In everyday language, we describe things by comparing them with other things.
She was as brave as a lion.
He was as silly as a headless chook.
His face felt like sandpaper.
She addressed the children like a sergeant-major.
These comparisons are straightforward and are sometimes called open comparisons. The words "as" or "like" tell us comparisons are being made. The technical name for these comparisons is similes.
Her gaze was like ice.
This is a simile.
We can make comparisons without "as" or "like".
Her gaze was icy.
This is a hidden comparison, and the technical name for it is a metaphor.
We distinguish between literal meanings and metaphorical meanings.
The footpath was icy. (literal meaning)
Her gaze was icy. (metaphorical meaning)
He couldn't digest anything the nurse gave him to eat. (literal meaning)
He couldn't digest anything the nurse told him. (metaphorical meaning)
We use metaphors all the time in everyday language. Often we are probably not conscious that they are metaphors.
The whole enterprise had a fishy smell.
Your letter was buried under my papers.
That salesman was a shark.
Many experiences, feelings, and ideas are difficult to express in words. Therefore we try to describe them by using comparisons, such as similes and metaphors.
They are frequently found in poetry:
My love is like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melodie
That's sweetly played in tune.
They are also used in academic writing.
Those people were at the bottom of the social heap.
Plants are complex chemical factories.
Light is trapped by a special pigment in the leaves.
The xylem seems to be the main piping system for water in the plant.
To understand the full meaning of some academic writing, it is necessary to "unpack" the metaphors.
An aspect of metaphor is personification (Latin persona: "character", "person").
In personification, the non-human is identified with the human or given human characteristics.
Cricket has been good to me.
The New Zealand dollar had a quiet month.
Life dealt him a heavy blow.
Personification is very common in poetry.
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon.
Walter de la Mare: "Silver"
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death [...]
John Donne: Holy Sonnets, X
It also appears in children's books.
"There are the trees," said the Beaver. "They're always listening. Most of them are on our side, but there are trees that would betray us to her; you know who I mean."
C. S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
An extended comparison is called an analogy.
These are frequently used in academic writing to assist understanding. For example, the relationships between different European languages are very often described in terms of a family tree, with many languages descending from the ancestral language, Indo-European. In this analogy, languages are born and die like people; they have offspring (usually daughters) and close and distant relations.
The analogy is useful, but we have to remember that it is only ever an analogy. In this case, for example, languages are not like people, and the situation is infinitely more complex than this description suggests.
Summary of Terms
|simile (open comparison)||metaphor|
|literal meaning||metaphorical meaning|
Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.
Published on: 25 Feb 2009