Literary terms, Technical stuff

Love set you going

A stain glass window representation of Polonius.
Image via Wikipedia

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.

Find out about oxymorons

Read more about metaphors at Sentence first

The dehumanising effect of driving-related metaphors in the UK’s NHS

37 thoughts on “Love set you going”

  1. “Tremble like a leaf”

    I’m more familiar with “tremble like an aspen,” a tree which in a light breeze, does give the impression that it’s trembling, as the breeze flutters its leaves.

    Trying to find out why, it seems that Shakespeare’s the most likely culprit – Tremble, like aspen-leaves… Titus Andronicus.

      1. I once lived in a place called Yewdale Park – no yews but plenty of European aspens – poplars, aka Populus Tremula.

      2. That is beautiful! I love poetic metaphors and particularly the discussions they would provoke in class; One of my favourites was (is) Blake’s ‘The Tyger.’ I remember (vaguely, through the mists of time), a very lively discussion as to what exactly the tyger represented… ahhh, them were the days….

        1. Hi, Jo — I’m glad you liked it! Thanks.

          Yes, as Peter Ackroyd says in his biography of Blake:

          Few poems have been scrutinised so closely or so frequently, but the critics have produced such a bewildering confusion of explanations that the tiger might just as well be grinning at them.

            1. Hi, Ron — I’m not a Blake aficionado and am not familiar with much of his work. I’lll check out your recommendation. Thanks!

              1. Ahhh, very nice. I’ll see your ‘To Autumn’ and raise you ‘Binsley Poplars’ (Gerald Manley Hopkins). That seems fitting, based on your earlier mention of poplars. I personally love Hopkins although I’m not sure that he receives the recognition that he should. He wrote: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession”(This makes me like him more! He’s a scoundrel!)
                (Thank you Deborah, for letting me temporarily hijack the discussion; Poetry and coffee is a lovely Saturday morning combination)

                1. Hi, Jo — not ‘hijacking’ at all! Your comments are always interesting and welcome. Thanks.

                2. Hi Jo,

                  On the whole I’m not a great fan of poetry (which is why I have such trouble writing it on my blog – it’s extremely sporadic), and Hopkins I mostly find irritating – still, I’ll check that out.

                  To Autumn appeals because it’s short, and to the point. And because Autumn is my favourite season. A lot of people find Autumn depressing (the death of summer), whereas I tend to view it more as Nature banking its fires for next Spring – a time of potential renewal rather than of ending.

                  1. Yes, Ron I do agree with you that Hopkins is an acquired…ermmm..cottage cheese or lamb’s fry. I remember a lot of R-rated muttering in my literature class, when we had to write papers on his work.

                    I wasn’t familiar with ‘To Autumn’ and I looked it up after reading your post. I agree, it is lovely and really evokes the lushness and beauty of autumn. Like you, I love the autumn too: particularly the delicate pitter patter of size 13 feet going out the door to return to school after summer hols. 🙂

              2. Ah, well, here’s a nugget of useless information. Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun inspired the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series, Red Dragon – filmed as Manhunter – some years before Silence of the Lambs rather unfairly overshadowed it.

  2. Mixed metaphors

    I have always thought of the term ‘mixed metaphor’ as a pejorative description. However, I’ve just found this interesting observation in A Dictionary of Literary Terms by Martin Gray. He points out that mixed metaphors can work:

    Hamlet’s comments on flattery are an example (of a mixed metaphor):

    No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp
    And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
    Where thrift may follow fawning.

    The ‘hinges’ of the knee are ‘pregnant’ because flattery successfully gains advancement: Shakespeare (or Hamlet) may be said to be in control of his mixed metaphor.

    Gray goes on to say:

    The term is more commonly used in a pejorative way to point out a muddle caused by clashing dead metaphors or clichés so as to create a ridiculous combination.

    Here are some funny mixed metaphors that succeed in creating a ‘ridiculous combination’:

    Lucy, you’re a cool drink of water to road-weary eyes. (Apparently a line from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks)

    Let’s burn that bridge when we come to it.

    He’s bitten off more of the bed than he can lie on.

    Dirty laundry is coming home to roost. (Attributed to the actor, Ray Romano)

    1. The following example is from Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner quotes a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament (1790):

      Mr Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.

  3. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Ahmadinejad wields axe to cement his position” – news headline on Tuesday. After which the Iranian President presumably felled a tree with a trowel. Well, knock me down with a linchpin!


    Mangled metaphor: My old friend Alan Hendry writes in to draw attention to this, from a story last Saturday about the British launch of the US clothes shop chain Forever 21: “The store has thrived by offering trend-led pieces, but has flown close to the wind.” The expression is “sail close to the wind”. Sailing ships can make headway against the wind, but you must not try to steer too directly upwind. If you do you run the risk of being taken aback. (After which you might need to batten down the hatches. It is scarcely possible to open your mouth in English without uttering a maritime metaphor).

