Metaphors 101

In this page I will summarize my research into metaphors.  I will explain how and why I became involved in this type of research.  I will then distinguish metaphors from other types of figurative language including similes, idioms, and analogies which are not included in the book.  Works cited in this section are all included on my bibliography page.

 Lakoff and Johnson

My research on metaphors has been inspired by the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  George Lakoff has been a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley since the early 1970s.  Mark Johnson is a professor of philosophy, formerly of Southern Illinois University, now at the University of Oregon. I was lucky enough to briefly study with Dr. Johnson during my linguistics coursework there in the mid 1990s.

Many years ago, in one of my first linguistics classes, I was asked to read a book by Lakoff and Johnson called Metaphors We Live By (1980).  This small book changed my life, or at least my academic life.  Most of us learn about metaphors, similes and other figurative language in our English classes in junior high or high school.  Normally we are taught that metaphors or similes are used in poems, plays, short stories or novels, such as “Juliet is the sun” (Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”) or “O, my luve is like a red, red rose” (Robert Burns).  Thus we often grow up believing there is a dichotomy of everyday language being literal, with poetry, drama and fiction being metaphorical.

Lakoff and Johnson were the first to point out that metaphors are actually part of everyday language.  They showed, for example, that we think about time as being money, as in the phrases “time is money,” or “you’re running out of time.”  These so-called conceptual metaphors are not unusual at all. This is the way we think all the time.  Using Lakoff and Johnson’s nomenclature, we can also say that ARGUMENTS ARE WAR as in the phrases “win an argument” or “shoot down my argument,” or LOVE IS A JOURNEY as in the phrases “we are at a crossroads” or “our marriage is on the rocks.”  This approach revolutionized the way linguists analyzed metaphors.

Lakoff and Johnson later co-wrote another book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodiment of the Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, (1999) in which they expanded on their previous work, arguing that our conceptual metaphors are largely based on our bodily experiences. Lakoff went on to write several books on how language is used in politics such as Moral Politics:  How Liberals and Conservative Think (2002)and Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, (2004).  Johnson continued to work on philosophy of language in books such as The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis for Meaning, Imagination and Reason, (1987) and The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, (2007). Lakoff and Johnson (1999: 463) write, “Metaphors are products of body, brain, mind and experience.  They are pervasive in everyday thought and philosophy itself. They could only get their meaning through embodied experience.”

The works of Lakoff and Johnson inspired me to investigate how metaphors are used in American politics.  Several years ago, I noticed how often metaphors were used in TV broadcasts and magazine articles.  I decided to see how many conceptual metaphors I could find in analyzing these news sources.  I was expecting to find a few hundred examples.  I ended up finding a few thousand.  As you can see from the table of contents of my book, there are more than 50 different categories of metaphors that I found.  Not surprisingly, Lakoff and Johnson’s theories are supported by my data in that conceptual metaphors are ubiquitous and used in many different areas of political discourse.


A metaphor is one particular type of figurative language. We also have idioms such as spill the beans, bury the hatchet or it’s raining cats and dogs.  We also have other types of figurative language, or tropes, such as irony, sarcasm, hyperbole or understatement. In my book, I have made a conscious effort to include only examples of metaphorical expressions.

There is a great deal of confusion among the general public when it comes to distinguishing metaphors from idioms.  Some websites provide lists of metaphors that include many idioms, while other websites claim to list popular idioms when they actually include metaphors, neologisms (newly created words such as Obamacare) or simple literal words or phrases.  In a recent children’s book on metaphors, the author claims, “a lot of metaphors are idioms.”  This is nonsensical from a linguist’s point of view.  This is like saying a lot of horses are zebras.  However, there are also several popular books on metaphors which are excellent examples of metaphor research and analysis.  These include I Never Metaphor I didn’t Like (2008) by Mardy Grothe and I is Another: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (2011) by James Geary.  Grothe’s book includes many great examples of metaphors in popular discourse by famous authors, politicians or celebrities. Geary’s book is a more academic approach to metaphors following in the footsteps of Lakoff and Johnson.  The largest collection of metaphors that I know of is Elyse Sommer’s Metaphors Dictionary (1996).

Unfortunately, there is also little agreement among linguists as to how metaphors and idioms work, or even how they are defined.  On this page, I will provide some basic definitions of metaphors and idioms.

Metaphors are extremely complex and notoriously difficult to define. Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 5) wrote, “ The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another” (italics in original).  Although this is a fairly basic definition, they further explained that metaphors involve so-called mappings between two different conceptual domains.  In addition to the examples given above, they provide the classic example of comparing love to a journey (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, pp. 44-45, and Lakoff, 1993, pp. 206-207), we may find such metaphorical expressions as “Our marriage is on the rocks,” “We’re at a crossroads,” or “We are just spinning our wheels.”  In this case, Lakoff and Johnson would say that LOVE IS A JOURNEY, i.e., that the concept of a journey is the source domain for understanding love, the target domain. This approach to analyzing metaphors has become popular and useful among cognitive linguists (see, for example, Cienki, 2008; Gibbs, 1993, 1994; Kövecses, 2002; Lakoff and Turner, 1989).  However, there are a few detractors including MacCormac (1985) and Glucksberg (2001).

