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What Is a Metaphor
By Joan Whetzel
Metaphors are considered figures of speech that explain ideas and concepts in an abstract rather than literal manner, in order to give them a richer, deeper meaning. It's the ability to fashion a sentence or a turn of phrase that says everything in a few words. According to Aristotle, having an aptitude for metaphors was a "sign of genius" and indicated that the person creating them possessed the wisdom to make connections between two or more familiar or abstract objects, concepts or ideas. A clever metaphor delivers subtle meanings at several levels which are delivered in such a way that the listener picks them up without needing the speaker to explain the entire metaphor and its meanings.
What Is a Metaphor?
A metaphor functions as a rhetorical trope (words used in a non-literal manner), a turn of a phrase or a figure of speech. It intimates a connection between 2 or more objects, concepts or ideas by swapping one object for another, one concept for another, one idea for another. The words "like" or "as" are frequently used in the comparisons to like the qualities shared by the objects, concepts and ideas. Metaphors can be broken into 4 parts - tenor, vehicle, ground and tension.
The Tenor of the Metaphor
The metaphor's tenor relates to the sentence or phrase's subject, the object that is being compared to something else. Examine the following metaphor: "Tying to capture the fugitive was like trying to catch a greased pig on oil." To catch the fugitive" is the tenor of the metaphor.
The Vehicle of the Metaphor
The metaphor's vehicle refers to that part of the metaphor - called an adjectival phrase - that is being compared to the subject. In the above metaphor, "to catch a greased pig on oil" is the vehicle of the metaphor. It explains how slippery the fugitive is, how he keeps getting away, how hard it is for the authorities grab hold of him and hang on to him.
The Ground & Tension of the Metaphor
While the ground shows the similarities between the tenor and vehicle, the tension illustrates the differences between them. Consider the above metaphor again: "Tying to capture the fugitive was like trying to catch a greased pig on oil." This metaphors ground lies in the ability of both the pig and the fugitive to slip away. The tension is that it's a good thing for the pig and the fugitive, but not so good for the people trying to catch them.
Taking one more look at the metaphor, it's quite evident that a fugitive and a greased pig have nothing in common in the literal sense. The metaphor does, however, make it easy to understand how difficult it was for authorities to catch the fugitive. The listeners can easily figure out for themselves that it's difficult enough to catch and hang onto a greased pig, but it's darned near impossible to catch that greased pig when both the pig and the person trying to catch him are sliding around an oily patch of ground. Trying to catch this fugitive is equally difficult because the fugitive, like the greased pig on oil, has managed to keep slipping just out of reach of his potential captors and the potential captors can't get foothold on the fugitive's whereabouts, activities, and modus operandi. They keep slipping up in their efforts to capture the fugitive. The authorities are never going to capture him unless they can get a firm footing on solid ground and can somehow manage to "de-grease the pig."