You’ll find examples of metaphors all around you, including in poems, songs, movies, and even everyday speech. Some metaphors can evoke powerful imagery. If you told someone that you were going through a “rollercoaster of emotions,” or that the free gift with purchase was the “icing on the cake” that day, they'd instantly understand what you were feeling.
Metaphors are a useful descriptive tool, but when the metaphorical meaning of a phrase has overcome the original image, it is said to have become a dead metaphor. Looking at some key examples of dead metaphors can help to better illustrate this point. “Illustrate” is used as a metaphor here too!
What Is a Dead Metaphor?
Like similes and analogies, a metaphor is a figure of speech used for rhetorical effect. A word or a phrase takes on an implied meaning that is not literally true or applicable. If you say that you have cold feet, you are not literally saying that your feet are cold. You’re implying that you are nervous or apprehensive about something.
When a metaphor has been used repetitively, especially over an extended period of time, it can lose its connection to the original imagery that it was meant to evoke. This is a dead metaphor. The word or phrase is now so commonly used that its metaphorical meaning can be fully understood without knowing the earlier connotation. Dead metaphors are also known as frozen metaphors and historical metaphors.
Dead Metaphor Examples
To get a better grasp on this figure of speech, take a look at these examples of dead metaphors. You might not have even realized they were originally metaphors at all!
- Body of an essay: Here the structure of an essay is compared to that of human anatomy, and so the “body” of an essay is the main part of the essay. Most people don’t think of the human form when talking about the body of an essay.
- Leg of a trip: While this might sound like it relates back to the human body too, the original term is derived from the context of sailing. Each “leg” was a run made by a ship on a single tack. Now legs of a trip are more commonly applied to flights and other parts of a journey.
- Hands of a clock: The human anatomy returns for this metaphor. The “face” of the clock has a pair of “hands” to show the time, but most people don’t imagine the actual visage of a human being in this context any more.
- Time is running out: When you say that time is running out, it means that you almost don’t have enough time to do the thing you need to do. The original metaphor referred to the sand in an hourglass, so time (as measured by the sand) would literally run out of the top bulb into the bottom.
- Deadline: While everyone understands this to mean when something is due, a deadline originally referred to the line around the perimeter of a prison wherein a prisoner would be shot if they went beyond it.
- Brand new: The dead metaphor originated from a brand or firebrand, a piece of wood taken fresh from the fire.
- Go belly up: A business that has gone belly up has failed and closed for good. The term derives from what happens when a fish dies, turning belly up and floating to the top.
- Foot of the bed: The human body is used for many metaphors and this is just another example. The lowest point of something is often referred to as the foot.
- Groundbreaking: While a shovel digging into the earth is literally breaking the ground, the dead metaphor is also used in a figurative sense, even if the imagery of digging into soil is no longer pictured.
- World wide web: The connotation of this term is derived from that of a spider’s web, but the term has been so overused that “the web” is easily understood as relating to the internet and not the arachnid.
- Tough: Fabrics and meats can be literally tough, but something that is difficult to do (an abstract idea) can also be described as tough.
- A laughing stock: This relates to the stocks of old in which people would be locked up for the purpose of torture or punishment. These stocks are where the ankles and wrists would be trapped in small holes between two boards. This archaic form of punishment isn’t used anymore and, consequently, the connection has faded.
Historical Metaphors and Everyday Idioms
Part of the reason why dead metaphors are also known as historical metaphors is that their imagery is often based on historical context. Over time, these can evolve into everyday idioms with little connection to the original visual they were meant to conjure up.
- Batten down the hatches: Originally a nautical term meant to secure a ship’s hatches in preparation for a storm, the modern idiom is more about preparing for an upcoming crisis or challenge.
- Can’t hold a candle: Today, if you say that you can’t hold a candle to someone, you’re saying that you are vastly inferior to that person in terms of skill or talent. The original metaphor referred to apprentices who used to hold candles up for their masters to see what they were working on. If you’re not even good enough to hold up the candle, you are nowhere near in the same league.
- Nip it in the bud: To nip something in the bud is to stop or suppress it at a very early stage. The metaphor references snipping a flower bud before it has the opportunity to bloom.
- Flying off the handle: If someone is flying off the handle, it means they have lost their sense of self-control, like an axe blade head flung off its handle.
- Green with envy: This term was originally derived from “green-eyed monster,” an expression created by Shakespeare. Most people are unaware of the connection to the Bard.
- In the same boat: If you are in the same boat as someone, it means you are facing a similar set of circumstances or undergoing the same challenging situation. The metaphor refers to literally being in the same boat with someone because you can’t get off the boat and you’ll face the same fate as the other person.
- Curb your spending: This common idiom means to check or restrain spending. It’s derived from the strap, called a curb, that passes under the lower jaw of a horse and works with the bit to restrain the horse.
- Champing at the bit: Sometimes written incorrectly as “chomping” at the bit, this idiom refers to the “bit” that goes in a horse’s mouth for horse racing. An unsettled, impatient or anxious horse may chew on the bit before a race, though few people would picture a gnawing horse when using this expression.
A Common Understanding
The English language continues to evolve and change over time. What may have been beautifully figurative language, like implied metaphors, at one point or another can enter everyday language to the point where the original imagery is forgotten. That is the fate of any metaphor that is overused, but even dead metaphors can still be an expressive way to add depth and color to your body of work.
Can you think of any other dead metaphors? Share them in the comments below.