Metaphor and Simile

Last week, Cheri featured a Freshly Pressed blog and suggested that apt use of metaphor had contributed to the post’s…

Last week, Cheri featured a Freshly Pressed blog and suggested that apt use of metaphor had contributed to the post’s appeal. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to consider metaphor and its figurative cousin simile in a little more detail.

Language is inherently metaphoric in a broad sense, as we use sounds and written symbols as substitutes for items and concepts that exist in the world. It’s little surprise, then, that we’re fond of making further figurative leaps and expressing some of these symbols in terms of others. But there are different ways of making these little leaps, and the two that’re perhaps the most well-known are metaphor and simile.

Generally, when looking for metaphor, you look for either the formula X is Y or an outright substitution of thing Y for thing X where the equivalence suggested is not literally true. Some examples from our old friend Shakespeare:

  • Night’s candles were burnt out
  • If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
  • Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath

We have here stars described as candles, hairs as wires, and breath as honey. But we have a conspicuous absence of any qualifying phrases such as “like” or “as.” It’s not that the stars were like candles but that they were candes. Metaphor, then, is a sort of playful lying that serves to provide clarity or at least more memorable description.

Really good metaphor does more than just describe X in terms of Y, though. Take “the honey of thy breath,” for example. Shakespeare could have used any metaphor here, but the poem would have had rather a different tone had he said something like “Death hath swallowed the carrion of thy breath.” Honey implies sweetness both in smell and taste, which suggests fond attachment to the person whose breath death hath sucked (in this case the attachment is Romeo’s to Juliet). Further, honey is a substance one might actually enjoy tasting and smelling, and one can imagine that a lovestruck young man in fair Verona might entertain similar desires for the tastes and smells associated with nuzzling up to his beloved Capulet. So the metaphor Shakespeare chose here is not merely a word trade but is in fact a pretty complex, sensually evocative way of explaining Romeo’s feelings for Juliet. It’s really quite lovely.

One thing to keep on the lookout for is the mixed metaphor. Take this example from an episode of Futurama (via Wikipedia): “If we can hit that bull’s-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards… Checkmate.” Here we’ve strung together a bunch of metaphors, and the result is a jumble of what amount to catch-phrases that do more to confuse what’s being said than to amplify it or make it beautiful.

Simile is a little less brash than metaphor because it tends to rely on qualifying words like “like” and “as.” Some examples:

  • Busy as a bee
  • Happy as a clam
  • I slept like a log

Bees we think of as busy because they’re all the time bustling about, clams look happy because their shells open to look like a wide grin, and logs lie very still, so expressing these abstract notions and actions in terms of other things adds a little illustrative punch to the statement. Often a simile brings together two things that are essentially unlike one another, and it always states the resemblance explicitly, drawing attention to the comparison rather than just slipping the comparison in quietly the way metaphor does.

Of course, metaphor and simile are fraught with all sorts of nuance. For example, some things that use “like” look like similes but aren’t because they’re actual non-figurative comparisons. And there’s something called an “epic simile” that’s a lot more involved than the simple X is like Y formula. It doesn’t take much digging to find that there’s vocabulary like “tenor” and “vehicle” associated with both metaphor and simile. There are things called frozen metaphors and dead metaphors. But that’s a lot more than I wanted to cover in a short introduction to these items in the figurative tool belt, so I’ll leave them for another time.


  1. Without metaphors, communication and thinking is impossible. Even our understanding of mathematics at some point began through utilizing metaphors, (e.g. teacher demonstrating how to count by presenting a child with three apples and saying “this is three”). New and unfamiliar concepts are all presented to us initially through metaphors (e.g. explaining what a burrito is to Chinese person who has never heard of Mexican food… Chinese person says, “ohh a burrito is an egg roll only with beans”). We are constantly thinking in metaphors. X is Y essentially is equivalent to a simple definition (i.e. it lacks a sufficient and necessary condition, but still conveys meaning). As our thinking gets more and more sophisticated our metaphors build on top of each other, and our language becomes more sophisticated. However, it’s still metaphorical in nature. Don’t mean to shamelessly plug in a page… but it might be useful to some…

  2. The reason metaphor and simile are helpful:
    “it is easier to think about something when thinking about something else, than it is to think about a thing when trying to think about it.” Erasmus G. Addlepte

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