A metaphor is a figure of speech that implies comparison between two unlike entities, as distinguished from simile, an explicit comparison signaled by the words “like” or “as.”[1] For example, “All the world’s a stage.” (William Shakespeare). Although seemingly unrelated, the two entities compared are usually similar in one important way that is to be emphasized.
The device is widely used in literature, especially in poetry, to associate certain objects to those in other contexts briefly and vividly.

Origins and history

The word metaphor derives from Ancient Greek μεταφορά (metaphora) from μεταφέρω (metapherō, “I transfer, apply”) from μετά (meta, “with, across, after”) + φέρω (pherō, “I bear, carry”).[2] Aristotle discusses metaphor pimarily in two works: The Poetics and The Rhetoric. Aristotle offers us the first theory on the workings of metaphor in The Poetics, in which he claims:‘Metaphor is the application to one thing of the name belonging to another. We may apply (a) the name of a genus to one of its species, or (b) the name of one species to its genus, or (c) the name of one species to another of the same genus, or (d) the transfer may be based on a proportion.’ Although there are a number of obvious problems with Aristotle’s definition and treatment of metaphor, e.g. essentially advocating a substitutionist view of metaphor, Eco (1981) acknowledges that Aristotle should be praised for treating metaphor as a necessary cognitive function.[3]
Metaphors were widely applied in literature since ancient time. It is, in fact, a technique as old as language itself[4] ; it is present in the earliest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Greek plays were for instance, almost invariably allegorical with the intention to entertain and enlighten the audiences metaphorically. Homer developed it into an art form, and his invention of the epic simile was picked up by later writers including Milton. In the Middle Ages the device of allegory underpinned much of French and English writing, while the Metaphysical poets employed increasingly elaborate metaphorical conceits in the sixteenth century.


How do we distinguish between a metaphor, a simile and an analogy?
A metaphor is more forceful than an analogy, because metaphor focuses on the important common aspect between the compared, whereas analogy implies a difference. A simile is a comparison that points out directly by “like” or “as”, etc, as indicators.[5] For example,
l The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner. --metaphor
l His love for her is like fires of Centralia--simile
l Dogs are to to puppies as cats are to kittens.—analogy


So far there have been many approaches to divide metaphors into different types. Among the most acceptable though, are the following:
  • active and dead metaphors
  • bold, pale and formulaic metaphors
  • radical and poetical
There are other types by various criteria, e.g Extended or telescoping metaphor or conceit, Mixed metaphor, Absolute metaphor, Synecdoche metaphor, etc. [6]

Metaphor beyond a rhetorical device

Metaphors sometimes change the relationships between the primary subject and the secondary subject and in so doing, it will generate new knowledge and insight. In this regard, metaphors are creative “cognitive instruments”[7] beyond a figure of speech, extending to the conceptual domain. Its impact is particularly found in dead metaphors that are deep entrenched into people’s cognition. Such metaphors are therefore called “conceptual metaphors”. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it in their book Metaphors We Live By, "We do not understand Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' to be about a horse-and-wagon journey but about life. We understand Emily Dickinson's 'Because I could not stop for Death' as a poem about the end of the human life span, not a trip in a carriage. To show to what extent conceptual metaphors have made their way into the vast collective unconsciousness of a certain culture, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson gave the example of the variations on TIME IS MONEY:

How do you spend your time these days?

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

He’s living on borrowed time. [8]

Conceptual metaphor and metaphorical linguistic expressions

In the cognitive linguistic view, metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain. Thus a metaphor can be briefly understood as the following formula: CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (A) IS CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (B), which is called a conceptual metaphor.
We need to distinguish conceptual metaphor from metaphorical linguistic expressions. The latter are words or other linguistic expressions that come from the language or terminology of the more concrete conceptual domain.[9] For example, the above-mentioned TIME IS MONEY is a conceptual metaphor, whereas the sentences are various metaphorical linguistic expressions that it generates.
People apply many metaphors in their speech unaware of their conceptual metaphors. Here is another example of how the two correspond.
He works for the local branch of the bank.
Our company is growing.
They had to prune the workforce.
The organization is rooted in the old church.


Basically a metaphor serves as a bridge between the known and the unknown. The functions of metaphor can be concluded as:
(a) It acts as an ornament to enhance the beauty of speech, making it more dramatic or attractive.
(b) It is a powerful tool of literary language to make believe in the 'resemblance' of entirely different objects.
(c) It is a major tool to organize the conceptual system of a discourse.

Use metaphors effectively in your writing

Creative and appropriate metaphors can add charm to your writing. They extend the implications of your expression and make reading experience more enjoyable and enlightening for the readers.
There are no hard rules about the use of metaphors when writing nor is there any restriction as to how often you should use them. But you can be quite innovative in applying metaphors on different parts of speech, e.g. verbs, adjectives and prepositional phrases. However, the effectiveness of metaphors should be taken into consideration, especially in using active metaphors that you created yourself. Otherwise, the overuse or misuse of imaginary can turn readers off.

External links is a Purdue University Writing Lab page on how to apply metaphors in creative writing. is a Doyle Online Writing Lab page on figurative language and types of metaphors.
This is a Google Books page of Introducing Metaphor, a relatively concise and comprehensive introduction to metaphor.
A Google books review of Andrew Ortony(ed.), Metaphor and Thought (1993), the best available collection of essays on the background to the study of metaphor.

  1. ^

    Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica,2011. Web. 13 May. 2011.

  2. ^

    “Metaphor”. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 10 Aug. 2004.

  3. ^
    “Aristotle on Metaphor”. Rhetorosaurus.
  4. ^
    History of Metaphor. prod. Thomas Morris, writ. Steven Connor. Radio. BBC, 2010.
  5. ^
    “Simile, Metaphor, Analogy: Differences and Similarities''. D. J. Repici. Stand Out Publishing. February 2,2010. May 13, 2011.,-Metaphor,-Analogy-Differences-and-Similarities.html
  6. ^
    Shruti Chandra Gupta.“18 Types of Metaphors”. Literaryzone. Sep 10th, 2007. May 16th, 2011.
  7. ^
    Malmkjær, Kirsten. The Linguistics Encyclopedia. London: Routledge, 2004
  8. ^

    Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. The Metaphors We Live By.Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1980.

  9. ^
    Kovecses, Zoltan. Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press,2002.