What’s your favorite metaphor?
One of the most-often quoted is Shakespeare’s All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.
Or, on a lighter note from Groucho Marx: A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.
Writers learn early on that they can make their work more vivid with “analogical” (also called “figurative” and “metaphoric”) language. My favorite author in matters of style, Richard M. Eastman, calls analogical language “the vocabulary of intensification.” Odd, isn’t it, that figurative language can often provide more concrete images than literal statements:
- Her lips were soft (simple assertion, though not necessarily factual)
- Her lips were like marshmallows (this simile makes the image more definite by inviting the reader to visualize something else)
- Her lips were fog off the sea (We’re saying one thing while meaning another in a metaphor)
- When our lips touched, an old spell broke and she awoke in my arms (with this allusion, we conjure up thoughts of Sleeping Beauty)
- Our locked lips were a pleasure and a trap (with a zeugma, we’re using two simultaneous and contrasting meanings of a word, in this case for the word “locked”)
- Our kiss was a splendid failure (when we present a contradiction, we’re entering the world of the oxymoron)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms calls the metaphor “the most important and widespread figure of speech.” I don’t doubt it. Saying that one thing is (figuratively) another thing is such a common practice in real and fictional conversation that I wonder if we could communicate any other way.
The TV series Bones (with the very literal scientist Temperance Brennan) makes light of our metaphoric ways when heard by somebody who just doesn’t get it. Likewise, the series NCIS (with Israeli agent Ziva David) humorously demonstrates the problems of those for whom English is a second language when the literal translation makes no sense and the culture references are missing.
I probably don’t have a favorite metaphor because figures of speech come to mind as needed, so to speak, rather than in the form of a list from which to select the most appropriate for the moment. Good metaphors can help you by making something more concrete than a literal statement; however, your best simile or metaphor can also hurt you by calling so much attention to itself that the reader laughs at the “joke” while missing the point. Let’s end this meandering post with two examples of “too cute for serious use” similes/metaphors:
- “A bikini is like a barbed-wire fence. It protects the property without disturbing the view.” – Joey Adams
- “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” – Barnett Cocks