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The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.

-Aristotle, De Poetica, 322 B.C.

What is a metaphor and what does it mean to be a "master" of it? This page is dedicated to defining metaphor, its many forms, its meaning and purpose, and perhaps even understanding what Aristotle meant by his statement. Read on.


Defining a metaphor and its parts

At its most basic, metaphor is a rhetorical trope or a figure of speech, where a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated objects without using "like" or "as". It is a transference of one object's characteristics onto another. However, it is not to be confused with simile, metonymy, personification, allusion, and antonomasia.

A metaphor consists of two main parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which the metaphor is applied. The vehicle is the metaphorical term through which the tenor is applied. These two parts come together to reach a point of similarity known as a ground.

For Example: Life is a yo-yo. It's a series of ups and downs.

Here, life is the tenor and yo-yo is the vehicle. The fact that both life and a yo-yo have ups and downs is the ground.


Types of metaphor

Contrary to popular belief, there are many forms of metaphor besides just "regular" and "extended." Listed below are but a few examples.


bulletAn absolute metaphor is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the idea and the image. (also known as: paralogical metaphor and antimetaphor) Example: "We are the eyelids of defeated caves." (Shipley, 197).


bulletAn active metaphor is one which is relatively new and has not become part of everyday linguistic usage. The audience knows that a metaphor has been used. (also known as: live metaphor) Example: "You are my sun." (Perelman, 88).


bulletA complex metaphor is one which mounts one identification on another. Example: "That throws some light on the question." Throwing light is a metaphor and there is no actual light. (Shipley, 197).


bulletA compound metaphor is one that catches the mind with several points of similarity. (also known as: loose metaphor) Example: "He has the wild stag's foot." This phrase suggests grace and speed as well as daring. (Shipley, 197).


bulletA dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image is not present. Example: money, so called because it was first minted at the temple of Juno Moneta. (Shipley, 197).


bulletA dormant metaphor is one in which its contact with the initial idea it denoted has been lost. Example: He was carried away by his passions. Here, it is not known by what was the man carried away. (Perelman, 88).


bulletAn extended metaphor is one that sets up a principal subject with several subsidiary subjects or comparisons. Example: President Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural address pictured America as "the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge...the star that is not reached and the harvest that's sleeping in the unplowed ground." (Sommer, ix).


bulletAn implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: I'm burning. Here, burning passion is implied. (University of Victoria).


bulletA mixed metaphor is one that leaps, in the course of a figure, to a second identification inconsistent with the first one. Example: Clinton stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horn. Here, the baseball and the activities of a cowboy are implied. (Sommer, viii).


bulletA root metaphor is one which is basic or pervasive in human thought. Example: the thread or cord (spun and cut by the Greek Fates, worn by Parsi and Hebrew) Here, one's cultural background determines metaphorical understanding. (Shipley, 197).


bulletA simple metaphor is one in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. (also known as: tight metaphor) Example: Cool it! (Shipley, 197).


bulletA submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: my winged thought. Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird. (Shipley, 197).



A metaphor's meaning and purpose

"In metaphor, energy is expended by the author in defamiliarizing the language and by the reader in mentally experiencing the presence of a force affecting the meaning" (Covino, 106). However, the meaning of a metaphor can vary from culture to culture, region to region, and even from a rhetor to his audience. The rhetor must form an analogy that is both easy to identify yet not too blatant to produce an effective metaphor, and the audience must think beyond the literal definitions of the words before them to find the deeper inner meaning in a metaphorical phrase. Quintilian states that "[in] the metaphor...a noun or verb is transferred from the place to which it properly belongs to another where there is no literal term or the transferred is better than the literal." (Harris, 226) If the words of a metaphor were taken by their literal meaning or out of context, the phrase would probably be considered illogical.

For Example:"...Cato's death left the Senate 'an orphan'..." (Perelman, 402).

Here, the Senate is a governing body comprised of many grown men, not a single orphan as it is being described. The phrase is merely stating that due to Cato's death, the Senate was left as helpless as an orphan.

This leads us to the purpose of a metaphor. "It accomplishes in a word or phrase what could otherwise be expressed only in many words, if at all" (Sommer, vii) and "from the listener's point of view, a metaphor provides...a cue to what kind of thinking should be done" (Stight, 480). Metaphors act as a shepherds to lead the audience onto the correct path of thought and mindset. It does not leave all the work of persuasion to the rhetor himself. He can say a few words and allow the audience to ponder the metaphor and come to their own conclusions and hopefully the rhetor and his audience will meet in agreement about the meaning of the subject matter. Its use as an element of style, one of the five canons of rhetoric, can greatly enhance a rhetor's persuasive impact. A metaphor can prove to be effective where regular literal wording is not.

In conclusion, to be a master of metaphor is to be able to read beyond the literal meaning of a phrase, and to be able to concoct one's own effective metaphors. To be able to discern a metaphor in a piece of literature depends on one's own ability to make a connection between two seemingly unlike objects and find their commonality. This perceptiveness is the sign of genius that Aristotle speaks of.




Works Cited

bulletCovino, William A.; Jolliffe David A. Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. Allyn and Bacon. 1995. pp. 89, 106.
bulletHarris, Wendell V. Dictionary of Concepts in Literary Criticism and Theory. "Metaphor." Greenwood Press. 1992. pp. 222-229.
bulletMalmkjaer, Kirsten. The Linguistics Encyclopedia. "Metaphor." Routledge Publishers. 1991. pp. 308-312.
bulletPerelman, CH.; Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. pp. 398-410.
bulletShipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literacy Terms. "Metaphor." The Writer, Inc. 1970. pp. 197-198.
bulletSommer, Elyse; Weiss, Dorrie. Metaphors Dictionary. First Edition. "Metaphor." International Thomson Publishing Company. 1995. pp. vii-x.
bulletStight, Thomas G. Metaphor and Thought. "Educational uses of Metaphor." Cambridge University Press. 1979. p. 480.
bulletUniversity of Victoria Writer's Guide. "Metaphor." "http://webserver.maclab.comp.uvic.ca/writersguide/Literary/RhetMetaphor.html" The Department of English, University of Victoria. 1995.