Brevity, says the tediously garrulous Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the soul of wit.
Polonius is an exponent of neither brevity nor wit, but his assertion is correct. The flexibility of language means we can use just a few words to express a complex emotion, idea or thought that might otherwise take several paragraphs to convey.
Similes and metaphors can be used in this way, but what is the difference between them?
Similes always use ‘as’ or ‘like’. I remember this by thinking that the word ‘simile’ has an ‘s’ as does ‘as’ and an ‘l’ as does ‘like’. More simply: Liking metaphors makes you simile (geddit?).
Everyday examples of similes include:
- As green as grass
- Tremble like a leaf
- As brave as a lion
- Swim like a fish
- As cold as ice
‘Simile’ is derived from the Latin ‘similis’ meaning ‘like’.
Metaphors do not use ‘as’ or ‘like’. They describe someone or something in a way that cannot be literally true. There are many everyday examples, sometimes referred to as ‘dead metaphors’ because we no longer notice them as metaphors. Examples include:
- On top of the world (meaning to feel very happy)
- Bottleneck (as in, for example, a section of road where traffic is often held up)
- Snowed under with work
- The eye of a storm
- This neck of the woods
‘Metaphor’ originally derives from the Greek ‘metapherein’ meaning ‘to transfer’.
Rising like balloons
All those everyday examples are a bit boring. But similes and metaphors can be strikingly original and hugely evocative. In the poem Morning Song about her newborn child, the American poet Sylvia Plath makes highly effective use of similes:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch
And later in the same poem:
And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Another poet, the Englishman Edward Thomas, ends his poem The Glory with an arresting metaphor to convey a sense of overwhelming dissatisfaction, and profound frustration:
I cannot bite the day to the core.
And here’s a wonderfully concise poem by the American poet W.S. Merwin that uses a highly original simile to convey multi-layered meanings:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.