".. a situation in which the unfamiliar is expressed in terms of the familiar."

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a situation (generally a literary situation) in which the unfamiliar is expressed in terms of the familiar.

This is the poem Tranquility by StarFields: (Dr. Silvia Hartmann)

Time slides
a gentle ocean
waves upon waves,
washing the shore,
loving the shore.

The first two verses of this short poem immediately and clearly compare time to an ocean. In the remaining part of the poem Hartmann continues to conjure up the image of the ocean by using words such as 'waves' and 'shore'.

'Is time really an ocean?' The answer is simple, NO - this is an example of a metaphor.

Examples:

  1. His head was spinning with ideas.
  2. Her home was a prison.
  3. She has a heart of gold.
  4. It is raining cats and dogs.
  5. You had better pull your socks up.
  6. The noise is music to her ears.
  7. You light up my life with your presence.
  8. My memory is a little cloudy about that incident.
  9. He basted her with flattery to get the job.
  10. Keep your eyes peeled.
  11. Take a moment to digest the info.
  12. A rainbow of flavors.

Why are metaphors used?

To answer this question I am going to ask you to read the poem above again, slowly, and then answer the following questions once you finish.

1. Can you see that ocean?
2. Can you feel the slow rhythm of the waves?
3. Can you feel calmness and tranquility?
4. Do you understand the term tranquility better now?

If your answer to the last three questions was YES, then you can say that you have experienced a metaphor. This is a tool which writers use in order to involve their readers more, by making them FEEL as opposed to helping them to UNDERSTAND things. In other words, when metaphors are involved, the meaning in that particular piece of writing goes far beyond the words of the text.

Examples of metaphors which are used in everyday English

1. My brother was boiling mad. (This implies he was very, very angry.)
2. The assignment was a breeze. (This implies that the assignment was very easy to do.)
3. It's going to be clear skies from now on. (This implies that clear skies are not a threat)
4. The skies of his future began to darken. (Darkness is a threat; therefore, this implies that something negative will probably happen to him.)
5. Her voice is music to his ears. (This implies that he feels happy each time he hears her voice.)
6. Thoughts are a storm, unexpected. (In the same way in which storms are unpredictable, so are thoughts - they come when you least expect them to.)
7. Life is a journey. (This implies that in life there are always going to be ups and downs, challenges, moments of success and moments of failure...just like a journey.)
8. Choices are crossroads. (When you are at a crossroad you have different paths in front of you, all of which lead you to a different place. It is up to you to choose the best one, depending on your destination.)
9. You've given me something to chew on. (This implies that you've given me something to think about.)

So what is the difference between a metaphor and a simile?

Let us look at these few examples, which will hopefully help to illustrate this difference clearly.
  1. Life is a journey.
  2. Life is like a journey.
  3. Life is as eventful as a journey.
As stated in the previous section, the first example is the metaphor, whereas the second and third examples are both similes. One simple way of remembering the distinction is to bear in mind that a simile generally includes like or as, whilst in the case of a metaphor the writer says that something actually IS something else.

In mathematical terms here's how one can describe it:
Metaphor: something IS EQUAL TO something else.
Simile: something is APPROXIMATELY EQUAL to something else.

History

Metaphors in literature (not just English literature) can be traced as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is an ancient poem from Mesopotmia (present day Iraq) and which historians have dated to the eighteenth or seventeenth century BC.
Courtesy of Elanguest Language School

Discussions related to this subject:
Examples of metaphors
Animal metaphors
Metaphor assignment
Are these metaphors?

What is a simile?
Read this article in Russian.
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