Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 21 April 2008

Wot's this phor? (part one)

As a child the words simile and metaphor were explained to me in the simplest of terms: a simile says something is like something else whereas a metaphor says something is something else.

Simile: Life is like a box of chocolates (Winston Groom, Forrest Gump)

Metaphor: Life is a cabaret (Fred Ebb, Cabaret)

And, to be honest, these definitions have served me just fine over the years. Typical of the English language though there are exceptions: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength aren't metaphors, they're oxymorons. Okay, got that, let's move on.

The thing I've found about people is that they love to complicate simple things. Life is simple – you live you die, that's it – so why is living it so ruddy complicated? A slightly more involved definition describes a metaphor as an attempt to use something familiar (the vehicle) to draw our attention to something unfamiliar (the tenor). Now I don't know about you but all I can think about is an opera singer in a car going nowhere and I have no idea what that might be a metaphor for.

I was doing some research a few weeks back. I have no idea what I was researching because all I have left is my note to investigate the matter further. Anyway I ran into some new words and for me there is something very compelling about running across a neologism (that's posh for 'new word'), and here I had found three. Here they are, including their definitions by Bob Grumman:

equaphor: that term of an equaphorical expression that is the less important of the expression's two terms so far as the artwork containing the expression is concerned; four kinds exist: the simile, the metaphor, the juxtaphor and the symbol

juxtaphor: an implicit metaphor of which there are several kinds, including the irony, the pun, the onomatopoeia and the litraphor

litraphor: an entirely verbal juxtaphor whose equaphor and referent are separate from each other.

Now I read these over a good few times and I'm still none the wiser (see I'm not as clever as you thought) and, to be honest, I'm not sure why new terms are really needed. It did get me thinking about how many kinds of metaphor exist. So, I started to make a list. And then it got complicated so bear with me. The list gets quite long. Okay, very long.

I decided to go right back to Aristotle to start off:

Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. – Poetics 9.4

I get the idea of transference but I personally prefer John Searle's simpler definition: "understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another." According to Orwell, "The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image." I like that too.

What is important to note is that metaphor works holistically; you transfer all meanings of X, rather than some aspectual meanings of X, to Y. Analogy is when we say that part of X is similar to Y. Both, of course, expand how we view, how we define, Y.

According to A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry which serves pretty much as my poetry bible, traditionally the most common classes of metaphor are:

The Concretive Metaphor, which attributes concreteness or physical existence to an abstraction: 'the pain of separation', 'the light of learning', 'a vicious circle' etc.

Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times. (Rita Rudner)

The Animistic Metaphor, which attributes animate characteristics to the inanimate objects: 'an angry sky', 'graves yawned', 'killing half-an-hour' etc.

Castle Hill groaned under the weight of its timeless ruins (Spike Milligan, Puckoon)

The Humanising ('Anthropomorphic') Metaphor, which attributes characteristics of humanity to what is not human: 'this friendly river', 'laughing valleys', 'his appearance and manner speak eloquently for him' etc.

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food. (Austin O'Malley)

The Synaesthetic Metaphor, which transfers meaning from one domain of sensory perception to another: 'warm colour', 'dull sound', 'loud perfume' etc.

There was someone with a protruding stomach and a 5 o'clock shadow who wore a loud dress and a cowboy hat over long, curly hair. (The Boston Globe)

These, the book is keen to point out, are not hard and fast categories (the first three overlap because humanity entails animacy and animacy entails concreteness) and, just as easily as you can have a humanising metaphor, you can also have a dehumanising metaphor:

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
(William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

This is also an example of synonymia, in general, the use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term.

Another example would be: 'he has such a lead foot'. This means, "he drives fast" but only through an implied causal chain: Lead is heavy, a heavy foot would press the accelerator, and this would cause the car to speed. This is also an example of metalepsis, making reference to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a farfetched causal relationship, or through an implied intermediate substitution of terms.

After your bog-standard metaphor we move on to the extended metaphor. An extended or telescoping metaphor (sometimes called a conceit) is a metaphor which is developed by a number of different figurative expressions:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It)

A good modern day example can be found in Susan Orlean's 'Super-Duper'.

A type of extended metaphor is an epic or Homeric simile, an extended metaphor (a cluster of similes or metaphors) containing details about that vehicle we were on about earlier that are not, in fact, necessary for the metaphoric purpose. This can be extended to humorous lengths, as in this instance:

This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you've got a moment, it's a twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof saying 'This Is a Large Crisis.' (Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, Black Adder)

An allegory is an extended metaphor that goes through a whole narrative. A parable is also a metaphor. Using an imaginary story to illustrate deeper concepts, the parable teller imparts wisdom in ways that are easier to remember.

A complex metaphor on the other hand happens where a simple metaphor is based on a secondary metaphoric element.

That lends weight to the argument.
They stood alone, frozen statues on the plain.
The ball happily danced into the net.

Whereas the complex metaphor uses stacked layers to enhance the metaphor, the compound metaphor uses sequential words. A compound (or loose) metaphor consists of two overlapping metaphors:

The car screeched in hated anguish, its flesh laid bare in the raucous collision.

None of these are the same though as a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors are different metaphors occurring in the same utterance, especially the same sentence. The metaphors used often have some connection, although this is often tenuous at best if not downright inappropriate.

