Reading through lists of metaphors can be fun and educational for people who want to improve their English. Metaphor examples are also a good way of getting a sense of what a metaphor is.
As you know, there is more to language than putting parts of speech together in a way that makes sense. Culture always seeps into the language in one way or another. One of the ways culture infuses language is through metaphors and similes.
What is a metaphor?
First, let’s get the basics out of the way: metaphors and similes describe something by creating an image in the mind. Metaphors and similes are useful in that they are often more evocative than simple adjectives. Here is an example:
He is very good at sales
can be rephrased like this:
He could sell sand to a desert dweller
Both statements above say essentially the same thing; however, the second statement uses a metaphor that brings a powerful image to mind. This is a more effective way to convey an idea. Here is another example:
She sings very well
can be rephrased as:
She sings like a lark
Since a lark is a songbird known for its beautiful voice, to compare someone’s voice to that of a songbird is very high praise and very descriptive.
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Metaphors vs. similes
So what is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? They both serve the same purpose in English, so why are they separate ideas? It’s very simple: a simile uses “like”or “as” to compare two things, whereas a metaphor does not. So in the examples above, He could sell sand to a desert dweller is a metaphor and she sings like a lark is a simile. If you’d like to learn more about similes and see a list of examples, click here.
List of metaphors
Often, people will use metaphors without realizing that that’s what they’re doing. Those metaphors are idioms. The English language is rich with metaphors—there are literally tens of thousands of them! Below is a list of fifty common English metaphors and their meanings.
- I could eat a horse: I am very hungry.
- It all went pear shaped: to go wrong.
- It’s no skin off my nose: it doesn’t affect me negatively (but it might affect others).
- She is an open book: she has nothing to hide.
- He wears his heart on his sleeve: he shows his feelings readily.
- It’s showtime: it’s time to start (something important).
- These are the dog days of summer: it’s too hot but do anything but be lazy and stay cool.
- You’re building castles in the air: you’re making unrealistic plans.
- I was a million miles away: my mind was wandering (another metaphor!).
- He marches to his own drummer: he has his own way of doing things.
- Splitting hairs: Paying too much attention to insignificant details.
- Nitpicking: bringing attention to tiny faults.
- The whole enchilada: the whole, huge thing.
- A nine-to-five job: a job worked during the week, during business hours
- Hit the books: To study very intensively.
- Cover your bases: A metaphor based on baseball. This means to make sure to consider all possible outcomes.
- This place is a zoo: to describe a chaotic place, implying that the people inside are behaving like animals.
- To carry a torch for someone: to have unrequited romantic feelings toward someone
- Blood from a turnip: working on a task with no hope of success.
- Step up to the plate: another baseball metaphor. This one means to take action when needed.
- Parade-maker: a person who drives too slowly in the passing lane, forming a parade of sorts behind them.
- More than you can shake a stick at: More than you can easily handle.
- Heart of gold: a way of describing someone who is very kind and generous.
- My dogs are barking: my feet hurt.
- Go back to the drawing board: to start something back at the very beginning.
- Cut me some slack!: Be more forgiving of my errors and faults (A boating reference. When a rope is slack, the boat has more room to maneuver).
- To get out of hand: to become out of control.
- To hit the sack: to go to bed.
- To be on the ball: another baseball metaphor. This one means to be alert and reactive to a given situation.
- To feel under the weather: to feel sick.
- Speak of the devil: what someone says when a person who was the subject of conversation joins the conversation circle.
- To bite the bullet: to do something unpleasant quickly and with force, so as to have it be over quickly.
- A dime a dozen: a way to describe something plentiful.
- To cut corners: to do something poorly so as to save time or money.
- To miss the boat: to come too late for something; to let an opportunity go because of inattention or lack of time.
- To pull someone’s leg: to lie to someone as a way to teasing them
- Mark my words: what someone says before making a prediction they are certain will come true.
- To have kittens: to worry excessively or unnecessarily about something.
- To wrap your head around something: to take time to understand a difficult or hard-to-believe concept.
- Mama bear: an overly protective mother.
- A day late and a dollar short: a way of describing something that is inadequate for solving a given problem.
- Bent out of shape: a way of describing an angry person
- By the skin of your teeth: just barely.
- Salad days: times of plenty and happiness.
- A hangdog expression: used to describe someone who looks sad or depressed.
- To get caught red-handed: to get caught in the middle of doing something illegal or forbidden.
- A wild-goose chase: a pointless or hopeless endeavor.
- Herding cats: a way of describing a situation that is difficult or frustrating.
- The elephant in the room: a topic that everybody is thinking about but nobody is talking about.
- Hit the nail on the head: to get something exactly right.
