elephant in the room

Similes and Metaphors

What’s the Difference?

From Word Genius

What’s the Difference Between Similes and Metaphors?

Similes and metaphors are two of the most widely used literary devices in English. Both are ways of comparing words and ideas, though there are subtle differences, and each are appropriate in different situations. Understanding the distinctions can help improve your reading, writing, and overall communications skills. 

What Is a Simile?

A simile is a figure of speech used to compare one thing to something of a different kind. Usually, the comparison makes the depiction more expressive or vivid. For example, if your neighbor is “as busy as a bee,” it means she’s incredibly active, like honey bees buzzing around a hive.

While a simile compares two things, this isn’t a direct comparison. Instead, similes will use the words “like” or “as” to draw a relation between the two things. The term “simile” is a Latin word that dates back to the 14th century and means “a like thing, a comparison, likeness, parallel.”

What Is a Metaphor?

Metaphors are also figures of speech that compare two different things, but this time, the connection is direct. The rhetorical effect is to draw hidden parallels between the two items. For example, the phrase, “His heart was made of gold,” doesn’t refer to a literal heart of metal. Instead, the idea draws a connection between the human heart and the priceless nature of gold. In other words — this person is an amazing guy.

The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek metaphora, which means “a transfer.” In a metaphor, one word transfers meaning to another in a figurative sense.

Spotting the Difference

It’s easy to see the difference between similes and metaphors. Remember, similes use the word “as” or “like” to make comparisons, while metaphors directly state the connection between the two things. Here are some examples of famous similes:

Mad as a hatter:
This 17th-century phrase originated when real-life hat makers began to suffer from mental illness due to the chemicals used in hat production.

Hungry like the wolf: 
The lyrics to this 1982 song by Duran Duran were inspiredby the well-known folk tale Little Red Riding Hood.

My love is like a red, red rose: 
A Red, Red Rose,” a 1794 poem by Robert Burns, is memorable for the simile in the opening line comparing the speaker’s beloved to a beautiful flower.

Sleep like a log: 
Dating back to the 1600s, this phrase may have something to do with the sound of logs being sawed, which, unfortunately for a snorer’s bedmate, is a lot like snoring. 

Clear as mud: 
Something confusing is “as clear as mud,” an expression that appears in writings as early as the 1840s.

And here are some examples of well-known metaphors. See if you can spot the difference:

I am the good shepherd: 
Straight from the Gospels, Jesus compared himself to a shepherd who tends his flock and gladly sacrifices his life for them.

All the world’s a stage: 
William Shakespeare penned this famous metaphor in As You Like It, comparing the whole world to a play with actors representing all of humanity.

Baby, you’re a firework:
The lyrics to this 2010 song by Katy Perry are all about showing off all your beautiful and vibrant qualities.

The lawyer is a shark: 
People have been using the word “shark” to describe especially ruthless folks since the 1600s. Lawyers are just one of the most frequently maligned-by-metaphor professions.


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