In language, a metaphor is defined as an indirect

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In language, a metaphor is defined as an indirect comparison between two or more seemingly unrelated subjects that typically uses “is a” to join the subjects.

A metaphor is sometimes confused with a simile which compares two subjects using “like” or “as”. An example of simile would be: “He was as sly as a fox”. While a metaphor would be “He was a fox”

More generally, a metaphor casts a first subject (tenor) as being equal to a second subject (vehicle) in some way. Thus, the first subject can be economically described thanks to the implicit and explicit attributes of the second.

A metaphor is sometimes further analyzed in terms of its ground and tension. The ground consists of the similarities between the tenor and the vehicle. The tension consists of the dissimilarities between the tenor and the vehicle.

The corresponding terms to tenor and vehicle in

Lakoff's terminology are target and source.

Types of metaphor

Rhetorical theorists and other scholars of language have discussed numerous dimensions of metaphors, though these nomenclatures are by no means universal nor necessarily mutually exclusive.

An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. Shakespeare's extended metaphor in his play As you like it is a good example

All the world's a stage / and all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts.

First, the world is compared to a stage; and then men and women are introduced as subsidiary subjects further elaborated by the theatre metaphor.

A mixed metaphor is one that leaps, in the course of a figure, to a second identification inconsistent with the first one.


“He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns”, where two commonly used metaphors are juxtaposed to create an original image.

A dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image is no longer present. Example: “he grasped the concept” or “I didn’t catch your name”.

Both of these phrases use a physical action as a metaphor for understanding (itself a metaphor), but in none of these cases do most speakers of English actually visualize the physical action. Dead metaphors, by definition, normally go unnoticed.

Some people make a distinction between a dead metaphor whose origin most speakers are entirely unaware of (such as “to understand” meaning to stand underneath a concept), and a dormant metaphor, whose metaphorical character people are aware of but rarely think about (such as “to break the ice”). Others, however, use the latter as a way of describing metaphorical cliché.

So a dead metaphor is a metaphor that through overuse has lost figurative value. Other examples of dead metaphors are:

run out of time“.

foot of a hill.”

branches of government.”

An active metaphor is one which, by contrast, is not part of daily language and is noticeable as a metaphor. Example: “You are my sun.”

A synecdochic metaphor is one in which a small part of something is chosen to represent the whole in order to highlight certain elements of the whole.

For example “a pair of ragged claws” represents a crab in Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock. Describing the crab in this way gives it the attributes of sharpness and savagery normally associated with claws.

A compound metaphor is one that catches the mind with several points of similarity. Example: “He has the wild stag's foot.” This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring.

An implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: “Shut your trap!” Here, the mouth of the listener is the unspecified tenor.

A submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: “my winged thought”. Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird.

A root metaphor is the underlying worldview that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.

Religion provides one common source of root metaphors, since birth, marriage, death and other universal life experiences can convey a very different meaning to different people, based on their level or type of religious conditioning.

For example, some religions see life as a single arrow pointing toward a future endpoint. Others see it as part of an endlessly repeating cycle.

A conceptual metaphor is an underlying association that is systematic in both language and thought. For the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” the conceptual metaphor of “A Lifetime Is a Day” is repeatedly expressed and extended throughout the poem.

Similar to root metaphors, conceptual metaphors are not only expressed in words, but are also habitual modes of thinking underlying many related metaphoric expressions.

A dying metaphor. In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell calls a dying metaphor one that has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of developing original language to express an idea. In short, such metaphors are becoming clichés. Example: “Achilles' heel”.

Difference Between Metaphor

and Idiom

The Cambridge dictionary offers this definition of idiom: “A group of words whose meaning considered as a unit is different from the meanings of each word considered separately.”

And this definition of metaphor: “An expression that describes a person or object by referring to something that is considered to possess similar characteristics.”

Very often, an idiom has no association to metaphor, being simply a phrase that becomes adopted by language as if it were a single word. These idioms are not usually confused with metaphor, though there are times when an idiom is also a metaphor. A good example is the “carrot and stick”.

The “carrot and stick” idiom refers to the use of enticement and punishment to motivate a horse or donkey. The carrot was dangled before the animal as a lure, while the stick was used to reprimand stubbornness.

Without knowing the relationship between carrot and stick, the group of words seems out of place in a sentence, which is central to its identification as an idiom.

However, in its common use, this idiom can be used metaphorically, like in:

Iran: West’s carrot and stick method failed

Here Iran is equated to a donkey, being stubborn and unwilling to change its position.

Trade incentives are equated to the carrot, aimed at luring Iran from its current position.

U.N. sanctions are equated to the stick, used to force a change in Iran's position.

The West is equated to the farmer.

The way to spot those times when an idiom behaves as a metaphor is to look for signs of an equation being made, then check to see if the equation can be extended, as you see in the above example.

A simpler classification of metaphors was made by Newmark, who distinguishes six types of metaphor:

Dead metaphors, whose images are highly unmarked, e.g. the mouth of the river, the foot of a hill.

Cliché metaphors, which refer to the use of cliché expressions in text, e.g. Achilles’ heel


Stock or standard metaphors, “established metaphors not deadened by overuse.” (the “body” of a car

Adapted metaphors, where the ‘fixedness’ of a stock metaphor has been adapted or personalised in some way.

Recent metaphors, where an anonymous metaphorical neologism has become generally used in the source language (download).

Original metaphors, which are created by the writer or speaker usually to make discourse more interesting and often used to highlight particular points or as reiteration.

Strategies for translating


• While dead metaphors are not especially problematical, literal translation is often not possible.

• In vocative texts, cliché metaphors should be upheld in the target text. Only in informative texts, they should be reduced to sense or replaced with a more credible stock metaphor.

• For the translation of stock metaphors, the SL image should be legitimately reproduced in the TL but the metonyms used may be transferred as long as the substitutes have the same connotations as in the SL. Stock metaphors may also be reduced to sense or literal language.

Adapted metaphors should be translated using equivalent adapted metaphors or reduced to sense.

Recent metaphors should be translated using componential analysis.

• In vocative texts, original metaphors should be translated literally. If the metaphor is obscure and of little importance to the text, it should be replaced with a descriptive metaphor or reduced to sense.

In informative texts, consideration should be given to the number and variety of original metaphors in the text as a whole and a decision be taken between literal translation, reduction to sense or modification of the metaphor.

Examples of metaphors

Family metaphors

Brother 1: “Hi, Bro” Shared culture makes for kin.

Brother 2: Brother Paul said his prayers. Shared religion makes for kin.

Sister 1: The company had a sister factory in Trenton. Similar purpose makes for kin.

Mother 1: ”Necessity is the mother of invention.” Invention is a (brain) child.

Infant: The Iraq democracy is in its infancy. Life begins after one is born.

Computer metaphors

Window: A program exists in an outside space.

Desktop: A visual surface is a physical surface.

Open/Close: Windows, programs and ports may be opened or closed.

File:  Data is physical and discrete, occupying space.

Folder: A folder may have any number of files within. Files are objects that can be grouped.

Space: Data takes up physical space.

Port:  Data transfers on a liquid.

Tools: Data is physically altered by a program.

Cooking metaphors

Grill: The lawyer grilled the witness on the stand. Tough questions create a damaging level of heat.  

Fry: She knew she was fried when the teacher handed back her paper. Like grill, this involves higher temperatures.

Recipe: A recipe for disaster. A disaster is the finished product of bad ingredients and processes.

Raw: She had a raw talent for music. Talent is only potential, and must be developed (cooked).

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