Like a simile, a metaphor is also a comparison. The difference is that a simile compares things explicitly; it literally says that X is like Y. A metaphor compares things implicitly. Read literally, it does not state that X is like Y; but rather that X is Y:

Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau writes "is," not "is like." However, we understand that he means the Cape resembles a human arm, not that it really is an arm. The metaphor has simply taken the comparison a step closer and expressed it a bit more economically and forcefully.1

A metaphor has the same two parts as a simile: the main image introduced for comparison. In sentence the tenor is "Cape Cod"

and the vehicle is "the bared and bended arm." In many metaphors both parts are stated. In some, however, the writer refers only to the vehicle, depending on the context to supply the full comparison. Such a figure is called an implied or fused rather than a full one. Had Thoreau written "the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts" in a context which clearly indicated he meant Cape Cod, his metaphor would have been implied.

1. It is sometimes argued that metaphors are more figures than sim iles and even in some ways essentially different. Here we need not assume any greater virtue in metaphors. They are more economical and generally more emphatic. For these reasons they are sometimes preferable to similes. But on some occasions the explicit comparison of a simile is better.

Fused metaphors may involve metonymy. Metonymy means substituting for one concept another that is associated with it. The novelist Joseph Conrad, discussing the difficulty of saying exactly what one wants to say, speaks of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

Conrad does not actually say that words are coins, but he implies the full metaphor by the expressions "worn thin" and "defaced," qualities of old coins. The logic of the figure runs like this:

Words are (like) old coins.

Old coins are often worn thin by passing from hand to hand and their faces nearly rubbed away.

Therefore, words can be "worn thin" and "defaced."

Another figure often found in metaphors and closely related to metonymy is synecdoche, which is substituting a part for the whole, as when a ship is referred to as a "sail." In the following passage the religious revivals staged by the evangelist McPherson are compared (implicitly) to an amusement park:

With rare ingenuity, Aimee kept the Ferris wheels and the merry-go-round of religion going night and day. Carey McWilliams

The logic goes like this:

Aimee's revivals were (like) an amusement park.

An amusement park contains Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds.

Therefore, events at the revivals were (like) Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds.

Many metaphors use synecdoche and metonymy.2 Usually a writer wants to introduce as precise an image as possible into the vehicle of a metaphor, thus appealing immediately to the reader's eyes or ears. "Ferris wheels" and "merry-go-rounds," for instance, are easier to visualize than the larger, more abstract "amusement park." And these images are richly meaningful, implying the park in its entirety, as well as evoking vivid pictures of revolving vertical and horizontal wheels.

The Uses of Metaphor

Metaphors have the same functions as similes. They clarify the unfamiliar and render abstractions in images:

[Science] pronounces only on whatever, at the time, appears to have been scientifically ascertained, which is a small island in an ocean of nescience. Bertrand Russell

Russell's image of a small island (science) in a wide and lonely sea (all that we do not know) vividly expresses the relationship between knowledge and ignorance.

Metaphors also enrich meaning by implying added dimensions of thought or feeling. Consider all that is suggested by the term "idol" in this metaphor:

We squat before television, the idol of our cherished progress.

Evelyn Jones

"Idol," signifying a false god, denies the progress television symbolizes and celebrates. The image implies as well the irrationality and subservience of its worshipers.

In the next example the judgmental quality of the metaphor

2. Metonymy is sometimes treated as a figure distinct from metaphor. For our purposes it is convenient to regard with a va riety of metaphor.

is more pronounced. About the ancient Romans, the writer remarks that they were marked by the thumbprint of an unnatural vulgarity, which they never succeeded in surmounting. Lawrence Durrell

A dirty thumbprint, like one left on a china cup or a white wall—what a graphic signature of crudeness. In the following metaphor the judgment is ironic (the passage concerns Huey Long, a powerful Louisiana politician of the 1930s, who, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, passed on his governorship to a political crony):

He designated his old benefactor, O. K. Allen of Winnfield, as the apostolic choice for the next full term. Hodding Carter

"Apostolic," alluding to Christ and his disciples, is a wry comment on Long: on the power he wielded, on the veneration he was accorded by his followers, and perhaps even on how- he regarded himself.

