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

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 For Rhodes, who served in the Marines before starting a family, going to culinary school and then getting a degree in history, the war for natural resources has long been an apt metaphor for the black American experience. Victoria Marin, Washington Post, "Chef Jonny Rhodes built a revered Houston restaurant. His next mission: Fighting ‘food apartheid.’," 2 July 2020 Really, there isn’t a better metaphor than the drive-in for the current state of socializing in many American cities. Angela Watercutter, Wired, "America’s Great—If Small—Return to Drive-In Theaters," 30 June 2020 For Blumenthal, spring – the season in which suicides tend to spike – is also a metaphor for the feelings of fear that accompany periods of transition. 1843, "The virtual couch," 26 June 2020 What was a metaphor when Gessen wrote it—at least for those not directly targeted by Republican policies—has now become literal. Hari Kunzru, The New York Review of Books, "Democracy’s Red Line," 4 June 2020 Could there be a starker, surer metaphor for Heaney’s poetic endeavor, for the move on which his later achievement depended? James Parker, The Atlantic, "Seamus Heaney’s Journey Into Darkness," 20 June 2020 Every trial is an enforced metaphor for conversation. Darren Franich, EW.com, "The death and life of the lawyer show," 18 June 2020 Policing is inescapably a metaphor for governmental power. Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, "An American Spring of Reckoning," 14 June 2020 Hence, the war metaphor came into its own in the 1950s as a mainstay of American political discourse, complementing the rhetoric employed to justify actual wars. Andrew J. Bacevich, The New Republic, "Will 2020 Finally Kill America’s War Fetish?," 9 June 2020

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

Time Traveler for metaphor

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Statistics for metaphor

Last Updated

12 Jul 2020

Cite this Entry

“Metaphor.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metaphor. Accessed 13 Jul. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for metaphor

metaphor

noun
How to pronounce metaphor (audio)

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

See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Words for Summer: A Quiz

  • a closeup of a sunflower
  • Which of the following words means “of or relating to summer”?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

TAKE THE QUIZ
Citation

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!