Metaphors are comparisons made with or conveyed through words.

The Greek etymology of the word contains a lovely idea: that of being carried away, presumably by the beauty or power of the image being created.

Metaphors work by transferring desired qualities from one thing, which of course has those qualities, to another, which does not in reality have those qualities. The transfer is to the benefit of the plainer thing or idea, unless of course the point of the metaphor is to make an insult.

Metaphor is a part of English word usage we call imagery or figures of speech. Both of these names are in fact metaphors, transferring the idea of a visual, symbolic representation made artificially but which exists in the real world to something quite ephemeral which exists only in our heads and was put there by clever manipulation of words. If you examine this paragraph carefully, you’ll see there are two motifs: pictures and words. Words exist in the air and on the page and have a certain sense of reality: pictures are personal, having qualities which exist only in our heads. Both are symbolic codes unique to humanity, and I’m inclined to think that neither would exist without the other.

Neuroscientists, philosophers and linguists have for some time been converging on the idea that much about the way the mind works can be explained by references to comparisons: the normal brain progresses from the known to the unknown, and the mechanism used is comparison. It is an extremely old feature of human learning. Every teacher knows the power of parable, and in truth so does every pupil because there is an ancient complicity between the two. And I guess that just about covers all of us…

We have a problem because the word metaphor has two uses: the first is that metaphor is the umbrella name for all comparisons, made clear in the phrase metaphorical language.

Then secondly, within the total group of available metaphors we find that “metaphor” also defines a specific kind of direct comparison. It’s a recursive reference which uses itself to define itself. Not useful. We could make the difference clearer by using a capital letter for the big meaning and a small letter for when we actually make the comparison, but that would be too easy. We have to work out from context what it is we are referring to. Don’t blame me, I didn’t make the rules.

Looking at the two main kinds of metaphorical comparisons, we find they are divided into two main groups: direct transference of qualities (metaphor) and indirect comparison of qualities (simile).

The simplest way to make a metaphor is to write a short test-bed sentence, directly comparing yourself to something that you like (or if you are the other way inclined, something you detest):

I am <insert phrase here>. You could say: a lotus flower; a mushroom; a hard man; a butterfly; an onion… and so on, to the point of infinity. Whatever you chose, you did so because there was some quality in that object or thing which you wanted to adopt as your own, either to explain yourself to others, explain yourself to yourself, to praise yourself, or to denigrate yourself, or to create myriad other effects or comparisons because they meant something to you. You have carried yourself beyond reality: and that is the function of a metaphor.

Similes make the comparison less direct. They point out a similarity between the qualities of two distinct things using the comparators like and as. To illustrate this, let’s change the test sentence used above:

I am like <insert phrase here> <optionally, give reasons>. You might say: a statue, solid and unmoving; a rose, sweet by any name; the Sahara, dry, dusty and parched; the moon, waning, going grey and just hanging around; a stone; a rolling stone;… and so on.

Metaphors and similes are often taken very seriously by serious writers and there is a place for that:

  • “The interior of the Earth is rather like an onion, made up of a series of concentric shells or layers.”
    (Martin Redfern, The Earth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2003)

There are also wonderful vehicles for irony and humour, and there is most certainly a place for those:

  • “Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” (Carl Sandburg)
  • Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
    Donkey: They stink?
    Shrek: Yes. No!
    Donkey: They make you cry?
    Shrek: No!
    Donkey: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting little white hairs?
    Shrek: No! Layers! Onions have layers!
    (Shrek, 2001)

I said above that words were involved in making metaphors, and that is true. However it’s not the whole story.

One of the important reasons we create metaphors is because we can use them to create symbols, something which represents some set of important qualities. Think of the metaphorical symbolism in the symbol of the old USSR: the hammer and sickle, representing the urban workers and the peasantry, but clearly calling up what we know about the hammer (hard, powerful, a tool, a weapon, the industrial working class) and the sickle (food, sturdy peasants, the mystical heartland, an edged weapon) all set in a red background (pain, blood in the snow, suffering, oppression). There you have some extraordinarily powerful metaphors which have all become symbolic of the reasons for class revolution. Call up the symbol and you directly call up everything contained in the metaphor.

One more word needs to be discussed in this note. It may have occurred to you that metaphors and to some extent similes, when used without explanation, rely upon a shared understanding of the thing which generates the comparison. If you don’t have that understanding, then the metaphor is meaningless. If you have a different understanding then the metaphor is misleading. Cultural understandings are at the heart of metaphorical language. The word I want to introduce to you takes account of this process: to evoke.

Evoke is Latin and it means literally call up. A metaphor evokes something stored in our minds. You can’t evoke something that isn’t already there. You can, by evoking something in a novel way, change your understanding of what you already have in your head and that is often the point of using a metaphor, especially a poetic metaphor. But if there is nothing to evoke, then you need to seek out the meaning of the metaphor from somewhere outside your head.

Welcome to the University of Life. That’s a metaphor, too.