Interpreting and Creating Metaphors
The greatest thing for us is to have command of the metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblances. —- Aristotle in the Poetics
It is metaphor that gives most of this pleasure. Thus, when a poet calls old age “a dried stalk.”he gives us a new perception of the common genus; for both things have lost their bloom. — Aristotle (see picture on right)
Ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh. — Aristotle, Rhetoric
Metaphor is the energy charge that leaps between images, revealing their connections. — Robin Morgan
Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. — Vladimir Nabokov
Three common figures of speech: Analogies, Similes, Metaphors
An analogy is two relationships that are similar. For example, A car is to a driver as an airplane is to a pilot.
Some tests use analogies to test both your level of vocabulary and your reasoning abilities.
Prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing. — Paul Vallery
Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body. — Joseph Addison
A simile states that one thing is LIKE another thing, For example, you might say that someone is as sly as a fox or that he is like a fox. Similes make it clear you are making a comparison.
Doing business without advertising is like winking at a pretty girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does. — Stuart H. Britt
Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them. — Samuel Butler
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. — Buddha
A Metaphor says one thing IS something else. You might say, describing a man, “That Jack, he’s a sly old fox.” The use of a metaphor is often describes as more powerful that the simile, saying Jack is like a fox.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested. — Francis Bacon
Prejudices, it is well-known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among the stones. — Charlotte Bronte
Anger is a wind which blows out the lamp of the mind. — Robert G. Ingersol
An Extended Metaphor simply adds a few details to the original metaphor. Continuing the conversation about Jack, we might say, “I never know what he’s up to. If someone’s been sneaking into the hen-house at night, it’s a good bet that would be Jack.”
Some extended metaphors go on for pages. There are a number of books about preparing for college that use the metaphor of a journey. I’ve written a brief version of this sort of metaphor. I assume you understand the meaning.
The students pack up what they expect to need for the journey. They say goodbye to family and friends and set off on their own. Foolish students don’t know what to expect and travel without a roadmap. The wise students have a map and guidebook warning them of the dangers along the way. They refer to these guides often.They know which side roads will get you to your goals more quickly and those that look like fun but actually wander up and down the hills without going anywhere and the students may run out of gas. These side roads may have potholes, broken bridges, or perhaps quicksand.
From time to time, as they travel, storms will come up. The roads will be flooded, great trees will have fallen across the road, and cars might get stuck in the mud. Well-prepared students have brought enough food and drink to sustain them until the floods recede and the trees have been removed. And they know techniques to help get their cars out of the mud. The travelers who finally reach their goal are those who knew exactly where they wanted to goal, who were best prepared for the journey and who were not distracted by the interesting sights along the way.
Longer versions of extended metaphors include parables, fables, myths, fairy tales, many children’s books, and even some novels. We might say there is a moral to the story or a deeper meaning. In literature classes you will be expected to discern and interpret the metaphors in the books you read. Common metaphors in literature include the journey, coming of age, and building your skills and having courage to fight a strong opponent. Other metaphors or more original and complex.
Johnson’s metaphors that follow takes a complex scientific question and uses metaphors to make his ideas clear. His images are striking and memorable and they make it easy for us to “see” the alternative viewpoints.
There are two opposing ways to view the scientific enterprise. Almost all science books, popular and unpopular, are written on the assumption that there actually are laws of the universe out there, like veins of gold, and that scientists are miners extracting the ore. We are presented with an image of adventurous explorers uncovering Truth with a capital T.
But science can also be seen as a construction, a man-made edifice that is historical, not timeless — one of many alternative ways of carving up the world. — George Johnson in Fire in the Mind, p. 5
I have used metaphors in many different ways throughout this website. Many of the quotes included on the pages are actually metaphors.
You might have noticed the metaphors on the page on Reading Notes. Speaking about taking notes in the second paragraph, it says “We can’t put the lecturer on pause while we catch up.” What the lecturer is compared to is implied not stated. In the fourth paragraph, is a description of how little students learn from “reading a book.” “It’s like tiptoeing through a palace in the dark and later claiming to have seen the marvelous tapestries and great paintings.”
The section of the website called “Ways of Memory” uses a metaphor to describe the different ways we can improve our memory. On each page, there is a picture of a road or path representing that pathway to memory. (It is hard to show pictures of people who are remembering.)
The Tree used as a symbolic concept map or symbolic image, might just as well be described as a visual metaphor. It compares the structure of the website to the familiar image of a large tree, firmly rooted in experience.
