Metaphors and Similes

Metaphors and similes are perhaps the most common forms of figurative language. A simile is, roughly, an explicit figurative comparison. A word such as “like” or “as” makes the comparison explicit, and the comparison is figurative because it would be inappropriate if taken literally. To say that the home team fought like tigers does not mean that they clawed the opposing team and took large bites out of them. To call someone as dumb as a post is not to claim that they have no brain at all.

With a metaphor, we also compare certain items, but without words such as “like” or “as.” Metaphorical comparisons are still figurative because the vocabulary, at a literal level, is not appropriate to the subject matter. George Washington was not literally the father of his country. Taken literally, it hardly makes sense to speak of someone fathering a country. But the metaphor is so natural (or so familiar) that it does not cross our minds to treat the remark literally, asking, perhaps, who the mother was.

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Taken literally, metaphors are usually obviously false, and then they violate Grice’s rule of Quality. Again, as with irony, when someone says something obviously false, we have to decide what to make of that person’s utterance. Perhaps the person is very stupid or a very bad liar, but often neither suggestion is plausible. In such a situation, sometimes the best sup- position is that the person is speaking metaphorically rather than literally.

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