X = Y

X = Y

By: Mohammad Khari

"Metaphors are wonderful for explaining complex topics in simple, familiar terms. A metaphor’s simplicity, however, can become its greatest failing if people treat the metaphor as an explanation.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett

We use metaphors all the time. They are so frequently used that one might consider them ordinary and mundane. However, our brain has evolved through millions of years to develop this amazing strategy of adding metaphors to our cognitive toolbox. Through metaphors, we bridge the gap between the unknown and the known, the familiar and the unfamiliar, to serve a few fundamental purposes: making sense of the word (sense)–better (quality of sense) and faster (speed of making sense). Metaphors can summarize and simplify sophisticated philosophical concepts and make them accessible to the less trained: “Life is a journey,” “Time is money,” “The world is a stage,” and “Hope is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The other articles in this issue will cover the brain science behind metaphors. Here, I try to get a bit technical about the definition.

Words are quite often not used to mean what they are intended to mean, making our species’ communication through language somewhat special, since it correlates with abstract thinking[1]. Most of us call such an expression a figure of speech, which means a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense to enhance communication.

To be a bit more technical, rhetoricians[2] classify figures of speech into four categories (quadripita ratio):

  1. Addition (adiectio), aka repetition/expansion/superabundance
  2. Omission (detractio), aka subtraction/abridgement/lack
  3. Transposition (transmutatio), aka transferring
  4. Permutation (immutatio), aka switching/interchange/substitution (source)

To put it more simply, figures of speech are divided into two main categories: schemes and tropes. Any figure of speech that results in a change of meaning is called a trope. Any figure of speech that creates its effect by word order, syntax, letters, and sounds, rather than twisting the meaning of words, is called a scheme. Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently used examples of schemes and then move on to tropes since metaphors belong to the category of tropes:

[1] Abstract thinking is considered a type of higher-order thinking, usually about ideas and principles that are often symbolic or hypothetical in nature. This type of thinking is more complex than the type of thinking that is centered on memorizing and recalling information and facts. (source)

[2] Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, which along with grammar and logic (or dialectic), is one of the three ancient arts of discourse. (source)


Alliteration: the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

Antithesis: a juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas: “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.”

Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds: “Smooth move!” or “Please leave!”


Hyperbole: an exaggeration of a statement: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Onomatopoeia: a word that imitates a real sound: “tick-tock” or “boom.”

Irony[3]: use of a word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning: If it were a cold, rainy, gray day, you might say, “What a beautiful day!”

Metonymy: a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept, such as the crown for “king” or “queen.”

Oxymoron: a pair of opposite or contradictory terms used together for emphasis: “Organized chaos,” “Same difference,” and “Bittersweet.”

Idiom: an expression that has a figurative meaning often related to, but different from the literal meaning of the phrase: “You should keep your eye out for him.”

[3] Different kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic, situational, cosmic, and Socratic (source)

Paradox: a statement or proposition which is self-contradictory, unreasonable, or illogical: “This statement is a lie.”

Synecdoche: when a part of something is used to refer to the whole (pars pro toto), or vice versa (totum pro parte): suits for businessmen, wheels for automobile, “The Pentagon” for the United States Department of Defense.

Pun: when a word or phrase is used in two (or more) different senses: “The tallest building in town is the library—it has thousands of stories!”

Personification: the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notions: “The sun smiled down on us.”

Syllepsis: the use of a word in its figurative and literal sense at the same time: “He lost his shirt and his temper,” or a single word used in relation to two other parts of a sentence although the word grammatically or logically applies to only one: “I caught the train and a bad cold.”

Zeugma: the use of one verb for two or more actions: “She broke his car and his heart.”

Simile: a comparison of two things, indicated by some connective, usually “like”, “as”, “than”, or a verb such as “resembles” to show how they are similar: “They fought like cats and dogs.”

Metaphor[4]: derived from the Greek metapherō which means “to carry over/ to transfer,” is when two “essentially unlike things” are shown to have a type of resemblance in order to create a new image. The similarities between the objects being compared may be implied rather than directly stated.

[4] sometimes called “a condensed analogy” or “analogical fusion.”

