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Metaphors and Symbols

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 17 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde




Structure of this paper

1 Metaphor
1.1 Definitions
1.1.1. Dictionaries
1.1.2. Specialists’ definitions
1.1.3. Etymology
1.2 Theories on metaphor
1.2.1. Linguistic interest The rhetorical tradition The “substitution theory” The “interactional theory” Similes
1.2.2. Cognitive interest The contemporary theory of metaphor
1.2.3. Classical vs. contemporary
1.3 Types of metaphor
1.3.1. The “dead” metaphor
1.3.2. The “active” metaphor
1.3.3. The cliché

2 Symbol
2.1 Definitions
2.1.1. Dictionaries
2.1.2. Specialists’ definitions
2.1.3. Etymology
2.2 Types of symbol
2.2.1. Arbitrary conventional symbols
2.2.2. Symbols motivated via analogy or synecdoche Literary symbols



Metaphor and symbol are both central terms in literature. They are inner elements of literary texts (unlike allegories for example) and are considered means of figurative language, as the literal, conventional meaning of the word or thing used as a metaphor or a symbol "is exceeded or negated by a nonliteral meaning" (Doty).

"A metaphor is a statement that means something different, or more, than its literal meaning. A symbol has complex meaning; it has not only literal, but also additional meaning(s) beyond the literal. Sometimes the literal meaning of a symbol is absurd, so that the symbolic meaning over-rides and cancels out the literal meaning" (Doty).

However there are big differences between the two terms. Therefore a systematic distinction between them is required in order to avoid mistaking the one for the other. The main differences are the following two:

First of all "a symbol is used more consistently and widely than a metaphor". Secondly "a metaphor is a statement (even if implied), whereas a symbol need not be a statement" (Doty). Note also that metaphors become "dead" (see paragraph 1.3.1) with repetition, while symbols gain in power and meaning with repetition.

Structure of this paper

This paper firstly treats the issue of metaphor and then proceeds with the discussion of the term symbol. To ensure consistency, the presentation of both terms follows the same structure:

First of all the definition and etymology of each term is given; their principal characteristics are mentioned and explicated. Additionally the related concept of "similes" is defined and compared to metaphors. Due to the fact that the definitions of the term "metaphor" vary depending on the theories they are based on, a supplementary outline of these theories is required.

Subsequently the terms are classified into categories in order to allow a more detailed analysis; examples are cited.

The paper ends with a comparison of the two concepts.[1]

1 Metaphor

1.1 Definitions

1.1.1 Dictionaries

The definitions of metaphor given in dictionaries and by specialists do not have much in common at first glance. Loosely speaking, common definitions in dictionaries represent what laymen think of metaphors. Some examples:

The OALD defines metaphor in the following way:

"(example of) the use of words to indicate something different from the literal meaning, as in "I'll make him eat his words" or "He has a heart of stone”.

The COD speaks of

"1a the application of a name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable (e.g. a glaring error) b an instance of this.

2 (often foll. by of or for) a symbol of a usu. abstract thing (the lark was a metaphor for release)"

The OED describes metaphor in the following way:

“The figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression.” (Witting)

To some extent though, every attempt to define a metaphor goes back to Aristotle. His theory on metaphor, the basic aspects of which will be discussed below, has become classical and is the basis for theories that followed. Even contemporary theories which differ considerably from the classical theories are geared to Aristotle's model, even if in a critical way.

1.1.2 Specialists’ definitions

Before proceeding with the presentation of the main theories on metaphor two definitions will be cited as examples of how linguistic dictionaries define the term. Key words pointing out important concepts and features of metaphor which are mentioned in the following definitions are italicized and will be discussed below .

In her book "Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft", Hadumod Bußmann defines metaphor as following:

Metapher [griech. metapherein >anderswohin tragen<] Metaphern sind sprachliche Bilder die auf einer Ähnlichkeitsbeziehung zwischen zwei Gegenständen bzw. Begriffen beruhen, d.h. aufgrund gleicher oder ähnlicher Bedeutungsmerkmale findet eine Bezeichnungsübertragung statt [...]. Häufig wird Metapher auch als gekürzter Vergleich beschrieben, wobei der Vergleich als solcher jedoch nicht ausgedrückt wird. [...]Neuere Ansätze sehen Metapher nicht als rein semantisches Phänomen an, sondern sehen sie im Zusammenhang mit dem Gebrauch. Im Unterschied zu anderen Ansätzen räumt die Cognitive Grammar der Metapher einen zentralen Stellenwert ein. Unter historischem Aspekt sind Metaphern eine Quelle für lexikalische Neubildungen, wobei die "übertragene" Bedeutung entweder zusätzlich zu der ursprünglichen Bedeutung tritt [...] oder die alte Bedeutung teilweise oder ganz verdrängt[...]. In vielen Fällen werden ursprünglich metaphorische Bezeichnungen nicht mehr als solche verstanden[...].

