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Rhetorical techniques: using metaphors, similes & analogies

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Metaphors, similes and analogies are all figures of speech which say that something is like another, different thing. They are a fantastic way to explain something in a way that is simple to understand and a great way to make your language vivid, colorful and entertaining. One of the reasons they are so powerful is that they can conjure up mental images, which stimulate the right side of the brain, and therefore make the point more memorable.

Let's imagine you wanted to make the point that someone wasn't doing a very good job at something. You could just say exactly that: "A isn't very good at doing B". But these are just words, and easily forgotten. But if you said, "Watching A do B is like watching Edward Scissorhands try to make balloon animals," it's a different thing altogether. Now your mind instantly creates an image of Edward Scissorhands and imagines the chaos that would ensue with the balloons. It's impactful, it's colorful, it's memorable. This is exactly what political journalist Simon Hoggart said about 1980s UK Prime Minister John Major's efforts at running the country 25 years ago and it's still remembered!

Likewise, politician Dennis Healy's line, "Being attacked by Sir Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep" makes the point abut his mild mannered opponent far more powerfully than the words, "I'm not afraid of Sir Geoffrey Howe".

Similes

A simile states an explicit comparison by using the words like, as or than. We all use instantly recognizable similes everyday, such as:

  • blind as a bat
  • as fast as the wind
  • smoked like a chimney
  • went like a dream
  • like a bat out of hell
  • as cold as ice
  • fight like cat and dog
  • light as a feather
  • busy as a bee

But we can deliberately use similes to make a specific point, as Simon Hoggart and Dennis Healy did in the examples already given.

  • "She looked like she'd been poured into her clothes and forgotten to say 'when' ..." - PG Wodehouse
  • "It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working like a dog" - The Beatles
  • "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake" - Raymond Chandler
  • "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" - Irena Dunn
  • "My love is like a red, red rose" - Robert Burns
  • "Damian McBride . . . clearly disapproved of Gordon (Brown's) decision to appoint me as Chancellor. He used to look at me like the butler who resented the fact that his master had married someone he didn’t approve of" - Alistair Darling (ex- UK Chancellor of the Exchequer)
  • "We're going to go through them (the Germans) like crap through a goose" - General Patton
  • "(General de Gaulle) ... had a face like a llama surprised in the bath" - Winston Churchill
  • "The harpsichord sounds like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof" - Sir Thomas Beecham
  • "I'm as happy as a Frenchman who's just invented a pair of self-removing trousers" - Rowan Atkinson as Black Adder
  • "I'm as poor as a church mouse, that's just had an enormous tax bill on the very day his wife ran off with another mouse, taking all the cheese" - Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder
  • "He's madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of this year's Mr Madman competition" - Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder
  • "I'm thick. I'm as thick as the big print version of the Complete Works of Charles Dickens" - Hugh Laurie, Blackadder

If you want something to make you smile, visit When Similes Go Bad, an article looking at bad/poor/funny examples where the authors didn't quite 'get' how to use similes.

Analogies

BUT ...... sometimes a simile doesn't make a lot of sense without further explanation or could be misinterpreted, as in this exchange from the movie Shrek:

Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
Donkey: They stink?
Shrek: Yes. No!
Donkey: They make you cry?
Shrek: No!
Donkey: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting little white hairs?
Shrek: No! Layers! Onions have layers!

So if it isn't blatantly obvious what is meant, it has to be explained, and then ...... the simile becomes an analogy. So an analogy is an extended simile, or a simile with an explanation tagged on to it. This is a very effective way to explain something complex in simple, familiar terms.

For example, in the TV program House, Hugh Laurie often has to explain complex medical conditions in simple terms non-medical people can understand. For example, if he just said "The liver is like a cruise ship taking in water," he would be using a simile. But it wouldn't make sense to 99% of people. It needs elaboration.

So he turns it into an analogy by adding, "As it starts to sink, it sends out an SOS. Only instead of radio waves, it uses enzymes. The more enzymes in the blood, the worse the liver is. But once the ship has sunk, there's no more SOS. You think the liver's fine, but it's already at the bottom of the sea"

Or take the following. Would Homer's first statement make sense without the explanation?

"Son, a woman is like a beer. They smell good, they look good, you'd step over your own mother just to get one! But you can't stop at one. You wanna drink another woman!" - Homer Simpson

But . . . an analogy doesn't need to use the word 'like'. Take the following from the memoirs of Alistair Darling (ex- UK Chancellor of the Exchequer):

"I spoke to Gordon and told him that we knew where the anonymous (attacks) were coming from. . . He said he was not responsible for it; it was nothing to do with him . . . I was reminded of the words Henry II uttered about Thomas à Becket: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” He didn’t order his knights to go and kill Becket, but they believed they had his blessing to do so."

Metaphors

The first thing to say about metaphors is that they don't use the words like, than or as. So 'my dad is like an angry bear first thing in the morning' is a simile. 'My dad is a bear first thing in the morning' is a metaphor.

Like similes, we also use these all the time in everyday language. Just think of:

  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Pull your socks up
  • Jumping for joy
  • Drowning in paperwork
  • His comments just added fuel to the fire
  • You're playing Russian roulette/with fire
  • He's a clown

If you read Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech, you'll see that it is littered with metaphors:

  • "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity"
  • "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice"
  • "The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges"
  • "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred"

More examples:

"The tumor is Afghanistan, the clot is Buffalo. Does that need more explanation? OK, the tumor is Al-Qaeda. We went in and wiped it out, but it had already sent out a splinter cell--a small team of low-level terrorists quietly living in some suburb of Buffalo, waiting to kill us all" - Hugh Laurie in House.

"The cervical lymph node is a garbage dump. A very small one--just one truck comes, and it only comes from one home. Al Gore would be appalled" - Hugh Laurie (again)

"When it comes to compliments, women are ravenous blood-sucking monsters always wanting more . . . more . . . MORE!" - Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

"I am terribly concerned that we are riding hell for leather into a health-care box canyon full of spending quicksand, cactus tax hikes, policy briar patches, complete with CMS regulatory rattlesnakes, scorpions, and bad-news bears" - Pat Roberts, TV evangelist

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent" - Winston Churchill

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" - William Shakespeare

"The path of my life is strewn with cowpats from the devil's own satanic herd" - Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder

Comparing the Three

Let's say you wanted to make the point that your company was big and bloated, and that the smaller, nimbler competition was able to react much quicker than you.

If you said, "Our company is ..... an aircraft carrier, plodding through the seas and gradually changing direction one degree at a time," you'd be using a metaphor.

If you said, "Our company is ..... like an aircraft carrier, which is so large and ponderous it can only alter its direction one degree at a time," you'd be using a simile.

If you said, "Our company is ..... like an aircraft carrier. They are so huge and unwieldy, that when they want to change direction they can only change 1 degree per minute, which means it takes a full 3 hours to turn one around.  The competition are more like motor torpedo boats from WWII, which could turn on their own axis,” you'd be using an analogy.

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