There are many, many more metaphors out there, and it’s fun to make up your own! Here is a list of metaphors for kids.
There are different types of metaphors
The most vivid metaphors are often the ones you make up yourself, because the image is fresh and therefore more vivid. Overused metaphors can lose some of their potency. When that happens, we call them clichés.
Metaphors are generally divided into four main categories: simple, implied, extended, and literary. There is a fourth category, dead metaphors, which can cause the speaker to create something called a mixed metaphor. Avoid the last two if possible.
Simple metaphors are, just like their name suggests, a comparison between one thing and another. This comparison creates a vivid image in the mind. Here are some examples of simple metaphors:
My teacher is a monster.
This homework assignment is a beast.
My home is my castle.
All three metaphors given above are simple because they create an image in the mind by using the following structure:
[Thing 1] + is + [Thing 2]
Implied metaphors are a little more complex than simple metaphors because they only describe, without explaining what is being described. The object described is implied because it is never explicitly mentioned. Here are some examples of implied metaphors:
I spent the day putting out fires.
He flew through his homework.
In the first sentence, the person is saying that they spent most of their day seeing to short-term emergencies. In the second sentence, the verb flew implies that he did his homework very quickly. In both sentences, we see a description of the action or behavior without seeing what the action or behavior is being compared to.
Extended metaphors are more common than you’d think. They are hard to see because they are so common. An extended metaphor is simply a metaphor that gets used over a whole work (like a poem or a book). Symbols are a form of extended metaphor. Here are some examples of extended metaphors:
- The bear is often used to describe Russia and has become one of its symbols.
- In the news, journalists often refer to “the Pentagon” when talking about the U.S. military. This is in reference to the shape of the building for the Department of Defense.
- Fire and fire imagery are often used to describe a person’s love for someone: to carry a torch, burning love, an old flame…
Literary metaphors are generally used to provide strong imagery for poetic purposes. William Shakespeare wrote some of the best known literary metaphors. Here are a few examples:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;” (from As You Like It)
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” (from Romeo and Juliet)
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;” (from Romeo and Juliet)
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date; (from Sonnet 18)
Other authors and poets have written metaphors that have become very well known. Here are some examples of famous literary metaphors:
“ A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.” —Joseph Brodsky, Less Than One
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
—Emily Dickinson, “Hope” is The Thing With Feathers
“The smuggler is something of a poet. He risks everything, faces terrible dangers, employs cunning, inventiveness, gets himself out of scrapes; sometimes he even acts according to some kind of inspiration.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of The Dead
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
—Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night
“The man who thinks only of his own salvation is as good as a coal drawn out of the fire.” —James Jones
“O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;”
—Robert Burns, A Red, Red Rose
“Vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall.” —Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
“Discomfort is the state of mind in which the oyster brings forth the pearl.” —Lewis Lapham, Res Publica
“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes
Two types of metaphors you should avoid
By now you can see how powerful metaphors are. This is because they create a vivid image in the mind. However, it is important to recognize and avoid dead metaphors. These are metaphors that occur so much in the language that they no longer create an image. In fact, some metaphors are so old that we don’t even think of them as metaphors anymore! Dead metaphors are also sometimes called clichés. Here are some examples:
A trial by fire: To try something in a real-life setting without testing it first. A reference to the witch trials, in which people burned at the stake those they thought to be witches. If they didn’t burn, they were witches; if they burned, they were innocent.
To run out of time: a reference to when people measured time with an hourglass.
Lily-livered: to be lily-livered is to be cowardly. Comes from the Middle Ages, a time when people thought that courage came from the liver. A white, or lily-colored liver, was thought to be a sign of cowardice because of insufficient blood flow.
Beware of mixed metaphors
When metaphors are dead, they sometimes get mixed up with other metaphors. This creates nonsense images that don’t end up being descriptive. Here are some examples of mixed metaphors:
“Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” —Boyle Roche, Irish Member of Parliament
“This is awfully weak tea to have to hang your hat on.”
“You can’t lead a dead horse to water.”
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the four types of metaphors?
The four types of metaphor are simple, implied, extended, and literary.
How do you identify a metaphor?
You know you’re looking at a metaphor when you see two things:
- Something is compared with something else in an effort to describe it by bringing up an image in the mind
- Like and as are not used in the sentence
What are some famous metaphors?
Here is a selection of famous metaphors:
The iron curtain is a metaphor for the political divide between Eastern and Western Europe during the cold war.
The White House is a metaphor for the executive branch of power in the United States government. Similarly, Downing Street and the Elysée describe centers of executive power in the U.K. and France respectively.
Play ball is a metaphor used at the beginning of baseball games.
To show up means to be there when it counts.
The Big Bang is a metaphor used to describe how the universe came to be.