Metaphors are not simply ornamental. Nor are they limited to abstracts subjects. The following description comes from C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles.
It is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without. The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically.
Books on psychology or economics or politics are as continuously metaphorical as books of poetry or devotion. There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware. . . . All speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.
To effectively communicate—especially about deep or profound subjects—metaphors need to be part of a readers’ or speakers’ core vocabulary. That’s what Lewis meant by saying “we are forced to use language metaphorically” when speaking about things that transcend our senses.
Former Time editor James Geary has echoed Lewis’ description of the universality of metaphors.
Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. . . .
There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. (I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World)
Without being conscious of it, we all use metaphors more frequently than we realize it. Geary claims “We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minute.” Granted, most of these are routine like the four appearing in this sentence he quotes from an economic report.
“Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction but confused economic data and the high risk of a hung parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”
Metaphors Versus Similes
Envisioning fresh metaphors may seem challenging, but it is a skill which can be practiced. One need not feel embarrassed if they find the subject of metaphors confusing. In their simplest form, they are like especially meaningful similes.
In a simile we compare two distinctly different things and declare that they are similar. For example, someone might say about the sleek new stealth destroyer, “the USS Zumwalt is like a Porsche.” This simile suggests a number of attributes and the statement contains the familiar phrase “is like.”
By contrast, a metaphor is not merely “like” something else. Using a metaphor implies that the two different things share, in a true sense, some common nature or element. So, a person might write, “the current election season is a nightmare.” Certainly, a less confident writer might weaken the power of this sentence, by diluting it into a simile, it’s “like” a nightmare.
But the bold speaker or writer recognizes how much more sharply the metaphor communicates their message. They want to state that the experience is not just nightmarish. It is a nightmare. It is (to many) horrific, frightening, and something from which we wish we could awaken to resume our lives in a world that still makes sense.
Like any rhetorical or literary tool, metaphors can be misused. They can be stretched so far that they don’t make sense, or they only appeal to individuals who share some narrow interpretation of existence.
While metaphors can be used in an ostentatious or overdone way, that simply weakens their effect. The judicious application of metaphors is a skill well worth practicing.
The Scriptures as a Treasure Trove
The subtitle above can itself be viewed as a similar or a metaphor. But that’s beside the point, since it simply introduces our discussion of the fact that the Bible is filled to overflowing with metaphors.
This is unsurprising, since almost the entire text deals with the story of an infinite Creator’s love for his fallen creation.
Put another way, our God, whose nature is utterly incomprehensible to the beings he fashioned from the earth (adamah), longs to communicate his love for we whose lives in this world are so very brief. How could the Lord accomplish this without metaphors? Thus he describes himself in this fashion:
“I am the alpha and the omega.”
“I am the bread of life.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I am the vine; you are the branches.”
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Metaphors are not reserved for God in the Scriptures. On the contrary, they abound, like radiant dandelions in the early days of summer.
“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life . . .”
“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”
“O Lord . . . we are the clay, and you are our potter . . .”
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
All of us, “new creations” in particular, have much to learn from C.S. Lewis about metaphors. A good place to start is the brief essay “C.S. Lewis and the Apt Metaphor.”
After reflection, you may want to try your hand at creating a novel metaphor. After all, a thought-provoking metaphor is a refreshing breath in any conversation.
I’ve written about metaphors in the past posts, including this one. I also wrote a a column which includes George Orwell’s advice for writers: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”