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Metaphor: Exchanging and Transcending Meaning

Creating beautifully crafted images with impactful messages, the metaphor is mundane, found in everyday speech, and poetic. The ubiquitousness of metaphor may make this literary device seem simple, but it is a rather complex concept. Although the study of metaphor is extensive, we explore a small portion to better understand and appreciate this staple poetic tool.


Metaphor as a form of knowing

Metaphor compares one thing to another without the use of like or as, which is used in similes. A metaphor is composed of two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the abstract concept while the vehicle is the concrete image to which the idea is compared. However, a closer look at metaphors, even in everyday language, allows us to see that metaphors are complex relations between two images that require an equally complex thought process.


Picture by Gerd Altmann of Pixabay


For example, the idiom “life is a journey” happens to also be a metaphor, which appears like a simple statement. However, we can break down this phrase and take a moment to understand the process, which will dissect how metaphors function. In I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, James Geary explains that metaphor is:


Derived from the Greek roots meta (over, across, or beyond) and phor (to carry), the literal meaning of metaphor is “to carry across.” A metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target. Rhetoricians throughout history have recognized metaphors as linguistic hand-me-downs, meanings passed on from an old word to a new thing. (26)

Looking at our examples, if we follow Aristotle’s math for metaphors, as Geary illustrates, we know that life “equals” journey. The complexity of this comparison happens the moment we think about all the details and descriptions we know about a journey, a word that is grounded in lived experiences of road trips, a trip to grandma’s house, or Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. We also start thinking about how these descriptions apply to the concept of life.


As a result, the meaning of life is redefined by the metaphor’s vehicle, the journey. We know that a journey is a process, anything can happen along the way to a destination (e.g. a lot of unknowns), there are roads we may know and others we don’t (e.g. detours), and a journey can mean exploration and discovery. It is important to note that we should be selective and not bother with unnecessary information; for example, we do not have to think about what color the road signs are as we explore this metaphor.


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


In the use of metaphors, we find the shortcomings of language. The phrase “life is a journey” speaks to this limitation. To express the profound significance of living in the moment and enjoying life as it develops is difficult. We borrow knowledge from another word or object we already know. We use concrete examples and images that help us understand the abstract. Whether it is an idea or an emotion, metaphors use concrete examples we already know and understand as a tool, while transcending the knowledge conferred by the vehicle. We then end up with the following:

life= journey

life=unknowns

life=detours

life=exploration

life=discovery


The metaphor becomes a way of understanding the meaning of life. We can come to understand that life is filled with many unknowns and though we have not reached a specific destination, we can explore and enjoy life along the way without getting brought down by failures. The metaphor becomes a way of understanding and learning that life is about living in the present. The focus is the journey and what we gain through the process not the destination. As demonstrated, the power of metaphors have an ability to convey larger meanings and concepts through memorable language and images.


Types of metaphors

With a better understanding of how metaphors work we can take a moment to review different types of metaphors.


Implied metaphor: less direct metaphors that alludes to the image rather than telling you the image itself. Example: Time flies where flies refers to the image of flying rather than using a more concrete image of an object flying (e.g. bird, airplane, etc.).


Extended metaphor: a sustained comparison in which part or all of a poem consists of a series of related metaphors. Example: Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” where she uses the image of a bird through the poem.


Mixed metaphors: combining unrelated metaphors, which creates a confusing expression. While metaphors can provide deep insight, if the vehicles (images) used are too incongruous, the audience will find it difficult to grasp the idea. Example: Poetry is sweet lullabies that taste like smoked ribs on a hot summer day.


Dead Metaphor: metaphors that have lost their meaning and impact due to overuse- includes cliches. Example: They kicked the bucket.


The metaphor is a complex concept that involves cognitive processes, psycholinguistics, and an understanding of cultural contexts among other factors. It is no surprise Aristotle thought that “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”

Now, you try it!


Exercise 1:

With the idiom “time flies” we see an indirect metaphor. Rather than replacing the concept with a concrete object (i.e. life with journey), the idiom replaces time with the action flies, so we must take the extra step of imagining the action. Here are a few questions to help you get started:


What images come to mind when you think of the word flies? What words would you use to describe fly? For instance, think about how fly compares/contrasts to walking.


Create a list with all the images. If it helps, list them using the equal sign between each expression, i.e. word.


What knowledge or meanings from the action flies can we carry onto the concept of time? How do these redefine our understanding of time?


Now that you have a deeper understanding of this phrase, go back to the list. Can you think of an image that can replace flies? Rewrite the idiom.


Exercise 2:

Read over Emily Dickinson’s poem "Hope" is the thing with feathers As noted before, Emily uses the bird images throughout the poem.


Take a moment to identify all the characteristics of the bird as portrayed in the poem. Remember that this is the vehicle, so it is the image Emily is using to convey a message about the concept of hope.


As in the previous exercise, remember that could use the equal sign (or not equal sign when looking at what the bird doesn’t do) to help you make your list.


Once you have done your list and acquired a deeper understanding of the concept hope, go back to the list. Do you agree with these descriptions of hope? If so, write a poem with a different image that you feel conveys the idea. If you do not agree with Dickinson’s representation of hope (or part of it), work backwards creating a list of descriptions and then finding an image you feel best represents your ideas about hope.

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