Who’s in the room? Metaphors I teach by

My daughter opened her bedroom door this morning, and with it a world of opportunities. She’d snatched at the handle before but never quite managed to turn it. Happy and fearful in equal measure at her achievement, she turned to me and reached for my hand before taking a step out into the dark hallway, like the world’s cutest bunny about to set foot on the first sheet of white snow of the winter.

So, a doorway into a world of opportunities. “A metaphor. Things are looking up” to borrow words (and another metaphor) from Spooner in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I read No Man’s Land at secondary school (and loved it, not least for the brilliant swearing) but didn’t begin to understand it until much more recently. I also learned about metaphors at secondary school, and have also only recently begun to give them more thought.

At school I learned the difference between a metaphor and a simile. A metaphor is when you say that X is Y; a simile is when you say that X is like Y. My daughter opening up a world of opportunities is a metaphor, but when I compare her to a cautious yet excited rabbit, I’m using simile. This distinction is useful if we want to point out the shortcomings of others, since nothing could make us feel more intelligent than smugly telling a friend or colleague “that’s not a metaphor — it’s a simile”. If we want to try to be even smarter, though, linguistic analysis provides a further distinction between a metaphor and a metonym. A common example of a metonym would be when Wall Street is used to refer to US financial markets (a place representing what goes on within it) or when we are told potentially bizarre pieces of information like “I’m parked in the multi-storey”. Rather than respond with “No, you’re not, you’re sitting here in Café Rouge with me” we understand that the speaker is using the controller of an object (“I”) as a representative of the object itself (“my car”). Here we are in the realm of metonymy, because in context, there is a salient link between the driver and the car. Suggesting that the traffic outside Café Rouge is crawling past would also be metonymic (since movement is a property of traffic and crawling is a slow form of movement), but to suggest that our lunch hour was crawling by with all my tedious talk of semantics would be a fully-fledged metaphor, since physical movement is not a property of time. Now, if like me you’re ever-so-slightly confused about the difference between metaphor and metonym, you can perhaps stop acting like a smartarse because you know that neither of them is a simile.

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