Introduction to Metaphors and Similes

What is a metaphor?  Probably the simplest way to define it is to use one.  We use metaphors and similes every day, often without realizing it:

This house is a zoo – beehive of activity                     

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter – now we’re getting to the sore spot

Your words are music to my ears – your words are bitter medicine.

Some are spending their time poorly – Time waits for no one.

What do all of these have in common?

In each one of these, we have described something by comparing it.

Metaphors are also called figurative language, meaning it is not literal.

We’ve also communicated or perhaps revealed something about how we see the world.

Compare the juxtaposed metaphors above.


Metaphor – Metaphors compare two things that seem unrelated, and transfer an image of one thing to the other.

Simile – A simile is similar to a metaphor, except that is uses words such as “like” or “as” and speaker makes it clear they are comparing.

Other words to describe metaphors and similes are figurative language and imagery.  Figurative language contrasts with literal language.  Imagery is a word used because metaphors use images – they create a picture in our minds.


What’s the image of some of these metaphors?


I’d like to shed some light on the situation     

You’re putting the horse before the cart.

It’s time to weave these concepts together

Let me give you some food for thought

You have a hot temper

Lady Fortune has blessed me with good health


You will find your own examples

Things to notice:


  • Metaphors appeal to our five senses, they aren’t just visual – sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste
  • Metaphors are often implied, that is, the image is not actually stated but you get a picture anyway.
  • Many any of these are what we call Dead Metaphors, they are metaphors you don’t notice because you’ve heard them so often they no longer create an image in your mind.
  • One form of a metaphor is called personification
  • Metaphors sometimes go into what is called and extended metaphor.  An extended metaphor is one in which there are many aspects to the comparison. Iago has a lengthy extended metaphor in I,3. Here, the images of a garden and gardener are transferred to a man and himself.  He could have said this differently, without metaphor. How?  Why do you think he used a metaphor?


  • The most famous extended metaphor in Shakespeare is from As You Like It: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.
  • Shakespeare also uses complex metaphors, where there is more than one metaphor going on at the same time.  Throw some light on the situation or take arms against a sea of troubles.  For some reason, when Shakespeare does it it’s called complex, but when other people do it it’s called a mixed metaphor, which is an insulting name that says your metaphor is all mixed up.
    • Something sounds fishy.
    • Life is an uncharted sea full of potholes.
    • Here’s one actually spoken in the British House of Commons, “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat: I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky: but I’ll nip him in the bud.”


Lecture: What is the purpose of figurative language and metaphor?

Four reasons that I have thought about.

  • Metaphor is used to avoid boring repetition of words.

Use an example Othello’s Pontic Sea Speech at the end of III,3.  Reword it, without all the images.  At some point the words become so repetitious that they sound meaningless.

  • Second reason – imagery sounds more beautiful and poetic than direct language.

A good example is Othello’s speech when he sees Desdemona in II,1 (page 71)

  • Third reason – metaphors convey a deeper and more complex meaning.

A good example is Iago’s speeches, all of them.  Look at his speech at the end of II,1, both speeches at the end of II,3 (page 91-92). He talks about jealousy being a poison, a disease that gnaws at you, that rots you.  It’s not just a bad feeling, poisons are things that invade your body and kill other things

And also give us deeper insight into the character. 

Iago’s constant talk of disease and poison tells us a lot about how he sees the world, and probably himself.  Othello’s metaphors are often about geographic events – seas and running water, tempests and storms and calms. He sees himself in terms of earthly events. See metaphor on page 41 – he sees himself as an actor  Iago sees himself as a poison that works on some.

  • But probably the most important reason great writers use figurative language is to increase the impact and persuasiveness of their words.  Great writers search for metaphors in their writing like people search for patterns in the clouds.  It helps them to understand and talk about the world.  Othello says “you shall command more with years than with your weapons.”  “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it without a prompter.”  Iago’s speech about the qualities of a human being being a garden on page 53, or Iago’s speech about loyalty to Othello on page 121, or

(Good time to mention difference between prose and verse and prosaic speech).

From Emerson, Greatness

Read the italicized piece first, then the metaphor.  Point: metaphor is powerful.

