metaphor

noun
met·​a·​phor | \ˈme-tə-ˌfȯr 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, -​ˈfär-​ \ or metaphorical \-​i-​kəl \ adjective
metaphorically \-​i-​k(ə-​)lē \ adverb

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

This veritable botanical garden, in an astonishing variety of shades of green, means there's new life here—a hopeful metaphor for what's happening across the island. David Jefferys, Condé Nast Traveler, "Puerto Rico's Dorado Beach Is a Bit of Bali, Three Hours from Home," 12 Nov. 2018 Others see them as important symbols and metaphors. Joshua Eaton, Teen Vogue, "Everything You Need to Know About Rosh Hashanah," 10 Sep. 2018 Dark hallways lead into bright spaces, an excellent metaphor for what the museum and its founders are trying to achieve. Carrie Hutchinson, Condé Nast Traveler, "10 Best Museums in Melbourne," 26 Sep. 2018 That may be an unfortunate metaphor given the streaming service onto which the album was exclusively released. Max Cea, Billboard, "With 'Everything Is Love,' Beyoncé and JAY-Z Flex on Kanye West and the World," 17 June 2018 Under the pretense of making a cocktail of painkillers to dull Paul’s aching joints, Jane doses her husband with a sedative—an almost too-obvious metaphor for the seductive excesses of their patrician lifestyle. Becca Rothfeld, The New Republic, "J.G. Ballard’s Eerily Accurate Dystopias," 14 Mar. 2018 Like few other structures, the Winchester Mystery House makes for an easy metaphor for psychoanalysis’s sense of the mind. Colin Dickey, New Republic, "What Winchester Gets Wrong About an American Landmark," 7 Feb. 2018 Fighting risk with expertise Hadfield sees such incidents not as exceptions to his bicycle metaphor but as evidence in support of it. NBC News, "Why astronaut Chris Hadfield isn't afraid of death," 4 July 2018 My favorite John Donne poems use the compass and map as visual metaphors for vague things like love or the soul. Aaron Gilbreath, Longreads, "Drought In Post-Apartheid Cape Town: An Interview with Eve Fairbanks," 12 June 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

2 Dec 2018

Look-up Popularity

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 \

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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Comments on metaphor

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