Like similes, metaphors may be emotionally charged, pleasantly or, as in this example, unpleasantly (the writer is remembering a dose of castor oil forced down him when he was a child):

... a bulge of colorless slime on a giant spoon. William Gibson

Metaphors are also emphatic, particularly at the end of a statement, where the not only and pictures a complex abstraction, but also strongly restates it, leaving a memorable image in the mind:

What distinguishes a black hole from a planet or an ordinary star is that anything falling into it cannot come out of it again. If light cannot escape, nothing else can and it is a perfect trap: a turnstile to oblivion. Nigel Calder

Finally, metaphors may be extended through several sentences or even an entire paragraph. In fact, exploring and expanding a metaphor can be an effective way of generating a piece of prose. Here is a brief example:

Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. Eugene O'Neill

And here are two longer ones. The first works out a metaphor comparing Time magazine to a tale told to little children:

Time is also a nursery book in which the reader is slapped and tickled alternately. It is full of predigested pap spooned out with confidential nudges. The reader is never on his own for an instant, but, as though at his mother's knee, he is provided with the right emotions for everything he hears or sees as the pages turn.

Marshall McLuhan

Notice how the metaphor determines the diction: "slapped and tickled," "predigested pap," "spooned out," "nudges," "never on his own," "mother's knee," "provided with." Even the phrase "as the pages turn" suggests the passivity of a child for whom the baby-sitter turns the pages.

The other example of an extended metaphor returns us to the passage with which we began this section, com parison of Cape Cod to a bent arm. The image opens a paragraph in the book Cape Cod:

Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts: the shoulder is at Buzzard's Bay; the elbow, or crazy-bone, at Cape Malla-barre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown—behind which the State stands on her guard, with her back to the Green Mountains, and her feet planted on the floor of the ocean, like an athlete protecting her Bay—boxing with northeast storms, and, ever and anon, heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of the earth—ready to thrust forward her other fist, which keeps guard the while upon her breast at Cape Ann.

The figure organizes the entire paragraph, which develops the image of "the bare and bended arm" both by analysis and by expansion. Thoreau breaks it down into its parts—"elbow," "wrist," "fist"—and applies each of these to Cape Cod. At the same time he expands the metaphor into the larger inclusive image of the boxer—"back," "feet," "other fist," each detail with other parts of


If you wish to develop a metaphor (or simile), remember that you can work in either of these ways, or even, like Tho-reau, in both: inwardly, differentiating the elements of the image and relating these to your main topic; or outwardly, exploring the larger entity to which the image belongs, as the "bared arm" is a natural part of a boxer in a defensive stance.

Finding Metaphors

There is no formula for creating metaphors. Sometimes the literal detail of a scene lends itself to figurative use, as in the following sentence explaining why the writer was not allowed into a large office to observe the regimented life of clerks:

I knew those rooms were back there, but I couldn't get past the opaque glass doors any more than I could get past the opaque glass

Smiles. Barbara Carson

Another source of metaphor is metonymy, which describes something in terms of an associated quality. Here is a sentence about the coming of spring in which birdsongs are described as if they were, themselves, birds:

The birds have started singing in the valley. Their February squawks and naked chirps are fully fledged now, and long lyrics fly in the air. Annie Dillard

More often, however, a metaphor or simile involves a comparison which, while apt and revealing, does not grow naturally out of the subject as do the images by Garson and

Dillard. For instance one philosopher discusses the style of another like this:

The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.

