What a metaphor really means

A high school textbook taught me the standard line: similes are comparisons, and metaphors are similes without the word “like” or “as”. So when I say, “Achilles was a lion,” I mean that Achilles was like a lion. I just don’t say “like”.

The absurdity bothered me to no end. How could anyone with ears think that “Achilles was a lion” sounds like “Achilles was like a lion”? Is the one sentence that much stronger just because it is one word shorter? On the other hand, how could I hope that anyone else heard the same difference that screamed at me? When you’re in high school, there are certain feelings you just don’t share, like your ambition for glory, or your romantic daydreams, or your ceaseless frustration over the textbook definition of “metaphor”.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s approach to metaphor helped somewhat. He said that a metaphor involves using the word to mean something it doesn’t usually mean. That is not what a simile does: when I say “Achilles was like a lion,” the word “lion” means exactly what it always means. But when I say “Achilles was a lion,” the word “lion” means something other than the dictionary definition of the word.

This is why it can be so difficult to tell whether a given word is a metaphor: the moment the metaphorical meaning becomes customary, it ceases to be metaphorical. In some bygone era, when someone described a situation as “hairy,” it had that peculiar electric effect unique to the metaphor—that jump, that leap of recognition. But now “hairy situation” is just a phrase, and maybe someone has even added “complicated and perilous” to the dictionary entry for “hairy”. The metaphor is dead. Many English words are cadavers from the metaphor graveyard.

But Aquinas’s insight was less illuminating than tantalizing. If a metaphor is a word redefined, what is the new meaning? My teachers said that metaphor redefines a word in terms of surface features of the original meaning: “My love is a rose” means that my love has certain features of a rose, i.e., she is beautiful, delicate, etc. When I say “Achilles was a lion,” I mean that Achilles had various features of a lion, such as strength and courage. “Lion” in this context means “strong, courageous, etc.” In other words, the new meaning of “lion” is “like a lion”—a new definition, sure, but pretty darn close to a simile without the use of “like” or “as”.

I still wasn’t satisfied. Every time someone tries to unpack the meaning of a metaphor in terms of a list of adjectives, something is lost in the process. It’s like dissecting a frog: by the time you are done, you have everything left but the frog. Or it’s like explaining a joke: by the time you’re done, everything is there but the being-funny, which is what made it a joke at all. Whenever someone dissects a metaphor, something dies on the operating table.

For years, I chewed and worried at the question: What is lost when we “translate” a metaphor? Progress came in three stages.

First, I realized that we are typically far too timid as translators. When I say “Achilles was a lion,” of course I mean that he was strong and courageous and ferocious and dangerous, but I also mean a lot of other things that I don’t mention because they feel silly. Achilles was large and hairy and loud and probably smelly. My love is not only beautiful and delicate, but her skin is also tender like a rose petal, and I take a bashful pleasure in her smell; what’s more, I know her beauty will fade—“All flesh is grass.” But I don’t list all this when I explain the metaphor, either because it is too silly or because it is too intimate. That’s one reason things get lost in translation.

Second, I realized that not everything a metaphor conveys is asserted as true. Part of the pleasure in a strong metaphor is an element of the fantastical. When I call the clouds “cotton candy,” of course I mean that the clouds are white and fluffy, but I also take a secret pleasure in the suggestion of clouds that taste sweet. “Achilles was a lion”—the thrill comes not only from the shock of recognizing his resemblance to a lion, but also from the not-quite-intended hint of a shape-shifter. While “the athlete flew down the field” means he moved rapidly, it also appeals to the universal human longing for flight. But when we list the meanings of a metaphor we think only of the truths the metaphor conveys, so we leave out all the fantasy. That part gets lost in translation, too.

Now, I should hasten to add that even the fantasy element of a metaphor conveys a truth of some kind. The clouds are not sweet to the taste, as my imagination suggests, but they are sweet to the eye with an intensity that suggests the palpability of taste itself. I don’t really mean that the athlete achieved the dream of flight, but he did in some way exceed the everyday human experience in a way most of us can only dream about. All good fantasy is ultimately philosophical.

What we usually think of when asked to unpack a metaphor is like the tone in a musical note. The silly, intimate, and fantastical elements are like so many overtones, not grabbing the attention right away but entirely determining the timbre of the word.

Yet everything I have said so far leaves my original question restless. You could take the silly and intimate and even fantastical elements of metaphor as various ways in which “this is like that,” and we’re still very close to the old line: a metaphor is a simile without the use of “like” or “as”. But to my ear, a metaphor is not subtly different from simile: it’s a different beast entirely.

My third and final advance came one day with a clap of conviction. Mid-stride in a conversation, trying yet again to “translate” a metaphor for a group of students, I realized that when I say “Achilles was a lion,” I don’t just meant that a lion has characteristics A through Z and Achilles has characteristics A through Z. What I really mean is: There is something in a lion that makes all those characteristics hang together as a thing, and there is also something in Achilles that makes all those characteristics hang together. It is not the same “something” in each case, but both a lion and Achilles have a center, an illusive core, of which the same exterior features are a manifestation. The metaphor does not name this “something,” but asserts it nonetheless: it doesn’t just say what Achilles was like, but what he was. He was … a lion.

With more or less strength, I think every metaphor makes the same assertion about a hidden center. Are my love’s beauty, delicacy, and complexion independent features, like a computer’s hard drive capacity, its screen size, and its battery life? No! They hang together in her as the exterior manifestations of a glorious hidden something that I can’t quite name. Is my love simply like a rose? No, that doesn’t capture it.

This is why metaphors are so helpful for talking about the most mysterious things. Struck by the unspeakable, we don’t throw up our linguistic hands and play an elaborate game of comparison, skimming from the surface of one thing to the surface of another. Rather, by an effort of identification in which we somehow become the unknown itself, we attend from its surface features to the hidden center beyond them, the way we attend from facial features to the face itself.

Have you ever been taken off guard by someone who demands that you recall the color of her eyes? “But haven’t you seen my eyes a thousand times? Why don’t you know what color they are?” Because I never attended to them. I only attended from them—to you.

This is precisely the feeling of one who is suddenly asked to “explain” a metaphor. “But you’re the one using the word, so surely you know what it means. By ‘was a lion,’ you mean ‘was courageous,’ right?” Um, sure. I mean, I don’t know! I certainly wasn’t attending to “courageous” when I said “lion”. And the reason I used a metaphor was precisely because I couldn’t touch the unspeakable any other way.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Paul Byrd
Paul Byrd
4 years ago

“Have you ever been taken off guard by someone who demands that you recall the color of her eyes? “But haven’t you seen my eyes a thousand times? Why don’t you know what color they are?” Because I never attended to them. I only attended from them—to you.” This quote above from your article expresses how I felt while reading this article. I had thoughts and feelings bouncing through my head that were bigger than my mind could articulate. I don’t know that I could teach another about a metaphor vs simile but I can feel the difference. I will… Read more »

4 years ago

Interesting. I highly recommend you read Walker Percy’s essay “Metaphor as Mistake,” if you haven’t already. It’s in his collection Message in a Bottle. Perhaps the most illuminating thing I’ve ever read on metaphor.