In terms of political metaphors, we can similarly analyze a common metaphorical expression that “the candidates are neck and neck.”  In this case, we would say that AN ELECTION IS A HORSE RACE, the horse racing being the source domain, and the election being the target domain.  In a more recent metaphor, the fiscal cliff, we could say that BUDGET CRISES ARE CLIFFS in that the government might figuratively fall off a cliff if we do not solve our budget and debt problems.

In every case of a metaphorical expression analyzed in this blog or in my book, I have tried to make sure there is indeed some sort of conceptual mapping from a source domain to a target domain.


Everyone probably remembers learning in high school that similes are comparative statements with like or as.  Common examples given include “Uncle Fred eats like a pig” or “That student is sharp as a tack.” Similes and metaphors are similar in that they are both expressions comparing one object to another.  In the terms used by Lakoff and Johnson, there is still a comparison of a source domain to a target domain.  However, the reader or listener of a simile does not have to work as hard to understand the comparison since it is more explicitly stated than in a metaphor (Miller, 1993, p. 375).

Others have pointed out that with similes, the reader not only understand the comparison of two unlike objects, but must also interpret the behavior of the object being compared (Fraser, 1993, p. 340). For example, saying “Uncle Fred is a pig” may evoke images of the person as being sloppy or poorly dressed; however, saying “Uncle Fred eats like a pig” clearly tells the reader that it is the behavior of eating that is being compared.  Similarly, saying “Aunt Sally works like a dog” clearly indicates it is the level of work that is being compared (although it is unclear why we think dogs work hard…).  In the example,mentioned above, saying that “the student is sharp as a tack” indicates metaphorically that the student is as smart as a tack is sharp.

I did not include any examples of similes in my work since they are not technically the same as metaphors.


As mentioned earlier, metaphors are often confused with idioms.  To make matters worse, any expression that is figurative may also be described as being “idiomatic” and there are such things as “metaphorical idioms” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, pp. 67-69).  However, a few distinctions can be made between metaphors and idioms.  Traditionally, an idiom is defined as a figure a speech that is noncompositional, meaning that the meaning of the phrase cannot be clearly determined by the meaning of the individual words.  For example, in the idiom kick the bucket, meaning “to die,” there is nothing in meaning of the words kick or bucket that tells the reader or listener that the phrase means “to die.”  Similarly, if we say it’s raining cats and dogs, there is nothing that we know about cats and dogs that tells us that the rainfall is heavy.  Gibbs (1993, p. 271), however, argues that some idioms are indeed compositional.  For example, the idiom spill the beans can be understood if one sees that spilling can mean “revealing” and beans can mean “a secret.”  Kövecses (2002, pp. 199-212) holds similar views. At any rate, when we say that the candidates are neck and neck, if we have any knowledge of horse racing, we can understand that the candidates in an election are being compared to horses in a close horse race.

In my research, I came across such phrases as “getting the bill passed was a piece of cake” or “the president has something else up his sleeve.” If we describe something easy as being a piece of cake, there is no conceptual mapping or compositional understanding to qualify this phrase as a metaphorical expression.  Similarly, although the phrase having something else up his sleeve has its origins in playing (or cheating at) cards, there is little in the phrase itself that allows the reader or listener to understand the meaning that the person has another strategy to deal with a complex problem.  I did not include such phrases in my book since I considered them to be idioms.


Another term often used in the discussion of metaphors is analogy. In a general sense, all metaphors are analogies since they compare one thing to another.  However, I do not refer to metaphors as analogies since the word may indicate many other types of comparisons. We may remember analogies from our high school SAT tests as in dog:puppy :: cat:kitten.  These are also a type of comparison.  People may use analogies to explain a complex process or situation.  In politics, we may hear politicians explaining the federal budget, for example, in terms of a household budget, e.g., “The government has to pay its bills every month just like you do at your kitchen table.”  The news anchor Rachel Maddow sometimes uses analogies such as these to explain complex news stories to her viewers.  Once again, however, I do not include any analogies in my book since they are a different type of figurative language.

See the Bibliography for more references or resources.

2 thoughts on “Metaphors 101

    1. Hi Matt! Thanks for sharing your website on metaphors and figurative language. I like the way you clearly define each type. I also really like your Venn diagram. I have never seen that approach before. I am not sure I understand why you have conceit outside of the diagram since that can be a sort of metaphor as well. And I wonder how you decided to put similes in the middle of the diagram. The difference between similes and metaphors is a fascinating problem. Did you place the different types of figurative language into the Venn diagram based on semantics or syntax? I’d love to hear more about your thinking in making that diagram. Great job!

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