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metaphor Apr 05, 2020


 A Dirty Word?

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression. Cf. metonymy n.simile n.

+ meta = In ancient Greek and Hellenistic Greek μετα- is combined chiefly with verbs and verbal derivatives principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change (of place, order, condition, or nature)

+phor = + ϕορά carrying ( < the o -grade of the stem of ϕέρειν to bear, carry)

Early use:

a1500  (c1477)  T. Norton Ordinal of Alchemy  Thei made theire bokis to many men ful derk, In poyses, parabols, & in methaphoris alle-so, which to scolers causith peyne and wo.

1533   King Henry VIII in Wotton Lett. (1654)  And rather then men would note a lye when they know what is meant, they will sooner by allegory or metaphor draw the word to the truth.

1600   S. Nicholson Acolastus his After-witte  Mens words are Metaphors, it makes no matter.

1691   J. Hartcliffe Treat. Virtues  Men will embrace Metaphors and Allegories, fancies and forms of Speech, instead of the Substance of true and real Righteousness.

Commentary on early usage is rather damning suggestive of deceit or concealment of truth or true purpose.

In the 18th and 19th century reference to use becomes more flattering, and metaphors used by writers are described as 'beautiful' by critics. By the 20th-century usage popular in both political and corporate circles as a way of hinting and making a sharp point softly. (The iron fist in the velvet glove.)

'Metaphors are one way to talk about one thing by describing something else,' says Jane Hirschfield in her Ted Talk on 'The Art of the Metaphor.' 'There's a paradox to metaphors, they almost always say things that aren't true.'

Similes, as she explains, are like metaphors but admit their purpose and are less effective as they don't bypass our logic in the same way as the metaphor which relies on imagery which works at a deeper level of our consciousness where dreams reside.

In 1983, Umberto Eco wrote a paper titled 'The Scandal of Metaphor' in which he suggested that ornamental use of the device was empty of cognitive value unless it adds something new to our understanding. 

'As an ornament metaphor is of no interest to us, because as such  (i.e., saying more pleasantly that which can be said otherwise) metaphor could be explained wholly within the scope of a semantics of denotation. We are interested in metaphor as an additive, and not substitutive instrument of knowledge.' But Eco urged caution in use -  'Even the most ingenuous metaphors are made from the detritus of other metaphors.'

Happy use, he proposed, was where the simplicity of the metaphor worked so that the meaning was quickly and readily absorbed, more readily than with any other explanation of the point being made by any other method. Yet the process behind it, the laboriousness of it, still threatened to undermine even the most elegant construction. 

Because the metaphor has been so successfully co-opted by political, scientific and corporate life and in recent times by the meme generation (i.e 'snowflakes'), it has perhaps become further devalued.

When it comes to metaphor, use in fiction I'd suggest, is more than suspect, it's under arrest. Fine for poetry, but likely to make the palest prose an unbecoming shade of purple.

Not that an agent will tell you so, but they will clue you in by mentioning problems with 'authorial voice' in the rejection letter. This can mean a few things but essentially they're saying the writing is heavy-handed (i.e overwritten).

Here are the candidate offences;  telling not showing (too much about the character's feelings impeding forward motion of the events), judgement via high-handed declaratory sentences, and wanton dispensation of metaphor or simile.

All of these serve to harangue the reader rather than allow them to enter the novel as a player.

Take some out, take a lot out, and make space for your reader to be present and enjoy their own feelings as much as yours.

Now, don't worry about the fate of poor old metaphor, folks.

Metaphor has taken a big job promotion in our time and won't bother itself much over losing the desk job. It's become 'management', promoted to 'allegory', elevated to the core concept driving works of popular art. Thus the movie Joker stands for our relationship with our darker, difficult self. It is the same with a novel like My Sister, the Serial Killer. When a metaphor is elevated to this purpose, it renders miniature metaphors within the text redundant. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s writing is clear and to the point, laying out exactly what happens without metaphor or judgment. Similarly, the work of Sally Rooney shows us objects and gives us dialogue, but spares apparent authorial intervention, comparison, allusion or judgement.

Often, it seems to me that writing has to be 'not bad' rather than good or even clever when it gets to the agent's desk.

Your first course should be to ensure it's not bad, in that it's not clever-clever, heavy-handed, pushy, and fat with similes or metaphors. Consider the work as if it were moving images, events unfurling paragraph by paragraph, and you'll be safe. 

It's not that it's time to say 'Aurevoir' to metaphor more that less is more when it comes to metaphor.

You will quickly see the improvement in the readability of the work, I promise!

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