or “as,” which a simile does. When Dr. Seuss writes that the Grinch’s heart “grew two sizes,” it’s a metaphor for the Grinch beginning to care. When you say that you’re the “black sheep” of your family, it’s a metaphor for being the individual who stands out in the crowd.
It takes a bit of self-confidence to launch into a good metaphor. If you start a phrase with “this feels like…” you move into simile territory. You’re making an overt comparison.
Metaphors, on the other hand, are symbols that stand on their own—which is another metaphor, because abstract concepts can’t literally stand. Any time you use a separate concept to link to an abstract concept and make it easier to understand, you may be entering the territory of the metaphorical.
Why You Should Use Metaphors
Like any literary device, a metaphor is a creative way to enhance understanding and depth in a concept. Everyone understands the Big Bang at a core level because of the language physicists use. Had they named it the “Cosmological Massive Expansion Event,” it would become boring.
Done well, metaphors enhance clarity and understanding. Think of them—metaphorically—as gateways between simple understanding and abstract understanding. In the film Moneyball, we understand how cheap the Oakland A’s are because the team charges its own baseball players to use vending machines. This serves as a metaphor for the team’s real financial situation: It has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The metaphor of the soda becomes a direct physical representation of an abstract fact.
Learn to use metaphors like these, and you’ll have a literary device you can use time and again—in everyday situations, when you need to teach complicated concepts, or when you want to assemble a complex work of art.
Author Ernest Hemingway used to say that good fiction resembles an iceberg. What you can see—the literal language—remains above water. The abstract themes and ideas constitute the larger part of the iceberg, which floats underwater. Metaphors are powerful tools for building art that looks simple but resonates more deeply upon repeated readings.
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Types of Metaphors
Now that we have a loose understanding of how to use metaphors by using simple comparisons to illustrate abstract concepts, we’re free to dive a little deeper. What are the metaphor types you can use to accomplish your goals? Let’s break them down into individual examples of metaphors to understand them all.
A standard metaphor is straightforward: saying one idea is another, simpler idea. For example, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” combines a simple concept (windows) with a complex concept (souls). Since we understand windows, we understand what the speaker is trying to say about eyes and souls.
Standard Metaphor Examples
- “All the world’s a stage,” by William Shakespeare. By comparing the world to a stage and people to players, Shakespeare says powerful things about human life—with only a few choice words.
- “Love is blind.” Of course love—which has no eyes—is not even capable of being blind. But in three words, this phrase illustrates the notion that when we fall in love, we aren’t always preoccupied with the visual world.
An extended metaphor is more akin to a running theme, such as the symbolism you might find in a book. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, many readers found the simple story of an old man catching a marlin to be representative of everyone’s struggle against old age and death.
But metaphors that are prolonged can take us into symbolism territory. Think of an extended metaphor as one the author simply returns to over the course of a few lines or a few stanzas of poetry.
Extended Metaphor Examples
- In “Mother to Son,” poet Langston Hughes uses the metaphor of “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” to talk about the difficulties of life. Lines like, “It’s had tacks in it” help demonstrate how prickly life has been to the poem’s speaker. We understand Hughes’ meaning immediately, even if we haven’t lived that life.
- Robert Frost’s famous roads diverging in a yellow wood from “The Road Not Taken” are commonly interpreted as a type of extended metaphor for the big decisions in life. But some believe Frost meant the opposite—that the poem’s speaker was hesitating needlessly, and it didn’t really make “all the difference.”
A visual metaphor is a direct, physical representation of an abstract idea. Captain Ahab’s White Whale in Moby-Dick has come to represent an obsession with vengeance. But writers often pepper their work with other subtle visual cues as to their deeper meaning.
Visual Metaphor Examples
- In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald opens one chapter with a lengthy description of an advertisement: the huge, banner-sized spectacles of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg looking down on everyone in the tale. The eyes, like Jay Gatsby’s desires, prove bigger than life.
- In the TV series Game of Thrones, Arya’s sword Needle becomes a visual representation of her previous life in Westeros. When she hides it away before entering a place where she is not allowed to have a name, it shows the audience that she still hasn’t given up her whole identity.
A malaphor is a metaphor gone wrong, usually when someone blends a common saying with another in error. If you say “that’s water over the bridge,” you’ve created a malaphor: an attempt at a metaphor that’s lost sight of what the original metaphor is supposed to represent.
