In spite of the fact that we often hear the term “metaphor”, it is not always used in accordance with the original (classic) linguistic definition. Moreover, even some students-linguists tend to confuse it sometimes with such linguistic phenomena as metonymy* or simile. Therefore, I hope that this post may help to clarify the situation.
- “From a cognitive perspective metaphor can be briefly defined as thinking of one thing (A) as though it were another thing (B) and linguistically this will result in an item of vocabulary of large stretch of text being applied in an unusual or new way” [emphasis added] (Goatly, 2007, p. 11).
In other words, we deal with metaphor when something is compared to something else in an unusual or new (unexpected) way. e.g. my home is my castle; she is the light in my life; he is a fresh airstream in our company; my LING 101 class is a gym for my brain.
Metaphors are often constructed according to the following structure: (1)target+(2)source+(3)ground. Let us consider another example in order to illustrate the role of each of these elements:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
(originally this sentence appeared in the novel entitled “The Go-Between” by J.P. Hartley and was also used as an example by Goatly (2007, p. 11) in his study of metaphors).
The target (the past) is the element at which our metaphorical comparison is directed (i.e. the word/phrase which we try to make more expressive). The source (a foreign country) is the element which helps to make our comparison truly expressive/new/unusual. The ground (they do things differently there) is the explanation helping to unfold or clarify our metaphor.
From the stylistic point of view, metaphor is a figure of speech which is used to make discourse more expressive and thus to draw readers’ attention to a particular place in the text. Metaphors are often used in fiction and poetry.
Goatly, A. (2007). Washing the brain: Metaphor and hidden ideology. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co.
*For the comparison between metaphor, metonymy, and simile as well as related examples, see the comments to this post.