Metaphor: seeing the light
What are metaphors?
Metaphor is concerned with using words in abstract rather than literal ways. It is a way of expressing
something by comparing it indirectly with something else that has similar characteristics.
If we call a city a jungle, for example, we are using a metaphor. We are suggesting that a city is like a
jungle, in that it is wild and full of dangers.
If we say that someone lights up our life, we are using a metaphor. We are suggesting that person is
like a light in our life, in that they make our life brighter and happier.
Idioms and metaphors
Many idioms are metaphorical expressions which are in common use.
be on the ball [be very aware of things and ready
to act - like a good footballer]
to keep someone/something on a tight rein
[have a lot of control over someone/something –
like a rider having control over a horse]
Some of the most common idiom-metaphors
are based on parts of the body. So we might
say that a building is in the heart of the city.
[centre] We can call the place where a river
joins the sea its mouth, and the person in
charge of an organisation its head. If you say
that someone has an eye for a bargain, you
mean they are good at finding a bargain. If you
keep a (close) eye on someone/something,
you watch them carefully. If you say that
something is in safe hands, you mean that the person in charge is capable. If you say that something
goes hand in hand with something else, you mean that they exist together and are interconnected:
Rights go hand in hand with responsibilities. If you talk about doing something using a rule of
thumb, you mean you are calculating something in a way that is not exact but will allow you to be
Common metaphorical concepts in English
Many words in English are so frequently used in a metaphorical way that English speakers may no
longer notice that they are metaphors. Here are some examples:
Intelligence and understanding are equated with light; for example, a clever person is called
bright and a less intelligent person dim. If you see the light, you understand something. To cast
light on something means making it easier to understand: The discovery of the poet's letters has
cast light on his troubled relationship with his brother.
Intensity of feeling or passion is equated with temperature; someone who is enthusiastic at one
time and not at another is said to blow hot and cold. If someone is hotheaded, then they react
quickly on the basis of their feelings without thinking first. If you call someone cold-hearted, then
you think they are without feeling.
The movement of people or traffic is equated with the movement of water; we can, for example,
talk of people flooding or trickling out of a hall, or say there was a constant stream of traffic past
Time is likened to money; both are seen as commodities that can be spent or wasted or used
profitably. You can also talk about investing time, using it in a way that you think will pay
dividends in future. [bring you advantages]
Business is likened to a military operation; strategies, tactics and campaigns are used in both
contexts. So a company might launch an advertising campaign, for example, or work on its
Choose a word from the box that can be used metaphorically to complete the sentence.
hands head heart jungle
mouth light rein thumb
1 Helen asked me to keep a close
on her little boy while the children were playing in
2 You don't need to worry about your grandfather - he's in safe
in the hospital.
3 Our hotel offers excellent facilities in the
of the old city centre.
4 When the writer refers to the urban
, he is suggesting that the city is a dangerous
and unpleasant place.
5 As a rule of
, you can expect to deal with about 20 orders a day.
6 Joe is always on the
; he always knows what's going on.
7 Can you see that small boat at the
of the river?
8 It is up to the
of the school how the budget is spent.
9 I"m afraid we need to keep a tight
on our spending this year.
10 I never used to understand opera, but an excellent TV series helped me to see the
Here are some more idioms which are based on metaphors. What is the idiom in each
sentence and what does it mean? What aspect of life does it draw its image from?
Here are some more examples of the five metaphorical concepts in C opposite.
Underline the metaphor and say which concept it exemplifies and what it suggests.
Oscar's going to be holding the reins while the boss is on holiday.
It's hard to know what to do when management keeps moving the goalposts.
Starting his own dry-cleaning business was just another of his half-baked ideas.
We"ve had to tighten our belts since Sam lost his job.
The company needs to take its customers" criticisms on board.
Are you still on track to finish your essay by this evening?
Jana worked around the clock to finish decorating the room before her parents came home.
I"m sure you can take him at face value - he seems perfectly honest to me.
This book throws a great deal of fresh light on the history of the period.
We could save half an hour at least if we went through the wood.
Try to keep cool even if he argues with you.
We spent months trying to achieve our sales targets.
Police tried to control the flow of the fans as they left the concert.
More unusual and original
metaphors are used a great deal in
literature. Here are some famous
metaphors from Shakespeare.
Underline the metaphors in each
case and explain what they suggest.
1 All the world's a stage and all the
men and women merely players.
2 We are such stuff as dreams are
made on, and our little life is
rounded with a sleep.
3 There is a tide in the affairs of men,
which, taken at the flood, leads on