What is a metaphor and what are some examples of metaphors
[no name given]
Dear 7th-Grader Asking Me to Do Your Homework,
Kid, I am not only down for this, I am amped about it.* This is the perfect excuse for me to dig into the only thing rattling around in my head at the mo: Hamilton.
For those who don’t know – all six of you – Hamilton is the life of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, transformed into a hip-hop Broadway musical. Apparently some people find this incongruous.
Or found it incongruous, before they listened and realized that in practice it is amazing. If you haven’t heard it yet, feel free to go listen on Spotify or Youtube or wherever and I’ll see you back here in two hours. Or, if you haven’t heard it and you have thousands of dollars to spare, you could always go watch the show on Broadway and I’ll see you back here in a week or so. Whatever works.
Hip-hop is the current genre for all kinds of language creativity, and because the words in Hamilton come out so much faster than your average Broadway show there are far more of them, which means way more opportunities to play with them. Simile, synecdoche, metonymy, the works. We’ll start with what you actually asked about: metaphor.
A metaphor talks about one thing in terms of another, different thing.** This draws out the similarities between the two things, which is handy if one of them is abstract. If you never stop writing like “you’re running out of time,” then you’re talking about time as if it’s money, something you can spend, waste, and run out of. Time is an abstract concept – you can’t hold it or pay it back. But money is concrete, you can touch it and move it and spend it, and we use the idea of money to talk about time. Boom, metaphor.
The “time = money” metaphor is very, very common in regular conversation. In fact, we use metaphors all the time without noticing. “Don’t throw away this [love] we had” is a metaphor saying “a relationship = an object,” making something intangible into something physical that can be tossed. “We need some spies on the inside” uses the metaphor “a group = a container,” making an intangible group (which you can join) into something physical (which you can go into). Somebody “coming up from the bottom” uses the metaphor “social status = height,” which is also in “I’ll rise above my station.” We use hundreds of metaphors a day, so often that they blend in, we don’t notice them, and it’s hard to imagine how we could even talk about concepts like love and social status without them.
Metaphors in literature and art, though, are generally meant to draw attention to themselves. They’re sometimes entirely new, but often they’re new extensions or reimaginings of old metaphors. The metaphor “creating something = giving birth” is a common one: see artists talking about their art as their children, or George Washington being called the father of our country. Hamilton changes it up by showing the titular Hamilton and his arch-nemesis Burr having children (with their wives, not each other) right after America is founded, and singing about both the kids’ and the country’s upcoming teenage years:
You will come of age with our young nation
We’ve all heard the “creation is birth” metaphor before, so we can recognize what’s going on, but we haven’t heard it quite this way, which makes us stop and think. Well, it made me stop and think, at least.
The most frequent metaphor in Hamilton, though, is “a (gun)shot is an opportunity.” This usually comes up as “I am not throwing away my shot.” Sometimes this line is played straight and actually about guns: when Hamilton’s best bud gets into a duel, Hamilton tells him “Do not throw away your shot” – as in, don’t aim away, really shoot the other guy.*** Sometimes it’s clearly about opportunities: when George Washington offers Hamilton a job, he thinks “I am not throwing away my shot,” meaning he won’t miss this chance, not that if he shoots Washington he’ll aim to kill. Sometimes, like in the middle of the Battle of Yorktown, it could be either or both.
A simile gets attention in English class but is really nothing more than a metaphoric comparison that uses special words like “like” or “as” as cues to make it more obvious that there’s a comparison going on. So “I’m just like my country” instead of “I am my country.” There are way more interesting language tweaks out there, so let’s press on.
One subset of metaphor shows up so often it gets its own name: personification. This is talking about (usually) an abstract concept as if it’s a person. As in:
Death doesn’t discriminate
between the sinners and the saints,
it takes and it takes and it takes
Sure, death doesn’t discriminate – it’s an irrational, implacable force. But we find death much easier to talk about if we give it human actions and motivations. Bonus points to that particular song, sung by Burr, for the setup of the first lines of the verses:
Love doesn’t discriminate…
Death doesn’t discriminate…
Hamilton doesn’t hesitate…
Life doesn’t discriminate…
…which, by matching Hamilton with love, life, and death, makes it look like Burr thinks Hamilton is also an incomprehensible force of nature in need of personification.
Alright, time for a trick question: everyone who’s seen the show, what’s another example of personification?
Did you say “History has its eyes on you”??? Because that’s not personification. Whoa, so tricky.
That’s actually metonymy. Metonymy is metaphor’s half-brother. Instead of being about comparison, metonymy is about reference. Instead of talking about something directly, you talk about something closely associated with it. In “Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?” it’s not the island landmass passing unpopular laws, it’s the government found on that landmass. So we have “island = government,” like a metaphor, but not because we think there are similarities between the two. They’re just in the same place.
