metaphor

noun
met·​a·​phor | \ ˈme-tə-ˌfȯr How to pronounce metaphor (audio) also -fər\

Definition of metaphor

1 : 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 (as in drowning in money) broadly : figurative language — compare simile
2 : an object, activity, or idea treated as a metaphor : symbol sense 2

Keep scrolling for more

Other Words from metaphor

metaphoric \ ˌme-​tə-​ˈfȯr-​ik How to pronounce metaphoric (audio) , -​ˈfär-​ \ or metaphorical \ ˌme-​tə-​ˈfȯr-​i-​kəl How to pronounce metaphorical (audio) , -​ˈfär-​ \ adjective

Synonyms for metaphor

Synonyms

conceit

Visit the Thesaurus for More 

What is metaphor?

"You're a peach!" We've all heard the expression, and it's a good example of what we call metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them: the person being addressed in "you're a peach" is being equated with a peach, with the suggestion being that the person is pleasing or delightful in the way that a peach is pleasing and delightful. A metaphor is an implied comparison, as in "the silk of the singer's voice," in contrast to the explicit comparison of the simile, which uses like or as, as in "a voice smooth like silk."

When we use metaphor, we make a leap beyond rational, ho-hum comparison to an identification or fusion of two objects, resulting in a new entity that has characteristics of both: the voice isn't like silk; it is silk. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought antedating or bypassing logic. Metaphor is the fundamental language of poetry, although it is common on all levels and in all kinds of language.

Lots of common words we use every day were originally vivid images, although they exist now as dead metaphors whose original aptness has been lost. The word daisy, for example, comes from an Old English word meaning "day's eye." The ray-like appearance of the daisy, which opens and closes with the sun, is reminiscent of an eye that opens in the morning and closes at night. The expression time flies is also metaphorical, with time being identified with a bird.

In poetry a metaphor may perform varied functions, from noting simple similarity between things to evoking a broad set of associations; it may exist as a minor element, or it may be the central concept and controlling image of the poem. The metaphor of an iron horse for a train, for example, is the elaborate central concept of one of Emily Dickinson's poems—though neither iron horse nor train appears in the poem, the first and final stanzas of which are:

I like to see it lap the Miles—

And lick the Valleys up—

And stop to feed itself at Tanks—

And then—prodigious step

And neigh like Boanerges—

Then—prompter than a Star

Stop—docile and omnipotent

At it's own stable door—

A mixed metaphor is the linking of two or more elements that don't go together logically. It happens when the writer or speaker isn't being sensitive to the literal meaning of the words or to the falseness of the comparison being used. A mixed metaphor is often two metaphors sloppily mashed together as in, "the ball is in the court of public opinion," which joins "the ball is in your court" to "the court of public opinion."

A mixed metaphor may also be used with great effectiveness, however, as in Hamlet's speech:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

For strictly correct completion of the metaphor, sea should be replaced by a word like host. By using "sea of troubles," however, Shakespeare evokes the overwhelming nature of Hamlet's troubles.

Simile vs. Metaphor

Many people have trouble distinguishing between simile and metaphor. A glance at their Latin and Greek roots offers a simple way of telling these two closely-related figures of speech apart. Simile comes from the Latin word similis (meaning “similar, like”), which seems fitting, since the comparison indicated by a simile will typically contain the words as or like. Metaphor, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word metapherein (“to transfer”), which is also fitting, since a metaphor is used in place of something. “My love is like a red, red rose” is a simile, and “love is a rose” is a metaphor.

Examples of metaphor in a Sentence

You see, menudo is our chicken soup for the body and soul, our metaphor for bread-and-butter issues. — Joe Rodriguez, San Jose Mercury News, 20 May 2003 The hapless Humpty Dumpty often crops up as a metaphor for the second law of thermodynamics. — Charles Day, Physics Today, December 2002 Ben Strong, senior, football player, leader of the prayer group, the boy whose very name is a metaphor, has been besieged by the media for interviews. — Jayne Anne Phillips, Harper's, November 1998 The number of songs containing ambiguous metaphors and intriguing but obscure symbolism could be extended indefinitely. Still,  … there are hollers, work songs, field songs, and blues whose meaning is really not subject to a great deal of interpretation. — Lawrence W. Levine, "The Concept of the New Negro," 1971, in The Unpredictable Past1993 “He was drowning in paperwork” is a metaphor in which having to deal with a lot of paperwork is being compared to drowning in an ocean of water. Her poems include many imaginative metaphors. a poet admired for her use of metaphor
See More

Recent Examples on the Web

Her chief skill is as a midwife, which becomes an increasingly unsubtle metaphor — much of the novel turns on Aino trying to deliver better working conditions for the loggers. Mark Athitakis, chicagotribune.com, "Karl Marlantes pens another spirited epic, this time about immigrants, logging and labor," 11 July 2019 The idea of following your light, confronting your shadow self and clearing away the refuse that prevents you from connecting with yourself are all effective ways of translating psychological metaphors into a video game format. Washington Post, "‘Sea of Solitude’ is a well-meaning misfire," 11 July 2019 Thursday morning’s remnants, the remaining slips of detritus fluttering through Manhattan like modern tumbleweeds, now provide the perfect metaphor. Jacob Feldman, SI.com, "The 2019 Sports On-Air All-Stars," 11 July 2019 The plot references Invasion of the Body Snatchers and (more explicitly) John Carpenter’s The Thing, both of which were paranoid Cold War metaphors for communist infiltration and corruption. Noah Berlatsky, The Verge, "In season 3, Stranger Things’ celebration of ’80s pop culture becomes a political ideology," 8 July 2019 Through them, the pool’s overwrought metaphors are stripped away to reveal more grounded tensions and revelatory fantasies. Amanda Hess, New York Times, "Women Crash the Pool Party," 3 July 2019 Natural-resource metaphors abound in discussions of data. Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Quartz, "The language we use to describe data can also help us fix its problems," 18 June 2019 Beyond biological metaphors, what these writers have in common is their intellectual and political posture. Adam Tooze, The New York Review of Books, "Democracy and Its Discontents," 6 June 2019 These flowers feature an aluminum tear to create a metaphor between the violent and the abused. Vogue, "19 FIT, Pratt, and Parsons 2019 Graduates on Their Collections and the Future of Fashion," 22 May 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'metaphor.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of metaphor

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for metaphor

Middle English methaphor, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French metaphore, from Latin metaphora, from Greek, from metapherein to transfer, from meta- + pherein to bear — more at bear

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about metaphor

Statistics for metaphor

Last Updated

15 Jul 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for metaphor

The first known use of metaphor was in the 15th century

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for metaphor

metaphor

noun

English Language Learners Definition of metaphor

: a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar
: an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol of something else

metaphor

noun
met·​a·​phor | \ ˈme-tə-ˌfȯr How to pronounce metaphor (audio) \

Kids Definition of metaphor

: a figure of speech comparing two unlike things without using like or as “Their cheeks were roses” is a metaphor while “their cheeks were like roses” is a simile.

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on metaphor

What made you want to look up metaphor? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).

WORD OF THE DAY

to complain fretfully

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

What's that Smell?! Quiz

  • wide eyed dog smelling rose
  • Someone who is hircine smells like a:
How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!

TAKE THE QUIZ
SCRABBLE® Sprint

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!