Brand Blanshard

But whether a metaphor arises from "inside" the subject or from "outside," its coming depends on imagination. There is no magic for discovering metaphors. It is a talent, and some people are more adept at seeing resemblances than the rest of us. Still, we can all profit from letting our minds run free from inhibitions. In a first draft don't be frightened of a simile or metaphor, even if it sounds far-fetched.

Using Metaphors Effectively

When you revise, however, become more detached and critical about of speech (as about all phases of your writing). To use metaphors and similes effectively, remember these principles:

O Metaphors and Similes Should Be Fresh and Original Avoid trite figures: "quiet as a mouse," "white as a sheet," "the game of life," "a tower of strength." Clever humorists can make such cliches work for them, but only by playing upon their staleness. If you can think of nothing more original than "his face was white as a sheet," you are better off saying simply, "His face was very white."3

3. As mentioned on pp. 198-99, such trite similes and metaphors may be described as "dying," to distinguish them from figures already dead. Dead meta-of a river," for passed beyond the figurative stage so that the vehicle has acquired a new literal sense. They are perfectly legitimate, and you should not feel doubtful about them. Once "mouth of a river" was probably a fresh and vivid image. Today "mouth" in this expression is not felt to be metaphorical at all; it is taken literally to mean the widening of a river as it empties into a larger body of water.

t> The Vehicle Should Fit the Tenor

The vehicle of any simile or metaphor is likely to have several meanings. Be sure that none of them works against you. It is to focus so exclusively on the meaning you want that you overlook others which may spoil the comparison:

The town hall has been weathered by cold winds and harsh snows like an old mare turned out to graze.

While an old mare is an image of decrepitude, it has other characteristics which make it unsuitable as a vehicle for a building. Can you imagine a town hall in a pasture, nibbling grass and swatting flies with its tail?

Metaphors and Similes Should Be Appropriate to the Context

Figures of speech have their own levels of formality and informality. Even when it does not possess awkward connotations, a simile or metaphor must not be too colloquial or too learned for the occasion. It would not do to write in a paper for a history professor that "Napoleon went through Russia like a dose of salts."

Metaphors and Similes Should Not Be Awkwardly Mixed

When several similes or metaphors appear in the same passage, they ought to harmonize in thought and image. Mixtures like the following are awkward at best and silly at worst:

The moon, a silver coin hung in the draperies of the enchanted night, fall her glance, which gilded the rooftops with a joyful phosphorescence.

This sounds one begins to think about the picture it so lushly describes. If the moon is a "coin" how can "she" "let fall [a] glance"? How can "silver" be used for gilding, which means to cover with gold? Why mix the three elements of silver, gold, and phosphorus? Can "phosphorescence" be "joyful"? Do "coins" hang in "draperies"?

Even dead metaphors and similes must be mixed carefully. Although such expressions no longer have figurative value, they can bring each other embarrassingly to life. The dead metaphors, "mouth of a river" and "leg of a journey," for instance, work well enough alone, but it would be clumsy to write that "the last leg of our journey began at the mouth of the river."

You must be careful, too, about the other, nonfigurative words you use with a simile or metaphor, even when these words are to be read literally. Because this writer was careless with his contextual diction, his metaphor fails:

The teacher leaves the students to develop the foundations of their education.

"Foundations," of course, are "built" or "laid," not "developed."

I> Metaphors and Similes Should Not Be Overworked Metaphors and similes ought not to be sprinkled about profusely, especially in expository writing. Even when they do not clash, too many are likely to cancel one another. Their effectiveness depends on their being relatively uncommon, for if every other sentence contains a simile or a metaphor, readers soon begin to discount them.


Personification, really a special kind of metaphor, is referring to inanimate things or to abstractions as if they were human. A simple instance of personification is the use of personal pronouns to refer to objects, as when sailors speak of a ship as "she." Here is a more subtle instance, a description of the social changes in an area of London:

As London increased, however, rank and fashion rolled off to the west, and trade, creeping on at their heels, took possession of their deserted abodes. Washington Irving

"Rank" and "fashion" signify aristocratic Londoners; "trade" designates the merchant class. These abstractions are personified by the verbs: the aristocrats "roll off" elegantly in carriages, the tradesmen "creep" in with the deference of self-conscious inferiors.