- In HBO’s The Sopranos, the writers frequently have their under-educated characters butcher famous metaphors with malaphors. One character encourages another to “keep your eye on the tiger,” a combination of two metaphors: the “eye of the tiger” and keeping one’s “eye on the prize.”
- “Out of the woods and into the fire” is a similar misfire. Getting out of the woods (getting out of trouble) and moving from the frying pan into the fire (going from one trouble to the next).
While a malaphor mixes any two types of aphorisms or common sayings with unintended results, a mixed metaphor only does so with metaphors. You’ll commonly arrive at a mixed metaphor when you have two incomplete ideas and try to merge them into one. You may have noticed we did this in the title of this post with rocket surgery, a combination of rocket science and brain surgery.
Mixed Metaphor Examples
- “I’m going to nip this rat in the bud.” This example, inspired from Garner’s Modern American Usage, shows how ridiculous a mixed metaphor can sound: a rat isn’t a flower, and doesn’t have a bud to nip.
- “If we fall under the ice, we’ll be in hot water.” Hot water as a symbol for trouble makes sense, except in the case where you use cold water as a metaphor for trouble.
Some metaphors have been around so long they’ve lost their original meaning. In this case, you get a dead metaphor—a metaphor so dated it no longer carries the weight it once did.
Dead Metaphor Examples
- “Deadline.” That’s right: this everyday word is a dead metaphor, and not just literally. It comes from the American Civil War, when “deadlines” represented do not cross lines in the battle. Today, it only refers to an assigned completion date.
- “Dial me up.” In the era of smartphones, turning a dial to enter phone numbers is nonsensical. But when phone technology required literal dialing, this was once a visual metaphor for calling someone on the phone.
Metaphors in Poetry
Poetic language stacks layer upon layer on its words, requiring highly metaphorical and symbolic language. So it’s no surprise that poetic metaphors are so common, whether obvious or not.
Metaphors in Poetry Examples
- “I’m a riddle in nine syllables,” says Sylvia Plath in her appropriately-titled poem, “Metaphors.” She then lays out these riddles, making the reader curious as to how they related to her and her current predicament.
- “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is the title and final line of a Robert Frost poem. In it, Frost talks about how “Eden sank to grief,” a meditation on mortality and the fleeting nature of life’s finest moments.
Once you master metaphors, you can move up to the next level: implying a metaphor simply by the way you use language. You use one incomplete idea to hint at a metaphor that you don’t directly state. Here’s how it’s done.
Implied Metaphor Examples
- “I’ve trapped you in my web” is a common implied metaphor. The metaphor is that of a trapping spider—but by using only the visual cue of the web, the listener has to fill in the rest. We understand the metaphor of the spider trap because there’s only one way for that idea to go. There’s no confusion here, despite the underlying complexity.
- “Before us, the huge limestone stairs wavered in the heat.” This minor line from Madeline Miller’s Circe uses one word—wavered—to imply another idea. Stairs don’t waver, especially if they’re made of limestone. But the metaphor of wavering gives us the image of the hot air itself appearing to move the stairs.
How to Write Metaphors that Stick
A good metaphor should accomplish a few things. First, it should be consistent. “Big Bang” works because it really does describe a big explosion. “Water under the bridge” works because the visual metaphor is similar to the concept of something transient and moving away.
Second, when writing metaphors, use literal language even if you’re describing things that aren’t literal. For example, if you want to say that flowers are bobbing up and down in the wind, you might say that the blooms are “nodding” in the wind. This metaphorical personification gives us an immediate image of what the flowers are doing, even if they can’t “nod” their assent the way people do.
Use this simple formula: To illustrate an abstract idea, find a symbol for the idea that’s somewhere in the same vein. Then, slap that symbol into your language with confidence. (Another metaphor. You won’t literally slap anything.)
Want an example? A “Black Hole” is not technically a hole in space, but it looks like one because of the way it bends light. That similarity in appearance helped make the name stick.
Making Metaphors Work For You
With all the complicated metaphors in writing, especially famous writing, the purpose of metaphors might seem unclear. But don’t let that throw you off the purpose of a metaphor entirely. Using metaphors should simplify your language. They should give it artfulness and the sense that you’re packing powerful meaning into a few simple words.
Don’t be nervous if you get it wrong. If there’s one thing you should know about how to write a good metaphor, it’s this: Metaphors can smell fear. Go into your metaphors with confidence, add symbols to your language, and embrace the fun in the process. (And, as your first test, see if you can spot the metaphor in this paragraph).
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