    At the back of the writer’s mind there might possibly have been the image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, a different metaphor that means more or less the same thing.

    1. Hi, Michael — thanks. Yes, I love Keleny — I think he should be promoted to the status of national treasure.

      1. Oh, I meant to add this tidbit yesterday: The New Yorker mag often has a single, tiny entry called “Block that Metaphor” with similar gaffes (from US footy fans’ cry of “Block that kick!”).

        1. Thanks, Michael — the interesting underlying point here is the ubiquity of metaphors, and how often they are used in writing and speech of all kinds — with varying degrees of effectiveness. And it’s very difficult to come up with an original metaphor — but we mix up existing ones all the time.

  4. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: A leading article on Wednesday, commenting on the Chilcot inquiry, spoke of Tony Blair’s “supine stance before a US president intent on invasion”. A stance is a place to stand, or a manner of standing. “Supine” means lying on your back. Even for Mr Blair, a supine stance would be too much of a contortion.

    1. For a real dig, how about “Tony Blair’s lying supine before…”?

      As an aside, everybody mixes up supine and prostrate. (Moreover, when you prostrate yourself, you don’t even have to be lying down.)

  5. Lying as in telling falsehoods? I couldn’t possibly comment.

    Prostrate is an interesting word, meaning ‘lying face downwards in an attitude of abject submission’, or to be ‘distraught with illness, grief or exhaustion’, according to the Chambers dictionary.

    Thanks, Michael.

  6. Declaring war on tired military metaphors. Read the full Guardian article.

    All too often debates on complex, nuanced ideological differences and campaigns for votes in a multi-candidate democratic contest are summarily reduced to a straight fight to the death between two sworn enemies with the overuse of phrases such as the declaration of “war”, the launch of “battles”, “fights”, “offensives” or “rearguard actions”, and a fire of “warning shots” or “opening salvoes”.

    While some uses can be justified as examples of what Fowler called “live” metaphors – when the terms are readily accepted substitutes for their literal equivalents – on many occasions, not only in political reporting, overuse is the killer. In the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler defines a “dead” metaphor as one that, when deployed, leaves the readers or listeners unaware that they should not take the words literally. The “essential merit” of a real or live metaphor, he says, is to “add vividness to what is to be conveyed”.

  7. Guy Keleny, in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Libya’s bloody crackdown on the opposition protesters [has] pushed tensions in the North African country to boiling point.”

    This news report on Monday prompted Hugh Minor to write from Cardiff. He points out that boiling point has nothing to do with tension, and that tension occurs when you pull something from both ends; when you push it, you get compression. One thing is for sure – the author of the above sentence could never have designed a steam engine that worked.

    1. Hmmm. I think Americans would always use “the” before “boiling point.”

      My late-night edit: “… has left the country dangerously tense.”

  8. Hi, Michael — that’s interesting. I can’t, at the moment, think of any case where we would say, for example, ‘reached the boiling point’. And certainly not in the above example.

    Your late-night edit is a big improvement!

  9. Guy Keleny, in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Greens stoke backlash against Merkel’s nuclear power extension.” That headline appeared over a news story on Monday. It is difficult to form a picture in the mind of somebody stoking a backlash. And, worse, any attempt to do so is likely to start with shovels full of coal – not a suitable image to bring to a story about nuclear power.

    You could mount an ingenious defence of this metaphor on the grounds that one of the dictionary definitions of “backlash” is a jarring or backward motion of ill-fitting mechanical components. If a backlash occurred in the mechanism of a steam engine, it could be said to have been stoked – sort of. But I bet neither the writer nor the readers of that headline had any such idea in mind.

    1. How about “Greens lash back at …”? Or “Greens stoke opposition to …”? And why does everyone feel the need always to write so colorfully or in metaphors? What’s wrong with just getting the idea across clearly?

      1. Aaah — the devilish art of the headline writer. I actually disagree with Guy’s analysis (much as I want to marry him). One meaning of ‘stoke’, as explained in the Oxford Dictionary of English is ‘to encourage or incite’. So, I’d say you can encourage or incite a backlash. I know what you mean, though, about using ridiculous metaphors when plain language would do the job so much better. Thanks, Michael.

  10. More on metaphors from Guy Keleny:

    Metaphor mash (1): “Breakthrough paves way for early-warning diabetes test,” said a news headline on Monday. It is a bit of a come-down from a triumphant army breaking the enemy front to a couple of blokes paving a patio.

    Metaphor mash (2): “Telescope sales are rocketing because of Brian Cox’s hit TV shows” – blurb introducing a news report on Saturday. And are rocket sales telescoping?