We are often unaware of the metaphors we use
Take a look at these common phrases. Nearly all of us use of hear phrases like these every day. We don’t think of them as metaphors. They have become cliches.
This gadget or idea will save time. (time cannot literally be saved or lost or used. It just is.)
I’ve invested a lot of time in the project. (related to the metaphor that time is money)
I paid my debt to society. (related to “Paying someone back” and again, time as money) It’s time to wake up. (compares sleeping and waking to a change in position)
She has a fragile ego (Compare an ego to an object that could be broken)
The economy is eating up my profits (Compares loss of money to animal eating money)
The wheels in my mind were starting to turn (Compares a mind to a machine with gears)
When I heard the news, I simply fell to pieces. (Compares person to breakable object)
His words don’t carry (or convey) much meaning (Words compared to moving something)
That is food for thought. I need to chew on those ideas. (compares ideas to food)
They had chemistry. Sparks were flying. She was drawn to him. (Love is compared to chemistry or physics sparks and magnetism)
The magic was no longer there in the marriage. (Compares Love/Excitement to magic)
According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By, 1980, “Most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.” p. 4 “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another ” p. 5.
One of these systems is the area of argument and debate.
Arguments and wars are different kinds of things — verbal discourse and armed conflict. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed and talked about in terms of WAR.” — Lakoff and Johnson p.5
Examples of this include
1. Attacking someone’s position (for example, on abortion)
2. That is indefensible. or He defended his position on the subject.
3. They came up with a new battle plan, a new line at attack, a winning strategy.
4. He was right on target with that statement. He is gradually gaining ground.
5. Just watch. I will demolish his argument. I’ll shoot down all of his ideas. I have a secret weapon.
6. We need to fight for our rights, fight for what we believe.
7. In the end, he will lose the argument and I will win.
8. The debate was a battle from beginning to end.
9. The candidate used every weapon in his arsenal.
10. They prepared for battle. Instead of answering questions they continued on the attack.
The language of arguments is not poetic, fanciful or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way — and we will act according to te way we conceive of things. — Lakoff and Johnson p. 5
All cultures have myths and people cannot function without myth anymore than they can function without metaphor. And, just as we often take the metaphors of our own culture as truths, wo we often take the myths of our own culture as truths.
— Lakoff and Johnson p. 186
How can we use Metaphor in our learning and in our writing?
You have just had an important experience, perhaps a life-changing experience, and want to describe it in your journal. You are reading a difficult textbook and begin to sense a relationship between the ideas. You are trying to solve a problem and want to express it in a different way. You need to write an essay and want an original way to describe the topic.
Many of us claim we would never use a metaphor when, of course, we use them every day. What we mean is that we don’t think we are creative enough to create an good original metaphor. But, if we need to communicate complex ideas or information, a metaphor is often the best way to help others understand.
Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially, what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. — Lakoff and Johnson p. 193
How can we learn to create metaphors?
As in many areas, the answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” Actually, it would make more sense to study metaphors that you like and get a sense of how they work.
A good way to begin, however, is by considering your topic and thinking of many very different things it could be compared to. People have compared the human body or a single cell (and many others things) to a machine. They discuss what raw materials are needed, how they are processed, and what product they end up with.
You might take one of these ideas to begin: Life is —- , An Education is —- , Love is — , Happiness is —-.
You might begin with one of the metaphors on this page and use a different image.
If you use someone else’s metaphor in an essay, begin with the quote and elaborate on it.
Use rich images that create a lasting picture in our minds.
A metaphor can be practical to help us understand an idea, or it can be poetic to help us sense the magic in the image.
Use your journal and spend one day a week writing metaphors. You might set a goal of 20 metaphors a week. If you were an artist, your earlier efforts would not be good. Likewise, it takes practice to create good metaphors.
A good metaphor is original, It helps us understand the topic in a new way, we can picture it in our mind, and it is hard to forget.
Some of my favorite Metaphors that you can learn from
These are many other wonderful metaphors can be found in a lovely little book: i never metaphor i didn’t like by Dr. Mardy Grothe.
An apology is the superglue of life. I can repair just about anything. —Lynn Johnson
Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life. — Bern Williams
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. — Thomas A. Edison
The best mind-altering drug is truth. — Jane Wagner
In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are. — Arnold Glasgow
Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations. — George Bernard Shaw
Life is my college. May I graduate well and earn some honors —
Louisa May Alcott
Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face. — Victor Hugo
It is the glow on the grandmother’s face that led me to select this picture to illustrate the last metaphor.
You might also want to read the page on Telling Stories .