The purpose of personification—like that of metaphor generally—is to explain, expand, vivify:

There is a rowdy strain in American life, living close to the surface but running very deep. Like an ape behind a mask it can display itself suddenly with terrifying effect. It is slack-jawed, with leering eyes and loose wet lips, with heavy feet and ponderous cunning hands; now and then when something tickles it, it guffaws, and when it is angry it snarls; and it can be aroused more easily than it can be quieted. Mike Fink and Yankee Doodle helped to father it, and Judge Lynch is one of its creations; and when it comes lumbering forth it can make the whole country step in time to its own irregular pulse beat. Bruce Catton

Catton's personification (or perhaps "animalification") makes his point with extraordinary clarity and strength: mindless savagery is no abstraction; it is an ever-present menace.


An allusion is a brief reference to a well-known person, place, or happening. Sometimes the reference is explicitly identified:

As it is, I am like that man in The Pilgrim's Progress, by some accounted man, who the more he cast away the more he had.

More often the reference is indirect, and the writer depends on the reader's recognizing the source and

We [Western peoples] tend to have a Micawberish attitude toward life, a feeling that so long as we do not get too excited something is certain to turn up. Barbara Ward

A writer making an allusion should be reasonably sure that it will be familiar. Barbara Ward, for instance, could fairly refer to Mr. Micawber, confident that her readers know David well enough to remember Mr. Micawber, burdened by family and debt, yet cheerfully optimistic that some lucky chance will rescue him from ruin.

Some allusions are not to persons, but to well known pasverse from the Bible, say, or a line from Shakespeare. The passage may be paraphrased or quoted literally, although it is not usually enclosed in quotation marks. There is no question of plagiarizing; the writer assumes readers know what he or she is doing. In this sentence, for instance, the allusion is to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8):

didn't know whether should appear before is a time to show and a time to hide; there is a time to speak, and also a time to be silent. Norman O. Brown

While many are drawn from literature, some refer to historical events or people, ancient or more recent:

These moloch gods, these monstrous states, are not natural beings. . . . [Moloch was an ancient Semitic deity to whom children were sacrificed.! Suzanne K. Langer

And it is not opinions or thoughts that Time provides its readers as news comment. Rather, the newsreel is provided with a razzle-dazzle accompaniment of Spike Jones noises. [Spike Jones was a popular orchestra leader of the famous for wacky, comic arrangements of light classics and pop tunes. He used automobile horns, cow bells, steam whistles, and so on.]4 Marshall McLuhan

Whatever the source of an allusion, its purpose is to enrich meaning by packing into a few words a complex set of ideas or feelings. Think, for instance, of how much is implied by describing a politician's career as "Napoleonic," or an accident as being "Titanic."

But remember that to work at all, allusions must be (1) appropriate to your point and (2) within the experience of your readers.


Irony consists of using words in a sense very different from their usual meaning. The simplest case occurs when a term is given its opposite value. Here, for example, a historian describes a party at the court of the English king James I:

Later the company flocked to the windows to look into the palace courtyard below. Here a vast company had already assembled to watch the King's bears fight with greyhounds, and mastiffs bait a tethered bull. These delights were succeeded by tumblers on tightropes and displays of horsemanship. c. p. v. Akrigg

By "delights" we are expected to understand "abominations," "detestable acts of cruelty."

In subtler form, irony plays more lightly over words, pervading an entire passage rather than twisting any single word into its opposite. An instance occurs in this sentence (the writer is commenting on the decline of the medieval ideal of the knight):

4. The fact that it is necessary to explain who Spike Jones was indicates that allusions to contemporary people and events may quickly become dated.

