pronounced: MET-uh-for

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances William Shakespeare

A metaphor is a figure of speech that says that one thing is another different thing. This allows us to use fewer words and forces the reader or listener to find the similarities.

The word metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherin (meaning "transfer").

The simplest form of metaphor is: "The [first thing] is a [second thing]."

Look at this example:

In the above sentence, we understand immediately that her home had some of the characteristics of a prison. Mainly, we imagine, she could not leave her home. She was trapped inside. Why it was a prison we do not know, but that would be clear from the context--perhaps her husband forced her to stay at home, perhaps she was afraid of the outside. We don't know, but the rest of the story would tell us. What is important here is that in five simple words we understand a lot about her environment, how she felt and how she behaved. In this sentence, "prison" is a metaphor.

Look at another example:

What is one characteristic of sheep? They follow each other. So we can imagine that George is a follower, not a leader. In this sentence "sheep" is a metaphor.

Metaphors are very common in everyday language. But poets also like to use metaphors. In the following famous verse (from The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes), can you spot three metaphors in the first three lines?

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding--
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Look at these examples of metaphors with sample sentences and meanings:

Metaphor example Metaphorical sense Original sense
I'm not an angel, but I wouldn't behave like that. exemplary person a spiritual being believed to be a messenger of God
America is a melting pot. place where different peoples, styles and cultures are mixed together a container in which metals or other materials are melted and mixed
John is a real pig when he eats. greedy person a four-legged animal kept for meat (pork)
My father is a rock. very strong or reliable person a hard, mineral material made of stone
How could she marry a snake like that! traitor a long, limbless reptile (e.g: cobra, python, viper)
The policeman let him off with a yellow card. warning (in soccer) a yellow card that the referee shows to players when cautioning them

All the above metaphors (the simplest form) are nouns. But there are other ways of making metaphors, for example with verbs or adjectives. Here are some examples:

Metaphor example Original sense of the word (example)
The committee shot her ideas down one by one. Anti-aircraft guns shoot down planes.
The private detective dug up enough evidence to convince the police to act. Dogs like to bury bones and dig them up later.
He broke into her conversation. Burglars break into buildings.
The new movie was very popular. People flocked to see it. Birds flock together before they migrate.
His head was spinning with ideas. Some computer hard drives spin at over 10,000 revolutions per minute.
Reading that book kindled my interest in politics. You need to start with twigs and small branches when you kindle a camp fire.
Tim lost his job after a heated argument with his boss. We have a heated swimming pool.
The new car's sexy design increased sales for the company. Some women think that lipstick makes them look sexy.
He was dressed rather vulgarly in a loud checked suit. I can't hear you because the radio is too loud.
It wasn't long before their relationship turned sour. Sour food has an acid taste like lemon or vinegar.

Difference Between Metaphor and Simile

Both similes and metaphors link one thing to another. A simile usually uses "as" or "like". A metaphor is a condensed simile, a shortcut to meaning, which omits "as" or "like." A metaphor creates a relationship directly and leaves more to the imagination. With simile, A is like B. With metaphor, A is B.

simile metaphor
Your eyes are like the sun. You are my sunshine.
He eats like a pig.
He lives like a pig.
He is a pig.

Dead Metaphors

In the phrase "to grasp the concept" the physical action "to grasp" is used as a metaphor for "to understand" (which is non-physical). But this phrase has been used so often that most English speakers do not have an image of the physical action in their mind. This metaphor has died; it is a "dead metaphor".

Mixed Metaphors

The awkward use of two or more different metaphors at the same time is normally best avoided. It creates conflicting images in the reader or listener's mind, reduces each metaphor's impact, and generally causes confusion. Look at this example: