They conjure up two ideas – the thing you’re literally describing, and something else as well.

e.g. his hands were like ice = literally, his hands were cold.
This example, which is a simile, describes ‘hands’ through a word-picture of ‘ice’. Or you could say, ‘his hands were ice’, which is a metaphor. The hands are not literally made of ice. It’s an image of extreme cold.

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What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile?
Similes use the word ‘like’ or ‘as’.
e.g. ‘My brother eats like a pig.’ or ‘My brother is as fat as a pig.’
Now try this: remove the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ and you have a metaphor. ‘My brother is a fat pig.’ This gets across a picture of being greedy and disgusting, that your brother possesses the qualities of a pig. There is no suggestion that your brother is literally a pig, although I do have an image in my head of a pig now, whenever I think of your brother.

More insults that are also metaphors:

You stink, you smell, rancid, rotten, mouldy-old, dirt-bag, scum, filthy, dirty, slag, cow, bitch (female dog), big as a whale, weighs a ton, ferret, rat, loan-shark, dim-wit, dull.

The effect is to create a bad image or word-picture firmly linked to the person you’re insulting. None of them are literally true.

Why are metaphors so confusing?
Sometimes the first – literal – meaning is hidden, like a riddle. But there are many metaphors which we all understand without having to think too hard. Maybe you didn’t even realise that they are metaphors…
‘give me a hand’ > help me, please
‘skyscrapers’ > very, very tall buildings
‘I’ve got a lot on my mind’ > I have a lot of worries 

These are called ‘dead metaphors’. They’re old, cliched and we know them so well that we don’t even have to think about what they mean. If you’re studying metaphor at a more advanced level then you really need to read Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Metaphors are everywhere. They help us express feelings and concepts with crisp, clear images.
prices are rising vs I’m feeling down
I’m going to burst vs I feel so empty
her eyes blazed, a blazing row vs a cold look, cold as ice
I’m out at sea, I feel lost vs I feel at home here, a warm feeling
I gave her my heart vs he promised me the moon,
not for a million pounds, his face was priceless vs it’s worthless
things fell apart, it exploded vs things are coming together, I’ve built it up
a crushing blow, feeling claustrophobic, feeling trapped vs limitless possibilities, let’s explore this idea, let’s open it up, blue-sky thinking, reach for the sky
this instant, in a second vs I will love you forever, to the end of time

These are fresh metaphors:
wind wielded blade-light (Wind, Ted Hughes)
fog slept on the wing above the drowned city (Charles Dickens)
forests of the night (Tiger, Tiger, William Blake)
the death of the sun (Charles Dickens)
boiling mountains of snow white cloud (Space Shot, Gareth Owen)
liquid sun (Blessing, Imtiaz Dharker)
ecstatic monsters, (Horses, Edwin Muir)
flight… through the bones of the living’, (Hawk, Ted Hughes)
crumbs of gossip, (An Old Woman, R S Thomas),
the question mark of head and beak (Space Invaders, Owen Sheers)
cold-footed useless swine, (The Hero, Siegfried Sassoon)
an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken (Sonnet 116, Shakespeare)
the roses in your cheeks have faded (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare)
All the world’s a stage, (As You Like It, Shakespeare)
be the serpent (Macbeth, Shakespeare)

Similes are much easier to spot. They always use like or as. Look at these:
e.g. ‘the building looked like it scraped the sky’ (simile), ‘skyscrapers’ (metaphor)
‘Her skirt was like a wilted cabbage leaf.’ (simile, Agatha Christie) > Her wilted cabbage leaf skirt, drooped. (metaphor)
Her eyes almost disappeared, like two raisins sinking into a bowl of rice pudding. (simile)
A woman like a 1990s wrestling doll with crinkle-tanned skin and a bleached blonde mullet… (simile)

Myth: metaphors always use ‘is’ or ‘was’
Sometimes they do. But not always. It’s not that easy, unfortunately.
  • ‘wind wielded blade-light’
  • ‘the question mark of head and beak’
  • ‘be the serpent’
  • ‘a huge bear of a man’
  • ‘a tidal wave of disapproval’
  • ‘it chilled me to the bone’

Notice though, sometimes metaphors use, ‘of’
  • ‘forests of the night’
  • ‘death of the sun’
  • ‘fountain of knowledge’
  • ‘glimmer of hope’
  • ‘face of the earth’
  • ‘window of the soul’ (eyes)
Sometimes metaphors are compounds (two words mushed together)
  • ‘blade-light’
  • ‘hell-fire’
  • ‘death-pale’
  • ‘media circus’
  • ‘motor mouth’
  • ‘pen-pushers’ (bureaucrats)
Sometimes metaphors are verbs:
  • Sunlight sheeted across the blue-black harbour, smashed into diamonds on the sharp edges of the waves
  • He ate it up and looked like it disgusted him (someone processing an idea)
  • She devoured him with her eyes (likes what she sees)
  • He kills me (he’s so funny)
Special types of metaphor
A small part represents a larger idea. Or one thing is substituted for another. The difference between metonymy and synecdoche is so fine it’s almost impossible to explain. Basically metonymy = small thing substituted for big; synecdoche – one thing substituted for something else, which, as far as I can tell is virtually the definition of a metaphor.

  • rosy lips and cheeks will fade (symbolises ‘youthful beauty’)
  • give me a hand (hands are used for work)
  • lend me your ears (ears for listening)
  • spineless, no backbone, the backbone of the whole thing (spinal column represents central support)
  • hasn’t got a leg to stand on, got no legs (lacks support, isn’t going anywhere)
  • the order came straight from the top (this has been authorised from the highest power, which is also a metaphor)
  • from the roots/ground up/grassroots politics
  • foundational, the foundations, ill-founded
  • an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (justice shall be like for like)
  • ashes to ashes, dust to dust (all people will die: you were taken from earth and will be buried in it again)
  • the crown (for the king), the law (for the entire system of law, statute, judiciary, lawyers etc), Westminster (for government), suits (bureaucrats)
  • blood on his hands (for having taken a life)
  • heart (for love/loving nature), head (for intellect, reason), gut-instinct (for first reaction, a visceral reaction)
  • I got some wheels (for ‘car’)
  • she’s so Hollywood, very French, very mañana (I’ll do it tomorrow)
  • put Beethoven on (composer substituted for composition), I’m reading Nabokov (writer for book), the Lichenstein is hanging in the downstairs toilet (painter for painting)
  • there’s more to life than cars and television sets (cars and television substituted for ‘material wealth’)
  • give us this day our daily bread, I’m gonna get some dough (‘bread’, for ‘what we need to live’)
This can be a simile or a metaphor:
Simile: It was as if the gate complained as I pushed against it. The trees seemed to frown; the church door looked as if it were about to swallow me whole.
Metaphor: The gate complained as I pushed against it. The trees frowned; the church door gaped to swallow me whole.
Which do you prefer?

Pathetic Fallacy
A type of personification only concerning weather. So the weather echoes characters’ emotions. For example: ‘the war in the sky raged on’, ‘the sun glared, shrivelling the earth to dust’, ‘clouds fled’, ‘the stars hid’, ‘dusk settled in the corners of the valleys’.

How to create metaphors:

Her skirt was like a flag > Her skirt blew out like a flag of surrender