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

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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

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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
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Recent Examples on the Web

The action in the Wellfleet gym is a metaphor for polarization in the era of Donald Trump: Two groups looking at the same situation and drawing conclusions that are not just opposing but seemingly unbridgeable. Neil Swidey, BostonGlobe.com, "We’re afraid of sharks. But maybe we’re not afraid enough.," 9 July 2019 The sunlight, disorienting and ever-present, could be a metaphor for Dani’s grief, which would be unyielding even if Christian were genuinely interested in consoling her. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Review: In the unsettling ‘Midsommar,’ the nightmare unfolds in broad daylight," 3 July 2019 Stan Lee's mutants have always been a metaphor for any marginalized group, anyone hated and feared for the strength of their identity. Peter Rubin, WIRED, "Goodbye X-Men—You Flawed, Frustrating Cinematic Revolution," 7 June 2019 The blackout and the chaos that has ensued is a metaphor for the catastrophe known as Venezuela. Mary Anastasia O’grady, WSJ, "Pressure Mounts in Venezuela," 10 Mar. 2019 This is a metaphor for one of the most disturbing and damaging aspects of our romance with information technology. Philip Chard, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Put down the smartphone and become more human," 31 May 2018 The work’s title was a metaphor for how the cosmetics industry shills unnecessary products. Ashley Weatherford, The Cut, "Skin Care’s Most Outspoken Founder on Why Sheet Masks Are a Lie," 11 May 2018 And yet the birth itself is a metaphor for the family’s gumption and regeneration. Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor, "‘A Quiet Place’ is about a good deal more than scaring us," 13 Apr. 2018 But on another, Sacramento is a metaphor, as is New York, where the character longs to go to college. Christian Anwander, Esquire, "Esquire's 2018 Mavericks of Hollywood," 13 Feb. 2018

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.

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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

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Statistics for metaphor

Last Updated

12 Aug 2019

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Time Traveler for metaphor

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

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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.

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