A metaphor, most simply, is the device of using one thing to describe another. Which on the surface is simple enough, but it becomes infinitely more complex as you consider the infinite amount of things that exist and the infinite comparisons that can therefore be made. It’s having all the stars in the sky and the ability to draw a line between any two of them…for example. And what’s so amazing is that, with a splash of creativity, you really can draw a line between just about any two things. A storm can be an orchestra, a cup of tea the brown of a fly’s eye. In fact, I would argue the further apart two things are the better the metaphor they create. It becomes more engaging, more absurd yet understandable, and in that understanding, more wondrous. Whereas two things that are already similar barely deserve the title of metaphor. Comparing a cup of tea to a cup of coffee is a weak line to draw, and worse it doesn’t define or describe the object in a way that heightens it above just saying I was drinking a cup of tea.
My own history with metaphors is a short and simple thing. Prior to getting into writing I wasn’t too bothered with what constituted a metaphor or how it was defined. Then after I began writing I wasn’t much better, with some lingering confusion between a metaphor and a simile that I was too embarrassed to admit. The difference isn’t major, but it’s there, like an eye floater passing across your vision and impossible to ignore. And therein lies the difference, that example just there. I used the word like; a clear sign of a simile. A simile suggests a comparison, using the words like or as to buffer it and create some difference. A metaphor on the other hand isn’t so polite. It grabs the two disparate objects and forces them together while yelling These two things are the same! at least abstractly, and primarily at the point of comparison. E.g. The difference between metaphors and similes was an eye floater squatting in the corner of their vision; small but impossible to ignore.
Metaphors also contain within its category many other specialised types you may be familiar with; from allegories to hyperbole, parables to puns. It can take the form of an entire story, or a bad one liner from your dad that makes your whole family groan. Again, this rather simplistic idea that comes across as small with easy to understand boundaries is instead a piece of rubber, able to morph and stretch to fit multiple moulds. Metaphors are anything but simple.
Given this complexity and prevalence in our language and literature, a good question to ask would be why do we use metaphors? To answer that let’s first ask why we make comparisons? Namely, as a survival tool. Comparisons, at their core, are a form of pattern recognition. If you can compare two objects and find a similarity, however spurious, then you’re on your way to finding a pattern; and our human brains love a good pattern. Because recognising patterns have regularly kept us alive. This can happen in a positive way–recognising the plant/s that has the tasty root vegetables hidden underneath–or a negative way–recognising the plant/s that poisoned our brother last winter. Extrapolating from there to describe a person as that toxic vegetable in order to warn others to stay away from them uses that pattern recognition as an easy way to get the message across without having to detail all the ways a person is toxic. And what’s really interesting about metaphors is that the brain can respond to them literally, while consciously understanding them as the descriptor they are. A team of researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex–responsible for perceiving texture through touch–became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. Even common phrases that are used so regularly that the metaphor goes all but unheard, such as “I had a rough day”, causes this effect.
Of course, it’s not for survival that metaphors are used in today’s writing or speech. It’s for something larger and more speculative.
My theory? It helps reign in the infinite.
The universe and all it contains is so impossibly big, so impossibly complex; but making metaphors and drawing lines between the infinite helps make it all seem connected. Simpler. Smaller and easier to understand. It is more complex than the ram in our heads is able to process, so, lacking an upgrade, we need a way to organise and minimise all that data. Parcel it up, squish it together, so that it becomes digestible and file-able; even if only from a distance.
Metaphors are one of the ways we do this. Stories are another. They exist primarily as a search for understanding. And while we are unlikely to ever fully reign in the infinite, we can look at a cup of tea and notice it is the same brown as a fly’s eye, or hear a thunderstorm and recognise it has the same cadence as an orchestra.
We can draw a line between two stars and make the infinite that little bit smaller.