What a metaphor? A Guide to Their Meaning and Significance

Discover the metaphors' power. Use our extensive guide to examine their significance and meaning in language and communication.

Metaphors, the figurative fibres that run through our language, are word-based imaginative missiles. They are far more than verbal plays on words. As cognitive scientist Mark Turner says: ‘We think with [metaphors].’ This is a roundup of metaphors: what they are, and also their use and effect.

Defining Metaphors: Bridges of Connection

A metaphor is a literary device that draws a comparison between two apparently different things – one being ‘concrete’ and deserving of familiarity and the other being ‘abstract’ and in need of attention. In drawing a comparison, the metaphor suggests that there’s something of interest in common between the two. The practitioner of metaphor perception creates a connection between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Metaphors make unfamiliar territory friendlier.

The Power of Imagination: Visualizing Complex Ideas

Metaphors are literary versions of cognitive shortcuts such as certain types of analogies and other forms of metaphorical thinking. These cognitive shortcuts allow us to gain insight into difficult or abstract constructs, and enable us to imaginatively associate the nonphysical world (such as ideas and other things beyond our immediate physical perception) with the physical world.

Metaphors in Language: Enhancing Communication

Communicating Feeling: Metaphor enriches the significance of language by conveying feelings we might find difficult to articulate directly: heart of gold, for example, captures the essence of kindness.

Explaining Complicated Concepts: Metaphorical statements simplify complicated concepts. ‘Time is money’ conceives of time as a valuable resource, which clarifies its value.

Vivid Imagery: Visual description drawn through metaphors adds vivid imagery to a piece of writing: the sun kissed the horizon.

Metaphors in Everyday Life: A Subtle Influence

Cultural Metaphors: Metaphors are culturally embedded, and help us understand and describe the world around us. For instance, the melting pot metaphor helps us conceptualise cultural diversity.

Metaphor in Business: Metaphors shape branding and advertising. The ‘journey’ metaphor is a common trope in customer experiences.

Metaphors and Thought Patterns: Shaping Perception

Metaphors are how we think about phenomena. The metaphor argument is war makes disagreement seem like a war because we frame a disagreement in that way.

Metaphor Diversity: A Playground of Creativity

From a ‘broken heart’ to the ‘genetic code’, metaphoric constructions permeate everyday language. Analogies with another domain, and the metaphors they spawn, enable us to transpose entire knowledge structures from one culture to another, and from one domain to another. From this perspective, metaphor promotes creativity and moderates innovation.

Challenges of Misinterpretation: Context Matters

In general, metaphors are important tools for communication rather than impediments, but if thoughtlessly deployed they can be misunderstood. Context is all-important in this respect.

Metaphors as Linguistic Alchemy

To sum up, metaphors are the magic of language. They convert words into pictures. They convert ideas into relations. They enrich language, power imagination, and template thought. Without metaphor, we lose Shakepeare. We lose Barack Obama. We lose everyday thought and expression. We lose orgasms. We lose half our brain. If you think all this sounds too good to be true, then I plead guilty to some overreach. Just a touch. But not a lot.

Metaphors are more than rhetorical dressing; they are pathways to imagination, empathy, and the most deeply felt truth. As we wander this world of words, metaphor will always be a lantern – light.

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