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Literature Glossary

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Anyone who's ever sat in an English classroom knows that metaphors are everywhere, and all-important. Where would literary history be without lines like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons"? Or the declaration that "all the world's a stage"? Or the rhetorical conundrum of "Who in the rainbow can show the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins?"

Metaphor, it's safe to say, is the bread and butter of literature. But, um, have you ever really thought about what a metaphor is? And, more importantly, how metaphors work?

A metaphor is a kind of word magic that—presto change-o, alakazam—changes black hats into rabbits and scarves into doves. With a wave of the wand, metaphors compare two different things; metaphors describe one object as another. It's almost as if the object becomes what it is being compared to, at least, in a figurative way.

"You're a toad!" is a metaphor—although not a very nice one. So is "you're a star!" and that one's a little kinder. Metaphors are different from similes because metaphors leave out the words "like" or "as." For example, a simile would be, "You're like a toad" or "You're like a star." (Although, technically speaking, similes are a type of metaphor.)

Pop music gives us lots of easy examples. Like, "I am the Walrus" or "she's buying a stairway to heaven." Uh, last time we checked, there was no stairway going up to the sky, and even if there were, it certainly wouldn't be for sale. We hope. So that one has to be a metaphor, right? (In fact it is, and a rather complex one at that.)

A metaphor has two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the subject of the metaphor. That is, what you're trying to describe as something else. The vehicle is what you use to transform the subject into something else. Again, that cool presto change-o trick.

I'm king of the world!

The tenor is "I" (Leonardo DiCaprio)
The vehicle is "king"

See? Metaphors really open up the meaning of a phrase. They give us a new and exciting and creative way to say or see something. (That's why authors like them so much, we think.)

Because they are a kind of figurative language, there are a ton of different kinds of metaphors. 

Technically speaking, similes are metaphors, too, they just use "like" or "as." Personification is a kind of metaphor that compares something to people. And then there are the fancypants metaphors like metonymy and synecdoche. Memorizing your metaphors can go a long way in opening up literature for you, so get crackin', Shmoopers.

And in the meantime, remember our favorite metaphor of all:

Love is a battlefield.