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by Dr Rosamund Moon

• What is a Metaphor?
• How Do Metaphors Work?
• "Metaphors We Live By"
• Idioms and Similes
• Reading about Metaphor
• About the Metaphor Boxes
• Thinking Further about Metaphor
• Metaphors in Other Languages
• Other Metaphors in the Dictionary
• Metaphor Boxes in the Dictionary

Metaphor is very common in English and other languages. People often think of it as being a typical feature of poetry and literature. But in fact many ordinary, familiar words and phrases have metaphorical meanings, although we do not usually realize this when we use them.

There are over 40 special boxes that deal with metaphor in the Macmillan English Dictionary. See Metaphor Boxes in the Dictionary.

What is a Metaphor?

Look at these three sentences:

She flew past me on her bicycle.
Turing was the father of the modern computer.
He gave me a cold look.

In all these sentences, the word in bold type is not used in its basic or literal meaning – it is used in a metaphorical way.

A metaphor is a type of comparison: when you use a word or phrase metaphorically, you are using a meaning that has developed from the literal meaning and has some of the same features. For example, if you say someone "flies past" on a bicycle or in a car, they are not really flying through the air, but the speed of their movement reminds you of a plane or a bird. This is a normal part of the way word meanings develop, and when a word has several different meanings, some of those meanings are usually metaphorical.


How Do Metaphors Work?

Every metaphorical word or phrase contains a "key idea". This is the connection or similarity between the literal meaning and the metaphorical meaning. Sometimes, the same key idea is expressed in several different words and phrases. For example, when we talk about conversations and discussions, we often use words whose literal meanings are about journeys or movement:

Let's go back to what you were saying earlier.
We eventually arrived at a conclusion.
The conversation drifted aimlessly.

The key idea in this case is that having a conversation is like travelling from one place to another, and many of the words we use to describe conversations express this idea. Once we understand this key metaphorical idea, it is easier to understand (and to remember) words and phrases used for talking about conversations. This is why metaphor is so important.


"Metaphors We Live By"

Metaphor is very common. Sometimes it is almost impossible to talk about particular topics in English without using words that are metaphorical. For example, many of the most common English words referring to arguments or disagreements are metaphorical. In this case, the key idea is that when two people have an argument it is like two countries fighting each other in a war. So when we talk about arguments, many of the words we use are related to war:

The President defended his decision to abandon the talks.
She shot down all my ideas.

Usually we do not even realize that we are speaking metaphorically, but the basic metaphorical idea has influenced the way that the English language expresses a particular concept, and this affects the way English speakers think about it.


Idioms and Similes

In the Macmillan English Dictionary, we have included idioms in the Metaphor Boxes. Idioms often contain metaphorical ideas: for example, expressions like spill the beans and give someone a hand are metaphorical. We have included idioms in the Metaphor Boxes if they show the same key idea as other words in a group.

Similes are very like metaphors. The difference is that they include words such as like or as, which make it clear that two things are being compared. For example, he is a pig is a metaphor, and he behaves like a pig is a simile. We have included similes in the Metaphor Boxes if they show the same key idea as other words in a group.


Reading about Metaphor

One of the most important books on this subject is Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (published by Chicago University Press in 1980). Many other people have written about metaphor, but Lakoff and Johnson's book introduced the ideas that have influenced the Metaphor Boxes in the Macmillan English Dictionary.


About the Metaphor Boxes

The Metaphor Boxes can be found at the main dictionary entry that relates to the topic of each metaphor. So the Metaphor Box that lists metaphors about conversations is at the entry for conversation (not at the entry for trip, which is the key idea).

The Metaphor Boxes show the main words and phrases that express the key idea. But you may be able to think of other ones that contain the same idea.

Sometimes a topic has two different groups of metaphors, each showing a different key idea. For example, the Metaphor Box at relationship shows that we think of relationships in two different metaphorical ways:

like a physical connection:
I was very attached to him.
She has split up with her boyfriend.
like the weather or temperature:
They greeted us warmly.
It was a very stormy relationship.

The connection between the headword and the words in the examples may not be obvious at first. However, if you look up the dictionary entry for the word, you will find both literal and metaphorical meanings. This will help you to understand the connection.


Thinking Further about Metaphor

1 Look at the Metaphor Box for quantity. Can you think of other words and phrases that express the same metaphorical ideas as the ones we have shown?

Now think of how you could refer to increases and decreases in quantities or amounts without using any metaphorical meanings.

2 Look at the Metaphor Box for busy. Do you know the literal meanings of all the words and phrases that we have listed? If you do not know them, look them up in the dictionary.

3 The Metaphor Boxes describe many very common metaphors used in English. But there are some other groups of metaphors that we have not covered. See how many others you can think of.


Metaphors in Other Languages

Some of the metaphorical ideas that influence English words are also found in other languages. Some occur only in European languages, but others occur very generally. For example, the key idea up is used in most languages to refer to:

large quantities
being successful
positive qualities

Common metaphorical meanings of ordinary words may have direct translations in your own first language. For example:

English: You've hurt her feelings.
French: Tu l'as blessée.
Spanish: Has herido sus sentimientos.
German: Du hast ihre Gefühle verletzt.

However, idioms and phrases are much less likely to have direct translations from one language to another, although there may be expressions in your own language that contain similar ideas.

English: to put the cart before the horse
French: mettre la charrue avant les bufs
(to put the plough before the ox)
Spanish: empezar la casa por el tejado
(to start building the house from the roof)
German: das Pferd beim Schwanz aufzäumen
(to put the bridle on the horse's tail)
(to reverse the host and the guest)

Look at the Metaphor Box for secret. How would you translate these words and phrases into your own language? Are your translations literal, or are they metaphorical? If they are metaphorical, are the metaphors based on similar ideas to the English ones, or on different ones?


Other Metaphors in the Dictionary

The Metaphor Boxes deal with groups of words and phrases that all share the same key idea. However, there are many other metaphors and metaphorical uses in English that do not belong to groups like this. Many of these are shown in the Macmillan English Dictionary, at individual headwords. Others are new metaphors that people create when they want to describe a situation more effectively, and many of these never appear in any dictionary.

Look at the entry for the noun field. What is its literal meaning? How many of its meanings are metaphorical? What connections can you see between its different meanings? How would you translate its different meanings into your own language? Would the metaphors stay the same?
Now do the same thing for these entries:

• line
• head
• green
• push


Metaphor Boxes in the Dictionary

There are Metaphor Boxes at the following entries:

achieve important problem
angry intelligence quantity
argument knowledge relationship
busy life search
confused method secret
conversation help situation
criticize honest success
discover idea time
effort mind understand
enthusiasm mistake responsibility
feeling money want
force opportunity win
guilty organization
happy power