Many readers remember that Sir Humphry Davy said, when he was praised for his important discoveries, “My best discovery was Michael Faraday.” In 1848 I had the privilege of hearing Professor Faraday deliver, in the Royal Institution in London, a lecture on what he called Diamagnetism,—by which he meant cross-magnetism; and he showed us various experiments on certain gases, to prove that whilst ordinarily magnetism of steel is from north to south, in other substances, gases, it acts from east to west. And further experiments led him to the theory that every chemical substance would be found to have its own, and a different, polarity. I do not know how far his experiments and others have been pushed in this matter, but one fact is clear to me, that diamagnetism is a law of the mind, to the full extent of Faraday’s idea; namely, that every mind has a new compass, a new north, a new direction of its own, differencing its genius and aim from every other mind;—as every man, with whatever family resemblances, has a new countenance, new manner, new voice, new thoughts, and new character. Whilst he shares with all mankind the gift of reason and the moral sentiment, there is a teaching for him from within which is leading him in a new path, and, the more it is trusted, separates and signalizes him, while it makes him more important and necessary to society. We call this specialty the bias of each individual.

Read First:

None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this an internal whisper which is heard by him alone.  His, thoughts not shared with others, but constitutional to the man. A point of education that I can never too much insist upon is this tenet that every individual man has a bias which he must obey, and that it is only as he feels and obeys this that he rightly develops and attains his legitimate power in the world.

It is his magnetic needle, which points always in one direction to his proper path, with more or less variation from any other man’s. He is never happy nor strong until he finds it, keeps it; learns to be at home with himself; learns to watch the delicate hints and insights that come to him, and to have the entire assurance of his own mind. STOP And in this self-respect or hearkening to the privatest oracle, he consults his ease I may say, or need never be at a loss. In morals this is conscience; in intellect, genius; in practice, talent;—not to imitate or surpass a particular man in his way, but to bring out your own new way; to each his own method, style, wit eloquence.

This necessity of resting on the real, of speaking your private thought and experience, few young men apprehend. Set ten men to write their journal for one day, and nine of them will leave out their thought, or proper result,—that is, their net experience,—and lose themselves in misreporting the supposed experience of other people. Indeed I think it an essential caution to young writers, that they shall not in their discourse leave out the one thing which the discourse was written to say. Let that belief which you hold alone, have free course. I have observed that in all public speaking, the rule of the orator begins, not in the array of his facts, but when his deep conviction, and the right and necessity he feels to convey that conviction to his audience,—when these shine and burn in his address; when the thought which he stands for gives its own authority to him, adds to him a grander personality, gives him valor, breadth, and new intellectual power, so that not he, but mankind, seems to speak through his lips. There is a certain transfiguration; all great orators have it, and men who wish to be orators simulate it.

If we should ask ourselves what is self-respect, it would carry us to the highest problems. It is our practical perception of the Deity in man.

Here is an example of the use of figurative language to increase persuasiveness.  It’s from MLK’s I have a Dream speech.  Here is a piece of it – listen for the metaphors and how it increases the impact of what he is saying.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. 

Metaphors are powerful ways to understand the world and persuade others of your views.

Since they’re so persuasive, it’s interesting to think about all the dead metaphors we have – the metaphors we don’t notice.  Now, we might not notice these, but they can be even more powerful precisely because they are so much a part of our minds almost without us knowing it.

Listen to these dead metaphors used by teachers:   He is falling behind, they aren’t keeping up, you are getting ahead, she is getting lost in the material, study hard in order to pass the test, finish that book so you can move on to a higher level.  All of those phrases compare education to a journey, or a race.  Other teachers use phrases like thriving, blossoming, branching out on one’s own, how concepts are taking root.  All of these phrases compare education to the growth of plants.  What difference do you think these metaphors make to how the students see the process of education?

John Locke (17th century) described the human mind at birth as a tabula rasa (a blank slate); Socrates said education is not filling a vessel, but kindling a flame.

Those are very different metaphors, different implications for how to educate.

By the way, educate comes from the Latin word educere, meaning to draw out; curriculum comes from a Latin word meaning race.

Dead metaphors reflect the way we see the world but they also affect the way we see the world.

I could say that Thursdays classes are a zoo, or a beehive of activity, and which one I choose says something about how I view these days and is likely to affect how you view them


I’d like to throw some light on the situation   

You’re putting the horse before the cart.

That wrestler is as tough as nails       

It’s time to weave these concepts together

You are as cool as a cucumber

He is a rock of stability – he is as changeable as the wind                             

Let me give you some food for thought

You have a hot temper

I just can’t shake the feeling that someone is here with us.

You are offering me cold comfort

Lady Fortune has blessed me with good health





We use Shakespeare’s dead metaphors everyday!


Break the ice

Cold comfort

Come full circle

In a pickle

Love is blind

Cold and hot blooded

Cold hearted


Naked truth

Milk of human kindness

Out of the jaws of death

Wild-goose chase

The world is my oyster

Wear my heart on my sleeve

Melt into thin air

I am sick at heart

It smells to heaven

Tower of strength



Elbow room


Spotless reputation


It smells to heaven

Tower of strength


Elbow room


Spotless reputation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *