A metaphor creates an image or feeling by making an interesting comparison between two things that at first appear unrelated, e.g.
1.   My lawyer is a shark.
2.   My nephew Max is a little monkey.
Neither my lawyer nor my nephew are animals, but they obviously share some characteristics with these animals. The word metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherin meaning to ‘transfer’ or ‘carry across’.

Before you do the tasks read sections 1, 2 and 3 so you can learn more about metaphors.

1. How can you work out what a metaphor means?

Part One

A metaphor adds meaning by making a comparison, so you need to work out what kind of comparison is being made. Let’s look at the two examples above.

1. My lawyer is a shark means that Chris shares some characteristics with a shark. It doesn’t mean he has sharp teeth or a big mouth like a shark. Sharks are known to be very aggressive, so we can imagine that Chris is an aggressive lawyer. In this example ‘shark’ is therefore a metaphor to convey the meaning of shark-like aggression.
  Chris aggressive a shark

2. Max is a little monkey. Max has some characteristics of a monkey such as being cheeky, funny and naughty.
  Max cheeky
a monkey

Part Two

Not all metaphors are as easy to work out the meaning of as the two examples above. In some cases you need to look closer at the context in which they are used to help you work out what the metaphor means.

For example:

Jim was caught red-handed while he was trying to hide the pieces of glass he’d broken.
  • He was caught red-handed (You know he was caught or seen doing something)
  • ..while he was trying to hide the pieces of glass he’d broken. (Why was he trying to hide the broken glass? He must have done something wrong).
Jack’s latest essay was not up to scratch, so he only got a C.
  • Jack’s latest essay was not up to scratch (A clue here is the word ‘not’, which implies something negative)
  • .. so he only got a C. (This infers that his work wasn’t very good as he got a C rather than an A or B grade.

2. How can you remember the meanings of metaphors?

Many metaphors have a rich history and they often developed in particular historical contexts. If you do some research on the Internet to find out how a metaphor originated, the story will help you to remember it. Let’s look at the previous two metaphors.
  1. Jim was caught red-handed while he was trying to hide the pieces of glass he’d broken.
‘catch red-handed’ means to catch someone in the middle of committing a crime or doing something wrong.

Story - A few hundred years ago, stealing, especially other people’s animals, was very common.
However, it was extremely hard to prove unless the thief was caught with the dead animal and with its blood on the thief’s hands.
  1. Jack’s latest essay was not up to scratch, so he only a C.
‘not up to scratch’ means not of an adequate standard.

Story - In past times when boxing matches were held the referee would scratch a line between the two fighters. During the match when a boxer was knocked down, if he couldn’t get up and walk to the scratch within a certain time he would lose the match and people would say ‘he was not up to scratch’

3. Why do people use metaphors in university settings?

Lecturers use metaphors not only to express notions important to their disciplines (for example, ‘floating exchange rates’ and ‘trickle down effects’ in Economics) but to encourage critical or creative thinking (for example, ‘think outside the box’). In tutorials, metaphors are likely to be used when talking about topics such as organising one’s schedule (e.g. ‘cramming’ and ‘struggling to keep up’), planning an assignment (e.g. ‘sticking to the upper limit’), completing assignments (‘meeting a deadline’) or handing in work (e.g. ‘turn in’). (Littlemore et al, 2012)


Task One

What do the following metaphors mean? Choose the most suitable answer from the drop down box. Remember to look at the context to help you work out the meaning.

Task Two

Here are some more examples. Look at the context to help you decide what each of the metaphors means and type the meaning into the column on the right.

Metaphorical expressions Meaning
Chris is over the moon about her new job, she can’t wait to start.
Jill is such a chicken. I don’t know why she will never go and see a horror movie with me.
Pat is so green sometimes. She always believes everything Rob says.
Joey often seems out of her mind, don’t you think? One minute she’s going to do an MA, then the next she’s going to work for her dad.
Sally gets under people’s skin at work a lot and that’s why only a few people ask her to join them for lunch.

Task Three

Read the stories below about the origins of six different metaphors and then drag each metaphor next to its story.

Task Four

Now you know the origins of these six metaphors, see if you can write them into the correct sentences below.

Task Five

Match each metaphor with its meaning by dragging it to the correct definition.

Task Six

Read the two paragraphs below on ways to save money while travelling. Look at the context to help you work out what the metaphors highlighted in bold mean. Write your answers in the table below.

Scrimp, save and stretch your budget
Reprinted with permission from the Lonely Plant 09-May-2012

Pedal power

A life on the road, the wind in your hair: we’re not talking expensive, carbon-unfriendly *convertibles, but the glorious pushbike. Pedalling yourself, you can explore the countryside as a free spirit, with minimum environmental impact. Do it on a shoestring and stay at camps or hostels, or sign up for a group ride, where the camaraderie comes free and you also get mechanical and organisational help. A self-guided tour is a way to go alone without having to organise a thing, or you can meet kindred spirits through online cycling hospitality groups – whose members offer each other beds for the night (basically couch-surfing).

* Cars that have a rooftop that can be folded down or removed.

Metaphors Meaning
Stretch your budget
On a shoestring
Kindred spirits

Get more bang for your buck

Depending on where you’re coming from, your money will probably last longest in Asia, in what happens to be among the most exciting continents to explore – try Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos or India. Keep your eye on exchange rates and plump for countries that are more affordable at the time of travel. Whichever destination(s) you end up deciding upon, you can clamp down on costs by avoiding big cities and sticking to smaller places, where there are also fewer opportunities to blow your cash.

Metaphors Meaning
Get more bang for your buck
Keep your eye on
Clamp down on
Stick to
Blow your cash

Copyright© 2012-2013 UGC ICOSA Project, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.