Metaphors and similes describe something by creating an image in the mind.
Reading through lists of metaphors can be fun and educational for people who want to improve their English. Metaphor examples are also a good way of getting a sense of what a metaphor is.
As you know, there is more to language than putting parts of speech together in a way that makes sense. Culture always seeps into the language in one way or another. One of the ways culture infuses language is through metaphors and similes.
What is a metaphor?
First, let’s get the basics out of the way: metaphors and similes describe something by creating an image in the mind. Metaphors and similes are useful in that they are often more evocative than simple adjectives. Here is an example:
He is very good at sales
can be rephrased like this:
He could sell sand to a desert dweller
Both statements above say essentially the same thing; however, the second statement uses a metaphor that brings a powerful image to mind. This is a more effective way to convey an idea. Here is another example:
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She sings very well
can be rephrased as:
She sings like a lark
Since a lark is a songbird known for its beautiful voice, to compare someone’s voice to that of a songbird is very high praise and very descriptive.
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Metaphors vs. similes
So what is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? They both serve the same purpose in English, so why are they separate ideas? It’s very simple: a simile uses “like”or “as” to compare two things, whereas a metaphor does not. So in the examples above, He could sell sand to a desert dweller is a metaphor and she sings like a lark is a simile. If you’d like to learn more about similes and see a list of examples, click here.
List of metaphors
Often, people will use metaphors without realizing that that’s what they’re doing. Those metaphors are idioms. The English language is rich with metaphors—there are literally tens of thousands of them! Below is a list of fifty common English metaphors and their meanings.
I could eat a horse: I am very hungry.
It all went pear shaped: to go wrong.
It’s no skin off my nose: it doesn’t affect me negatively (but it might affect others).
She is an open book: she has nothing to hide.
He wears his heart on his sleeve: he shows his feelings readily.
It’s showtime: it’s time to start (something important).
These are the dog days of summer: it’s too hot but do anything but be lazy and stay cool.
You’re building castles in the air: you’re making unrealistic plans.
I was a million miles away: my mind was wandering (another metaphor!).
He marches to his own drummer: he has his own way of doing things.
Splitting hairs: Paying too much attention to insignificant details.
Nitpicking: bringing attention to tiny faults.
The whole enchilada: the whole, huge thing.
A nine-to-five job: a job worked during the week, during business hours
Hit the books: To study very intensively.
Cover your bases: A metaphor based on baseball. This means to make sure to consider all possible outcomes.
This place is a zoo: to describe a chaotic place, implying that the people inside are behaving like animals.
To carry a torch for someone: to have unrequited romantic feelings toward someone
Blood from a turnip: working on a task with no hope of success.
Step up to the plate: another baseball metaphor. This one means to take action when needed.
Parade-maker: a person who drives too slowly in the passing lane, forming a parade of sorts behind them.
More than you can shake a stick at: More than you can easily handle.
Heart of gold: a way of describing someone who is very kind and generous.
My dogs are barking: my feet hurt.
Go back to the drawing board: to start something back at the very beginning.
Cut me some slack!: Be more forgiving of my errors and faults (A boating reference. When a rope is slack, the boat has more room to maneuver).
To get out of hand: to become out of control.
To hit the sack: to go to bed.
To be on the ball: another baseball metaphor. This one means to be alert and reactive to a given situation.
To feel under the weather: to feel sick.
Speak of the devil: what someone says when a person who was the subject of conversation joins the conversation circle.
To bite the bullet: to do something unpleasant quickly and with force, so as to have it be over quickly.
A dime a dozen: a way to describe something plentiful.
To cut corners: to do something poorly so as to save time or money.
To miss the boat: to come too late for something; to let an opportunity go because of inattention or lack of time.
To pull someone’s leg: to lie to someone as a way to teasing them
Mark my words: what someone says before making a prediction they are certain will come true.
To have kittens: to worry excessively or unnecessarily about something.
To wrap your head around something: to take time to understand a difficult or hard-to-believe concept.
Mama bear: an overly protective mother.
A day late and a dollar short: a way of describing something that is inadequate for solving a given problem.
Bent out of shape: a way of describing an angry person
By the skin of your teeth: just barely.
Salad days: times of plenty and happiness.
A hangdog expression: used to describe someone who looks sad or depressed.
To get caught red-handed: to get caught in the middle of doing something illegal or forbidden.
A wild-goose chase: a pointless or hopeless endeavor.
Herding cats: a way of describing a situation that is difficult or frustrating.
The elephant in the room: a topic that everybody is thinking about but nobody is talking about.
Hit the nail on the head: to get something exactly right.
There are many, many more metaphors out there, and it’s fun to make up your own! Here is a list of metaphors for kids.
There are different types of metaphors
The most vivid metaphors are often the ones you make up yourself, because the image is fresh and therefore more vivid. Overused metaphors can lose some of their potency. When that happens, we call them clichés.
Metaphors are generally divided into four main categories: simple, implied, extended, and literary. There is a fourth category, dead metaphors, which can cause the speaker to create something called a mixed metaphor. Avoid the last two if possible.
Simple metaphors are, just like their name suggests, a comparison between one thing and another. This comparison creates a vivid image in the mind. Here are some examples of simple metaphors:
My teacher is a monster.