  11. More from The Independent‘s Guy Keleny (don’t shoot the messenger):

    “Anyone with a heart is going to side with, say, hungry African children rather than Barclays’ well-paid traders – or the billionaires at Glencore, also in the firing line in recent days.”

    We have here one of those over-familiar usages that people get wrong because they don’t know its original meaning. A firing line is found on a rifle range. It is the line where the shooters line up to fire. Someone who is in a position to be hit by gunfire – the metaphorical plight of the Glencore people – is not in the firing line but in the line of fire.

  12. More on mixed metaphors from Guy Keleny:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Libyan revolutionary forces stormed through the streets of Sirte yesterday, tightening their noose on this last bastion of support for the fallen former leader, Muammar Gaddafi.” That is from a news story published on Wednesday.

    A noose is a looped rope. A bastion is a feature of a classical Vauban-style fortification; it sticks out from the curtain wall so that its guns command the ditch. It would be possible to tighten a noose around a bastion, but nothing would be achieved by doing so.

  13. From The Independent‘s John Rentoul:

    “Put the statuette in the negligible niche, Doris.”

    Metaphor watch: Niche is a pretty silly word. People are always carving niches for themselves, sometime unique ones, when no one has carved a recess in a wall since people lived in caves. Now it simply means a product, service or genre for which the market is tiny. Thus our review of the latest Danish television drama series, Borgen, on Monday, expressed the hope that the series would “turn out to be a negligibly niche affair”, because that would save time otherwise spent watching it. “Put the statuette in the negligible niche, Doris.” No: the metaphor fails.

  14. More from The Independent‘s Guy Keleny:

    The hockey stick that became a smoking gun

    May we hope that the irritating “iconic” is at its apogee, and will soon decline?

    Peter Jefferson Smith has written in to draw attention to a piece published last Saturday about the long campaign waged by climate change contrarians to discredit the “hockey stick” graph of global temperatures. The article said at one point that the hockey stick had “become the iconic smoking gun for both sides of the debate”.

    An icon is an object of veneration, or just an easily recognisable image; a smoking gun is incontrovertible proof that a crime has been committed. I don’t think the hockey stick is much like either of them.

    While we are poking about in the property basket of dusty old metaphors, may I suggest that perhaps the hockey stick that became a smoking gun is not so much an icon as a shibboleth (a sign that shows which side you are on), or even an oriflamme (a sacred banner held aloft in battle)? You don’t hear too much about either of them these days.

  15. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    “But the banks’ swelling coffers are throwing a wrench in efforts to get the economy back on track.”

    Three metaphors mixed into one sentence are probably two too many. (Also, make it “throwing … into efforts.”)

  16. More from The Independent‘s Guy Keleny:

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Here, surely, was a story that exposed the vacuity of the Prime Minister’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’. It should have provided the Tories with an open goal. But where was Theresa May, the shadow Education Secretary? Opportunities for oppositions to score easy runs are rare. This was an excellent chance passed up by Mrs May.”

    Presumably the poor woman was too busy tearing off her football boots and grabbing her bat and pads.

    Pouring oil on troubled waters is one of the most popular demonstration displays at the Museum of Ancient Metaphoric Curiosities, almost as popular with the kiddies as the daily demonstrations of battening down the hatches and changing horses in mid-stream.

    A visit to the museum might be profitable for the writer of this sentence, from a comment piece published on Tuesday, speaking of Alistair Darling’s memoirs and the damage they have done to Gordon Brown’s reputation: “I suspect he is alert to the damage. He looked nervous in his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. At one point he said: ‘If Gordon is watching this …’ The image of Brown watching his old friend pour oil on the wreckage of his reputation is enough to make anyone nervous.”

    Apparently, you can reduce the turbulence of water by pouring a film of oil on to the surface. It sounds unlikely to me, and why would anyone want to do it? But there you are; that is what the metaphor is all about. Pouring oil is meant to calm things down. What Alistair Darling is doing to Gordon Brown’s reputation sounds more like pouring petrol on a fire. (Unfortunately, health and safety regulations have forced the museum authorities to suspend that once popular display.)

    Mixed metaphor of the week: “Far-right vacuum could trigger ‘lone-wolf’ attacks” – news headline last Saturday. How is it possible for a vacuum to trigger an attack by a lone wolf? My family discussed the problem. One idea was that you could use a vacuum-actuated piston to withdraw the bolt of a cage, releasing the wolf to carry out its attack. An even more diabolically ingenious suggestion came from one of my sons: you rig up the piston to squeeze the trigger of a rifle that shoots dead the wolf’s brother; the wolf thus becomes a lone wolf and at the same time conceives a grudge which motivates it to attack. That just about covers everything.

    Much less fun than these Heath Robinson fantasies was the actual message the headline was trying to convey: that the recent disarray on the far right in Britain may have increased the danger of terrorist attacks by fascist loners.

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