Components of a Metaphor:

The literary critic and rhetorician, I. A. Richards, divides a metaphor into two parts: the vehicle and the tenor.

Example: “Fog comes on little cat feet.”— Carl Sandburg

In this example, “little cat feet” is the vehicle that clarifies the tenor, “fog.” A comparison between the vehicle and tenor (also called the tertium comparationis) is implicit: fog creeps in silently like a cat.

Types of Metaphors: [5]

[5] Metaphors work by creating an analogy or mapping between two situations, and projecting inferences (Analogical Mapping). They are directional and asymmetrical, with the interpreter transferring the features of the source domain to the target domain (Asymmetry). They can be extended to set up more than one point of comparison (Systematicity) and can correlate abstract concepts with concrete examples to aid understanding (Abstraction). (source)

An extended metaphor or conceit sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons and is continued over multiple sentences:

“Life is a journey. The road can be smooth, bumpy, long, or short. Sometimes we take detours or get lost, but we always find our way back. We encounter different obstacles and challenges along the way, but they make us stronger and wiser. We also meet new people who become our companions, mentors, or adversaries. Some join us for a while, others stay for the duration. They shape our experiences and perspectives. And in the end, we arrive at our destination, fulfilled or regretful, but always changed.”

A dead metaphor[6] is a figure of speech that has become so overused and commonplace that it has lost its original meaning and is now used simply as a routine way of expressing an idea. The phrase “raining cats and dogs” is used to describe heavy rain, but it has lost its original metaphorical meaning. The phrase likely originated in the 17th century, when streets were narrow and often filled with stray animals. During heavy rains, these animals would be washed away and could be seen floating in the streets, giving the appearance that it was “raining cats and dogs.” However, today, most people use this phrase without thinking about its original meaning, and simply understand it to mean that it is raining heavily.

[6] related to one of the features of metaphors called the Conventionality Issue – some metaphors are newly coined and possess new correlations (e.g. His theory is a house of cards.) while others have been used for so long that their correlations are no longer transparent (e.g. He kicked the bucket.) (source)

A mixed metaphor is a metaphor that leaps from one identification to a second inconsistent with the first: “If we can hit that bull’s-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards… Checkmate.”—Futurama

An implicit metaphor has no specified tenor, although the vehicle is present. M. H. Abrams offers the following as an example of an implicit metaphor: “That reed was too frail to survive the storm of its sorrows.” The reed is the vehicle for the implicit tenor, someone’s death, and the “storm” is the vehicle for the person’s “sorrows.”

Metaphors can also go beyond the boundaries of one domain. Sonja K. Foss characterizes metaphors as “nonliteral comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain.” She argues that since reality is mediated by the language we use to describe it, the metaphors we use shape the world and our interactions with it.

Describing different aspects of experience and cognition, we also have:
cognitive metaphor: the association of an object to an experience outside the object’s environment.

conceptual metaphor: an underlying association that is systematic in both language and thought.

A root metaphor: an underlying worldview that shapes an individual’s understanding of a situation.

A nonlinguistic metaphor: an association between two nonlinguistic realms of experience.

A visual metaphor: using an image to create a link between different ideas.

Food for Thought: Creating New Concepts

As you can see, experts have studied metaphors intensively, dividing them up into discrete types. But maybe the true crux of metaphor is the psychological impact it has. Let us not overlook how describing something as a metaphor opens a whole new world of associations. Julian Jaynes gives an example of how this happens with a simple utterance comparing a person to a storm: “Pat is a tornado.” Here, “Pat” is the tenor, and “tornado” is the vehicle which has some associated attributes/nuances such as power, storm, motion, and danger. Different people might understand the metaphor in different ways based on which attributes they focus on: one might understand that “Pat is powerfully destructive”; another person might understand the metaphor as “Pat can spin out of control”. In the latter case, the attribute of spinning motion has become the new idea – psychological spin, suggesting an entirely new metaphor for emotional unpredictability, a possibly apt description for a human being hardly applicable to a tornado. Jaynes believes that metaphors not only improve the way we describe things but also greatly expand our ability to perceive and comprehend the world around us. He argues that metaphors can even create entirely new concepts or objects that did not exist before.

Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy.

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