Although generally considered bad practise mixed metaphors are permissible where the metaphors that do not conflict with each other because they a) serve the same purpose, and b) exhibit a correlation with each other.

Bad: The hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket.

Good: If we keep going the way we're going, we’ll fit all the facts in.

There are figures of speech that look like they might be metaphors because they involve some level of transference but they are related:

Catachresis (Greek, `misuse') is described as an eccentric metaphor.

My favourite one is one I personally use regularly. Let's say I want someone to tell me what 5 litres is in pints, I'd ask; "What's that in old money?" which was a common expression following the UK's conversion to a decimal currency in 1971.

If it's good enough for Shakespeare it's good enough for me:

To take arms against a sea of troubles... (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which we substitute a word normally associated with something for the term usually naming that thing. The association can be cause-and-effect, attribute-of, instrument-for, etc.

big-sky country (i.e. western Canada)
We need some new faces around here.

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again. (Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

In a synecdoche (or a synechdochic metaphor), a type of metonymy, one part of an object is used to represent the object as a whole

I've got wheels (i.e. I have a car)
The White House (i.e. the President and staff)
Fifty head (i.e. 50 head of cattle)

One expression that combines both synecdoche and metonymy (in which a word normally associated with something is substituted for the term usually naming that thing) is "boob tube," meaning "television."

Metalepsis (or transumption) is a figure of speech in which one thing is referenced by something else which is only remotely associated with it. Often metalepsis refers to the combination of several figures of speech into an altogether new one.

I've got to go catch the worm tomorrow.

“The early bird catches the worm” is a common maxim in English, advocating getting an early start on the day to achieve success. The subject, by referencing this maxim, is compared to the bird; tomorrow, the speaker will awaken early in order to achieve success.

All of these come under the general heading of trope, figures of speech, which includes anthimeria, euphemisms, hyperbole, irony, litotes, meiosis, metonymy, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, paradoxes, puns, similes and metaphors.

That's enough for just now I think. The next post will cover everything else from brand spanking new to dormant, dying and actually dead and buried metaphors.

Part Two


Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

That was absolutely fascinating (and I managed to follow it all even on a Monday morning).
I'm with you on the very simple definitions of simile and metaphor - definitely the easiest way to remember which is which - but I never realised that metaphors could be divided into so many sub-species... It's made me realise that I use metaphors on a very frequent basis without even realising!

Jena Isle said...

That was ....(what metaphor or simile would be most appropriate?) like a maze in the forest? lol... You know all these complicated things? That is a feat. I use words and sentences not knowing whether they are metaphors, similes or whatever, but thanks for those gems of information.

desperateblogger said...

great! good to have a refresher once in a while!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that Catherine. I've always been fascinated with how language is constructed. When I was about nine we had a very old-fashioned teacher called Miss Stirling who was obsessed with sentence deconstruction. I have no idea if it's taught in schools but even if it is it won't be given the kind of attention she gave it. It's stood me in good stead over these years. No one, not even me, is going to remember everything in this post (and you've not read Part II yet) but I wanted to get people to appreciate just how picturesque language is and this is something that's not reserved for the poets. I'll be honest I think my prose is more poetic than my poetry.

Jena - love the metaphor. That really is the beauty of language that we don't need to select from a list, we can make up new words and new figures of speech any time we want. I think it's important though to realise that, even if we don't know the precise terms for what were working with, language has an underlying structure and that's a part of its beauty.

And "desperate", glad to be able to provide the refresher. Hope you stick around for Part II which'll be up on Thursday.

Waterrose said...

Thank you for helping me retain my brain cells today.

Akemi Ito said...

Heya, Jim, you were so right when you mentioned in an earlier comment that I had no idea how in depth and involved metaphors are. I quite like Orwell’s definition; I’m into simple concepts and explanations = )

I had no idea there was so much to metaphors, and so many various classes and the differences between each class- congratulations on what is an informative, and educational post that helps demystify much about the not so simple metaphor.



Jim Murdoch said...

Waterrose, you're very welcome.

Tom, you and me too. The more I searched the Internet, the more examples kept appearing. I've just done my best to collate and organise them.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that Jim, I followed it all with a great deal of interest and not a little amusement. I think I may keep your post beside me as a reference when I am reading literary reviews in the future. Don't reviewers just love such technicalities! Good to look over the course occasionally, though. Well researched - or was it all there in your head the whole time?

Jim Murdoch said...

You have got to be joking, Dave. You would be surprised with how little there is in my head. I research everything I put up. There is so much available on the Web on this subject but it's all over the joint. What I tried to do was bring it all together in one place. I honestly did start off doing this just for myself but got carried away. I know at the end of the day this is really just a long list but I really wanted to show just how flexible metaphors actually are.

Grandma Julia said...

Now, having gone through am excellent short course on simile and metaphor, I would like to go back to my writing and explore how best I could put it to use.

Thank you

NathanKP said...

Very educational post. Thanks for sharing all this information.

NathanKP - Inkweaver Review

Ken Armstrong said...

I think I'll stick with the easy bits at the start... but fascinating, definitely.

Great to see a little quote from 'Cabaret' - my favorite musical. I have half-a-post done about it... somewhere.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Grandma Julie, Inkweaver, Ken - and there's more to come on Thursday.

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