What’s a Meta For?

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Who doesn’t love a good metaphor or simile? They may not be as fun as a barrel of monkeys and perhaps you find them dull as dishwater. Now because time is money…I’ll move on. (See what I did there?)

We talk about these two language tools all the time with our Story Mode community. But one student asked me a tough question last month: what’s the difference between “metaphor” and “analogy.” I stumbled around a bit and then admitted I wasn’t sure. You can thank Andrea for this blog post.

As individuals, we speak in simile and metaphor all the time. You are already a genius at employing these grammatical workhorses. Try counting just how many times each day a simile pops out of your mouth. My personal best is 42 times in one day.

Before we can dig into metaphor and simile, we have to first talk about Analogy.

Analogies essentially compare one subject to an unrelated subject, one action to an unrelated action. (A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.)

Once you understand this figure of speech, you can see how metaphors and similes fall under the banner of Analogy.

They all do the same thing: compare. I’m going to describe an object or an action so you can get a picture or emotion in your head to better understand my message. Think of Russian nested dolls where each doll fits neatly in the larger one above it.

These literary tactics have slightly different components. Think back to your 7th grade English class when you learned that metaphors and similes are comparisons: one thing is like another, or one thing represents another. No, you don’t get extra points for remembering that similes require “like” or “as” in the sentence. Too easy.

Speaking Greek

It’s always instrumental to learn the etymology of a word, its origins, to truly understand its meaning. In Latin, “meta” means over while “phora” means to carry…hence, carrying over the meaning. In Greek it means something similar.

Shakespeare knew the power of such comparisons and for him, analogies were like breath. You can’t go two minutes without hearing one in a scene. Name any of his plays and the great lines that have entered our daily language will pop in your head. “A rose by any other name…” Throw in the literary form of parables and you’ve got a powerful quartet of literary figurative language.

See them in action

Writersdigest.com has a great example of how these all connect:

Metaphor: Joe is a pig.

Simile: Joe is as dirty as a pig.

Analogy: Joe’s sense of personal hygiene is on the same level as a pig that rolls around in dirt and mud all day.

How do we decide which device to use?

I have nine knives in my kitchen, hanging on a metal bar ready for me to grab and use at any moment. They all do the same thing: they cut food.

And yet, each knife has an individual identity to me and I reach for one over the other in the blink of an eye. Cutting an apple to snack on? I’ll grab the smaller one. Cutting up vegetables for a stir-fry? I’ll grab my Japanese chef’s knife. It feels weighty and light—like an extension of my arm—and I know I can cut quickly with it.

I make these decisions in an instant. I don’t really stand there thinking very long, it’s instinct. I’ve practiced my skills with each knife so I know what they are capable of and I know my skill level with them.

Grammatical comparisons work the same way. You have several devices to choose from and you probably make the decision of what to say or write in as the words enter your head or leave your mouth.

The English language is nothing if not redundant.  There are many ways to say just about everything. And when you really want to make your point or persuade an audience, painting that picture is everything.

Test Your Knowledge

Raise your hand if you’re a Broadway Nerd? I can’t live without a good musical number, so here are some great examples of analogies, metaphors, similes, and parables in lyrics. If you’ve got some recent favs, tell me in the comments.

Try your hand at identifying what’s what with the quiz below.

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