In our end of time the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and to march past his own drugstore. Morris Bishop

None of Bishop's words means its reverse; the sentence is to be read literally. Still, Bishop intends us to smile at contemporary men playing at knighthood. The irony lies in the fact that some of the words ought not to be taken literally. Twentieth-century businessmen ought not to "solemnly gird on sword and armor," blithely unaware of the disparity between knightly ideals and modern life.

Disparity is the common denominator in both these examples of irony: the difference between the ideal and the actual, between what we profess and what we do, between what we expect and what we get. In stressing such disparities, irony is fundamentally different from simile and metaphor, which build upon similarity. The whole point of irony is that things are not what they seem or what they should be or what we want them to be. They are different.

Irony reveals the differences in various ways. One is by using words in a double sense, making them signify both the ideal and the actual ("delights"). Another is by juxtaposing images of what could be (or once was) and of what is (the chevalier girding on his sword and the neighborhood druggist). Either way, we are made conscious of the gap between "ought" and "is": people ought to treat dumb animals kindly; they do take pleasure in torturing them.

The writer employing irony must be sure that his or her readers will understand the special value of the words. Sometimes one can depend on the general knowledge and attitudes of the audience. The ironic sense of Akrigg's "delights" is clear because modern readers know that such amusements are not delightful.

But sometimes irony must be signaled, as in this passage by the historian Barbara Tuchman (she is discussing the guilt of the Nazi leaders):

When it comes to guilt, a respected writer—respected in some circles—has told us, as her considered verdict on the Nazi program, that evil is banal—a word that means something so ordinary that you are not bothered by it; the dictionary definition is "commonplace and hackneyed." Somehow that conclusion does not seem adequate or even apt. Of course, evil is commonplace; of course we all partake of it. Does that mean that we must withhold disapproval, and that when evil appears in dangerous degree or vicious form we must not condemn but only understand?

The specifically ironic words are "respected" and "considered verdict." The first is cued by the qualification "respected in some circles," with its barbed insinuation: "respected, but not by you or me." "Considered verdict" is pushed into irony not so much by any particular cue as by the total context. If "banality" is the only judgment the other writer can make, her hardly worth consid ering. "Verdict" has another ironic overtone. The word signifies a judicial decision, and Tuchman implies that her opponent is presumptuous in delivering a verdict as if she were judge and jury.

In other ways, too, Tuchman reveals her feelings and thus contributes to the tone of irony. The repetition of the italicized "of course" implies the commonplaceness of the ideas. And the rhetorical question, stressing the undeniable truth of Tuchman's point, underscores the folly she is attacking.

Irony may be used in a variety of tones. Some irony is genial, amusing and amused, like that by Morris Bishop. Some is more serious (Akrigg) or even angry (Tuchman). But whatever its tone, irony contributes significantly to a writer's persona. It is a form of an oblique form. Thus it represents an intrusion of the writer into the writing. He or she stands forth, moreover, in a special way: as a subtle, complex, witty presence, deliberately using intellect to distance emotion. This does not mean that irony diminishes emotion. On the contrary: irony acts like a lens, concentrating the emotions focused through it. But it does mean that irony constrains emotion rather than allowing it to gush.

Irony, finally, may function in prose in two ways: (1) as a specific figure of speech, a device for expressing a particular judgment; or (2) as a mode of thought, an encompassing vision of people and events. In this broad aspect irony is the stance some writers take toward life. They alone may properly be described as ironists. The rest of us, though we are not ironists in this deeper sense, can profitably use irony now and then.

Overstatement and Understatement

Overstatement and understatement are special kinds of irony. Each depends on the disparity between the reality the writer describes and the words he or she uses. Overstatement exaggerates the subject, magnifying it beyond its true dimensions. Understatement takes the opposite tack: the words are intentionally inadequate to the reality.


The rhetorical name for overstatement is hyperbole, from a Greek word meaning "excess." Loosely speaking, there are two kinds of overstatement: comic and serious. Like caricature, comic hyperbole ridicules or burlesques by enlargement.

