Simile, Euphemism, and Hyperbole: What Metaphors Aren’t
The metaphor is a valuable tool for all kinds of writers in all genres. However, before we go on to discuss the possible uses of metaphor, we should take a moment to clear up a few potential misconceptions. Here are some things a metaphor isn’t.
A Metaphor Is Like a Simile.
- Image courtesy of XKCD
This one’s fairly simple. A metaphor does not use “like” or “as” to make a comparison. If those words are used, the description is a simile. Except for that slight difference, metaphors and similes are identical. So, for example, if her hair is like spun gold, that’s a simile. If her hair was spun gold, that’s a metaphor.
The simile simply makes it clear that the two objects are not literally the same. However, because of that extra clarification, a simile is limited. It is difficult to extend a simile (check out the upcoming lesson on “extended metaphor”) and your reader will not call an image to mind as fully.
While a metaphor can certainly be hyperbolic, the two forms of description aren’t identical. If I say that I was stuck in traffic for eternity (when it was actually closer to an hour), I’m using a direct, non-literal comparison to evoke the emotion of the situation — which you’ll recall is a core part of the metaphor’s definition. However, the hyperbole is using a comparison that is clearly inaccurate to the situation being described. It’s that extreme inaccuracy, in fact, that gives it some extra oomph.
If, on the other hand, I were to say that the freeway had turned into a junkyard for cars that had lost their ability to move — or that the procession of cars was a great army of ants that had been drenched with Raid — those would be metaphors.
A euphemism is meant to be an incomplete description. For example, when I say, she was “great with child” or that he “passed away,” I’m describing certain elements of the activities or states that I’m referencing. She really is great, in the sense of being quite large, because of the child. He really is away, and his time or presence here has passed. However, what we’re actually referencing is a step beyond what’s been described.
Euphemisms, in short, give a partially accurate description and leave something out. This is typically done with the assumption that the listener will understand the missing part. However, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms are also metaphors. When a couple are “doing the horizontal polka” or a man “pitches a tent,” we’re making a direct, non-literal comparison that involves a wild metaphoric leap.
A Special Note on Personification and Symbol:
These two other forms of figurative language are sometimes seen as distinct from metaphor. However, despite some differences in purpose, the root functionality is the same. That’s why I personally see personification and symbolism as a sub-section of metaphor rather than as distinct categories.
While we’ll cover these sub-types of metaphor in later entry, here’s a quick refresher on the terms:
Personification is any time you give human-like traits to non-human (and especially to non-living) subjects. As one example, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” describes “golden daffodils […] dancing in the breeze.” Clearly, daffodils don’t actually “dance,” but the metaphoric description communicates something substantial about both the action of the flower and the emotional experience of the scene.
Symbolism is the use of a specific object within a story that represents another object, person, type of person, or concept. For example, in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” it’s fairly clear that the raven represents loss and death. The function of symbolism runs parallel to that of extended metaphors, so we’ll discuss symbols at greater length when we get to the extended metaphor entry.
Other Figurative Language That Isn’t Metaphorical
There are other types of language that can be described, broadly, as “figurative.” Because anything that’s not literal is figurative, this is a really big blanket. Here are a few more pieces of figurative language:
- Uunderstatement. A clearly untrue comparison that under-represents the reality of the situation. For example, “The gun wound stung a bit.”
- Metonymy. Using an associated quality or part of a thing to refer to the whole of the thing. For example, when we say “Hollywood” is doing something, we mean the U.S. film industry and all those involved in it.
- Synecdoche and metalepsis. These are sub-types of metonymy.
- Idioms. An expression with established cultural meaning who literal meaning often makes no sense at all.
Also, while checking my facts, I found some people saying that alliteration and onomatopoeia are forms of figurative language. Let’s clear that up: No. They’re not. Saying that alliteration and onomatapoeia are figurative is like saying plastic is a spoon. It just makes no sense. Alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatapoeia are all part of lyricism, while we’ll be discussing in the future.
With all of that cleared up, we can now move on to discussing the specific uses and value of metaphor. Stay tuned for the next entry where we’ll do just that!