Dr. Theodor Lewandowski in his "Linguistisches Wörterbuch" defines metaphor as in the following:

Metapher [metaphor, metaphore, metafora] (μεταφορά) Übertragung von Bedeutungen/ Bezeichnungen aufgrund von Ähnlichkeiten der äußeren Gestalt, der Funktion und Verwendung durch impliziten Vergleich bzw. Ineinanderfließen der Vorstellungen [...]; bewußte und beabsichtigte Übertragung aufgrund von Sinnähnlichkeit zu ästhetischen Zwecken [...].Konstitutiv für die Metapher ist das tertium comparationis, Übertragung aufgrund von Ähnlichkeitsbeziehungen zwischen Primär- und Sekundärsignifikat, die ihre Ursachen in Ähnlichkeitsbeziehungen zwischen den Denotaten haben kann. [...] Aus semiotischer Sicht ist die Metapher [...] ein Superikon, das einzelne Bezeichnungen in einen superierten bildhaften Wortzusammenhang versetzt. [...] Durch Metaphorisierung wird der Bedeutungsumfang eines Wortes erweitert und sein expressiver Gehalt verstärkt. [...] Nach Oomen (1973) sind für den Sprecher in der Bedeutung der Metapher sowohl die übertragene, als auch die ursprüngliche Bedeutung gegenwärtig.

1.1.3 Etymology

The etymology of the term "metaphor" goes back to the ancient Greek noun "metaphora" (μεταφορά), which is derived from the verb "metapherein" (μεταφέρειν), originally meaning "to transfer", "to transform", "to take something for something else". In Modern Greek the word "metaphor" means "transport" or "transfer" (Παπανδρεόπουλος).

1.2 Theories on metaphor

Metaphor has always drawn attention, since people started thinking about language. The literature on metaphor not only in linguistics but also in philosophy, psychology, theory of literature and other fields is immense and growing fast, especially since the 1930s (Kurz 7).

It would be fair to divide current interests, very roughly, into two main categories, namely the linguistic and the cognitive.

1.2.1 Linguistic interest

As aforementioned, there is a primarily linguistic interest, focused on certain uses of words that do not seem to be easily accommodated in the current framework of grammatical, particularly semantical, theory. Approaches of this type are based on classical theories (Carlshamre). The rhetorical tradition

In classical theories of language, metaphor was seen as a matter of language, not thought (cp. contemporary theory of metaphor, paragraph It was defined as a strictly poetic linguistic expression where one or more words for a concept are used outside of their normal conventional meaning to express a "similar" concept. Everyday language had no metaphor; it was taken for granted that the actual word of a sentence always has a literal meaning. Metaphor used mechanisms outside the realm of everyday conventional language (Lakoff 202).

Two classical branches, which developed from the rhetorical tradition will be shown below. The “tropes” appear to be of great importance in this tradition. The four basic tropes or, according to Kenneth Burke (503-17) “master tropes” are: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony.

“Trope” comes from the Greek word “tropos” (τρόπος), which means a “turn”, as in “heliotrope”, a flower which turns toward the sun. A trope could be imagined as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else (Encyclopedia Trope).

Thus generally speaking, a trope is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a word or a short expression is used in a way other than what is considered its literal form; Accordingly a metaphor is a word that belongs to another semantical field, substitutes the proper word of the sentence. The canonical form in which a trope is described is something like “X is used instead of Y” (Carlshamre). The “substitution theory”

The rhetorical theories on metaphor go back to Aristotle, who argued that metaphor is the act of giving a thing a name that belongs to something else. According to him a metaphor is a means of poetical, not everyday conventional language. The proper word of a sentence (literal meaning) is being substituted by another one (metaphorical meaning) and between those two words there is a similarity or analogy. This is called the "substitution theory" and it provided a basis for many theories that followed.

An instance of this is the expression "evening of life". Seniority is to life what evening is to day; accordingly the word "evening" can be used instead of "seniority" (Kurz 10).

Moreover Aristotle concentrated only on metaphor itself, not on the context. For him every word has a certain meaning, like a bottle has its label. What happens with a metaphor is that the proper word of a sentence is being replaced by another, which consequentially gains an improper meaning. A metaphor does not provide new information (Kurz 8ff).

Max Black, who followed the substitution theory, assumed that a metaphor is a phrase or expression in which some words are used metaphorically, while the rest of the sentence is non-metaphorically. He refers to the metaphorical part as the "focus", to the rest as the "frame". Accordingly he interprets the substitution theory saying that within a certain frame the focus is being changed in order to express something that could be said literally (Black 56). The “interactional theory”

The “substitutional” view however, introduced by Aristotle has obvious difficulties, and it has few defendants today.

As seen above, according to this view, interpreting a metaphor means to re-substitute the literal expression for the metaphoric (Black, Models). In this respect a metaphor is an erroneous expression; only the interpretation of what is meant but was formulated falsely, would be correct.


[1] Note: this paper is based on German bibliography, translated into English. For this reason linguistic terms (like "interactional theory", see paragraph might not correspond to the English terminology on the field.


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Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz – Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophonie
Metaphors Symbols Hauptseminar Eden Paradise White Whale Marilyn Monroe Cultural Icons American Literature




Titel: Metaphors and Symbols