The Meaning Of Metaphors: Definition And Examples

Metaphors are a Swiss army knife. Or are they a shape-shifting animal? Here we explore different types of metaphors, and why they can be important to language learning.
Metaphor examples represented by a small classroom with a teacher writing on the white board and a few students standing or sitting around.

Metaphors are those linguistic gems that draw connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, painting vivid pictures in our minds. They’re also one of the most common forms of rhetorical device. But what exactly are they, and why should you care? Let’s dive into the captivating world of figurative language and unlock the power of metaphors!

What Is A Metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares two things without using the words “like” or “as.” For example, when Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage,” he metaphorically equated life to a theatrical performance. Other common metaphors include “a heart of gold” for a kind person or “the apple of my eye” for someone greatly admired.

What’s The Difference Between A Simile And A Metaphor?

Similes and metaphors are often lumped together because they have similar functions: comparing one thing with another. But unlike similes, which use “like” or “as” to make a comparison, metaphors create a more direct and implicit association. So while a simile would say “You’re as strong as a mountain” or “You’re strong like a mountain,” a metaphor would simply say “You’re a mountain, strength-wise.” 

Types Of Metaphors

We’ve covered the basics of metaphors, but you can also break them down into distinct categories. Here are the four main types of metaphors, along with examples.

Direct Metaphors

As you might guess from the name, this is the most straightforward type of metaphor, that simply states that one thing is another thing. Here are a few examples:

  • His smile is a shining sun.
  • That movie was a real garbage fire.
  • You’re a dream!
  • The world’s a stage.

Implied Metaphor

With an implied metaphor, two things are being compared, but rather than using the verb “to be” like direct metaphors usually do, the comparison is more indirect. Often, it has to do with using a verb that would not normally be attached to the subject of a sentence. Here are a few implied metaphor examples:

  • Her tan made her look kissed by the sun. (The implied metaphor is that the sun’s rays are like kisses.)
  • Marlys blossomed in the new environment. (The metaphor is that Marlys is a flower, capable of blossoming.)
  • The classroom was buzzing with activity. (Unless there are bees in the room, the implied metaphor is that the classroom is like a beehive.)
  • John came under fire on the witness stand. (The implied metaphor is that whatever is being said to John is like a barrage of bullets, or something along those lines.)

Extended Metaphors

Have a comparison that you want to go into more detail about? An extended metaphor is also pretty self-explanatory: Rather than just saying one thing is something else, the speaker or writer goes on showing how the two things are the same. These are more common in poetry than in real life. Here’s a famous extended metaphor in a poem by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Mixed Metaphors

So you’ve started comparing your loved one to a rose, and before you know it you’re comparing them to the sun. Or maybe a gorgeous landscape. Before you know it, you’ve added in three animals, four flowers and a few ethereal events for good measure. This all is a mixed metaphor: when you start combining different direct and implied metaphors in a way that doesn’t really make sense. Sometimes they’re used for comic effect, and sometimes they’re just plain confusing.

  • She’s a blazing comet, ready to blossom.
  • We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.
  • It’s not rocket surgery.
  • He’s a mad dog, burning in the night.

Dead Metaphors

These metaphors aren’t really “dead,” they’re just so common that you may not even realize they’re a metaphor unless you pause to think about them.

  • That’s just the tip of the iceberg!
  • We need to get to the root of the problem.
  • I need some time to digest this information.
  • Time is money.
  • My dog likes to sleep at the foot of the bed.

The Importance Of Metaphors In Language Learning

Understanding and using metaphors, along with other kinds of rhetoric, can significantly enhance your vocabulary and comprehension skills. Metaphors often draw connections between familiar and unfamiliar concepts, helping learners grasp the meanings of new words or phrases through relatable comparisons. For example, the metaphor “a melting pot” for a diverse society can aid in understanding the word “diverse.” 

Engaging with metaphors requires creative and critical thinking skills, while creating metaphors involves making unique connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, fostering creativity and divergent thinking. Analyzing and interpreting metaphors demands critical thinking skills as learners must decipher the intended meanings and implications. Incorporating metaphors into language learning can therefore enhance your cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills.

Remember, metaphors are not just linguistic devices; they are gateways to understanding the cultural contexts, perspectives and experiences that shape a language. Embrace the richness of metaphors, and you’ll unlock a world of deeper meaning, creativity and cross-cultural understanding.

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