The “rise up” section of My Shot uses the same metonymy, and makes it explicit:
Tell you brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up
When are these colonies gonna rise up?
We’re not waiting for the actual colonies to float into the air – this is Hamilton, not Age of Ultron. It’s metonymy: the people in the colonies are referred to by where they live. “History has its eyes on you” refers to the people of future generations by where they live in time.*****
Another oddly spelled word, synecdoche, is a subset of metonymy. Instead of referring to something by a different thing, you refer to it by a part of itself. When Angelica is “looking for a mind at work”****** she’s looking for a clever person thinking, not a brain in a jar. This also covers the ubiquitous reference to British soldiers as “redcoats.”
Okay, a quick side-trip for a style of wordplay that is NOT AT ALL a metaphor, but can interplay with (and be confused with) metaphors: lexical ambiguity, also known as a pun. When one word has two or more meanings, you can bounce them off each other.
And no, don’t change the subject
cuz you’re my favorite subject.
My sweet, submissive subject,
my loyal, royal subject
The first “subject” means the topic of conversation, the last two mean someone under the rule of someone else. In “my favorite subject” it could be either, or both.
These days puns are seen as punchlines to bad jokes, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Historically they were often serious, and they can be used to dramatic effect. There’s a significant pun in the opening number to Hamilton, the introduction. See, several of the actors are double-cast – they play one role in the first act, and a different role in the second act. In particular, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan play two of Hamilton’s comrades in the first act, but antagonists in the second. Their line in the introduction is a pun, and depending on which meaning you read, could be said by either of their roles.
I mentioned up top about “shot” as a metaphor for opportunity. Well, one scene at the tavern mixes that metaphor with lexical ambiguity, too. “Take a shot” blurs between its usual meaning of shooting a gun, its metaphorical meaning of seizing a chance, and its pun meaning of downing alcohol, for a sentence that ends up having as many distinct meanings as it has words.
One final note. I am the Language Nerd (guilty as charged), and have a slight tendency to focus on language. But metaphors can be constructed and emphasized in other ways, too. The everyday metaphor “sadness is the color blue” is brought up when King George sings “I’m so blue,” but underscored when his spotlight lighting flips to blue as he sings it – adding a visual metaphor to the words.
And a metaphor can be audial, as well. The king and his loyalists sing showtunes and classical minuets; the revolutionaries live in hip-hop. The ultimate metaphor of Hamilton is not linguistic. It’s musical. It’s the whole damn show.
The Language Nerd
*Seriously, I get these without names more often than not. Dear middle-schoolers, if you didn’t understand something in class and you’re coming around here looking to try again, you’re doing the right thing. Sign that shit. And if you’re some punk looking for answers to copy-paste, too bad, you’re gonna have to hunt them outta my long-ass explanation. I swear too much for you to turn it in without reading through. Ya punk.
**Obviously? If you talk about one thing in terms of itself, it ain’t a metaphor. Saying that a cabbage is a cabbage isn’t making much of a point.
***Throwing away your shot, usually by simply shooting into the ground,**** was a good way to end a duel while keeping the pride and organs of both combatants intact. It only worked if both guys threw away their shot, though. Not that this comes up in the show or anything.
****In the show they throw away their shots by firing into the air, presumably because that makes for a way better poster.
*****Honestly, if you read it differently you could argue that “History has its eyes on you” is personification, “history” as the embodiment of the judgement of future generations, instead of the (temporal) place where those generations are located. But 1) I see it as metonymy and 2) that would ruin my segue.
******You know, in her first song, before she tumbles into a romantic subplot and never escapes. Imagine if in the second act she did meet Thomas Jefferson and they had a rap battle about including women in the sequel. Ah well.
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My reference for all things metaphor, especially the point that metaphor is much more common than we assume, is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s seminal work Metaphors We Live By. They make much stronger claims in that book, that metaphor structures how we conceive the world and act on our experiences, but that’s way beyond the scope of today’s post.
For Hamilton, the main page for the Broadway production is here, and the lyrics are available here, and you can listen to the soundtrack all over the place. I bought it on itunes, I’m sure you can find a way. I’ve actually avoided reading the lyrics notes on Genius so far, except to see exactly what style Samuel Seabury was singing. I was trying not to overmix my own thoughts with others’, but now that I’m done with this post I know where I’m spending the rest of the night.
This is, by the by, not nearly all the types of wordplay in Hamilton. Hell, it’s got my new favorite example of exploited syntactic ambiguity, which I didn’t even mention. But this is all the types that connect in with metaphor, so everything else will have to wait until another day.
EVERYONE GIVE IT UP FOR AMERICA’S FAVORITE FIGHTING FRENCHMAAAAAN!