Where Does the Word Metaphor Come From?

Updated on November 1, 2017
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Byzantine Metaphor For The Soul and Death
Byzantine Metaphor For The Soul and Death | Source

The series of books by Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield entitled Chicken Soup for the Soul show how effective a metaphor can be when used well.

This title manages to compare an everyday food, thought to accelerate the healing process, with that most elusive of human entities, the soul. You can also tell it's such a fabulous metaphor by the very fact that it takes so long to explain what the comparison is and how the metaphor was created.

The best metaphors ring true and need little clarification, such as the saying "the law's an ass" which is found in Dickens' Oliver Twist. Metaphors are figures of speech used as much in our everyday conversations as they are in literature. But where does the word "metaphor" come from, and what's its precise meaning?

What's a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a literary figure of speech used to describe a subject by comparing it to something else. The comparison gives the qualities of one thing to another that is usually unrelated. The less related the two subjects are, the better the metaphor, such as in Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage."

The word "metaphor" combines the Greek words "meta" (between) and "phero" (to carry), and generally means to transfer between, as in transferring the characteristics of one thing to another. A metaphor is a type of analogy and is one of many figures of speech used to draw comparisons between two disparate entities.

Tracing The Origins of the Word Metaphor

The English word metaphor has its roots in Old French, Latin and Greek, dating back as far as the late 15th century. The French word m├ętaphore is practically identical. The Latin metaphora means "carrying over" while the Greek metaphero combines the terms "meta" - between - and "phero" - to bear or carry.

Have you ever described someone as having ice in their veins, or a heart of stone? If so, you were being metaphorical. You were making a comparison between things that have nothing in common on the surface. And yet the use of a metaphor serves to accomplish two objectives:

  1. it injects color into your language
  2. it adds depth and power to your description, helping other people visualize precisely what you mean

Cyclone as metaphor for political revolution
Cyclone as metaphor for political revolution | Source

Metaphors Make Meanings Clearer

Metaphors are often referred to in the same breath as similes, but of course they're not the same. A simile states that A is "like" or "as (something) as" B, while a metaphor states that A is B. For instance, the expression "time flies like an arrow" is a simile, while "time is money" is a metaphor. The first notes similarities between the two, while the second compares one directly to the other.

Metaphors are a type of analogy, a way of transferring information from one subject to another with the aim of making the meaning clear and unambiguous. A metaphor can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, from a basic comparison such as "he's my rock" to an extended metaphor where an entire story or poem is used to compare one thing to another, such as in Carl Sandburg's poem Fog.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sunrise at Shipwreck Cove, NZ
Sunrise at Shipwreck Cove, NZ | Source

Masters of Metaphor

It's common practice these days to quote Shakespeare whenever figurative language is mentioned. Maybe that's because he wrote so much, or maybe it's because his work has become so familiar to us.

The opening line from Sonnet 18 - "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" - uses a rhetorical question to inform us that, indeed, he is going to make that comparison. Not only that, but he's going to posit the idea that the poem's subject is actually superior to a summer's day, being "more lovely and more temperate" and destined to last forever through the poem itself.

Metaphor has a long history, extending back as far as 2,500 BC, moving through familiar landmarks like Homer and Milton. One of the Greek poet Homer's best known metaphors is the phrase "rosy-fingered dawn" - which immediately evokes images of streaky pink light filling the horizon.

Charles Dickens is thought by many to have raised metaphor to an art form. Take for example his description of the two waifs underneath the cloak of The Ghost of Christmas Present:

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.

That's possibly the clearest and most direct example of metaphor you're likely to find anywhere.

Make Your Own Metaphors

When you've got some time on your hands, why not try making up your own metaphors? Here's all you need to do:

  1. Write down a list of words in two columns (column A and column B) on a sheet of paper or on your computer screen.
  2. Match up ANY word from column A with ANY word from column B. For instance, perhaps column A contained the word "sun" while column B contained the word "beach ball" - so you could say the sun is a fiery beach ball floating in a sky blue sea.
  3. Use these combinations to create metaphors that appeal to the senses, such as berry blue eyes, strawberry hair, scent of yesterday, gravelly voice, and so on.

Take the Metaphor Identity Quiz!

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    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks haikutwinkle!

    • haikutwinkle profile image

      haikutwinkle 5 years ago

      Excellent hub and interesting quiz!

      "My cup of tea for the day!"

    • JohnMello profile image

      JohnMello 5 years ago from England

      Thanks Eddy!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Original and interesting.