Comic overstatement has deep roots in American literature. It is a major element in the tales told by such folk heroes as Mike Fink Davey Crockett. Much of Mark Twain's humor depends on overstatement. Here, for instance, is a passage from his essay "The Awful German Language," included in A Tramp Abroad:

An average sentence in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech—not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary—six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or warn—that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of which comes the

VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the by way of ornament, as far as 1 can make out—the writer shovels in " habensind gewesen gehabthaben gewordensein," or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

Serious overstatement differs only in its end, which is persuasion rather than laughter. The writer may wish to impress us with the value of something or to shock us into seeing a hard truth. Shock is the tactic of H. L. Mencken, who cudgels what he regarded as the venality, stupidity, and smugness of life in the 1920s:

It is ... one of my firmest and most sacred beliefs, reached after an enquiry extending over a score of years and supported by incessant prayer and meditation, that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and from this judgment except no more than twenty living lawmakers and no more than twenty executioners of their laws. It is a belief no less piously cherished that the administration of justice in the Republic is stupid, dishonest, and against all reason and equity—and from this judgment I except no more than thirty judges, including two upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is another that the foreign policy of the United States—its habitual manner of dealing with other nations, whether friend or foe, is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable—and from this judgment I consent to no exception whatever, either recent or long past. And it is my fourth (and, to avoid too depressing a bill, final) conviction that the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day.

Comic or serious, overstatement relies on several devices. It likes the superlative forms of adjectives, the hugest numbers, the longest spans of time, extremes of all sorts. It prefers sweeping generalizations: every, all, always, never, none. It admits few quali6cations or disclaimers, and if it does qualify, it may turn the concession into another exaggerated claim (like Mencken's "and from this judgment I except no more than twenty living lawmakers"). It rides upon words with strong emotional connotations like "sniveling," "poltroonish," "ignominious," "knavish." Its sentence structure is likely to be emphatic, with strong rhythms and frequent repetitions. Short statements are stressed by being set beside longer ones.

In the hands of writers like Twain or Mencken, overstatement is powerful rhetoric, shocking, infuriating, hilarious. But this very power is a limitation. Overstatement is hard to take for very long and quickly loses its capacity to shock or amuse. Even worse, overstatement like Mencken's is often abused. It is, after all, assertion, not reasoned argument, and it easily degenerates into shrill name-calling.


Understatement stresses importance by seeming to deny it. Like overstatement it can be comic or serious. Twain is being funny in this passage:

I have been strictly reared, but if it had not been so dark and solemn and awful there in that vast, lonely room, I do believe I should have said something which could not be put into a Sunday-school book without injuring the sale of it.

But here is a more serious case:

Last week I saw a woman flayed alive, and you will hardly believe how it altered her appearance for the worse. Jonathan Swift

Understatement works a paradox: increasing emotional impact by carefully avoiding emotive language. It is a species of irony in that the deeper value of the words differs from their surface meaning. Swift's phrase "altered her appearance for the worse" seems woefully inadequate: no streaming blood, no frenzied screams, no raw, quivering flesh—just that "it altered her appearance for the worse." But Swift tricks us into imagining the scene for ourselves, and this makes the brutality real.

In the following paragraph Ernest Hemingway increases horror by denying the horrible, writing as if a cold-blooded execution were just routine. Which in time of war it is; and that's the horror.

They shot the cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the of the hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.

Sometimes words are unequal to reality. Then understatement may be the best strategy, rendering the event in simple, direct language:

In the heart of the city near the buildings of the Prefectural Government and at the intersection of the busiest streets, everybody had stopped and stood in a crowd gazing up at three parachutes floating down through the blue air.

The bomb exploded several hundred feet above their heads.

The people for miles around Hiroshima, in the fields, in the mountains, and on the bay, saw a light that was brilliant even in the SUn, and felt heat. Alexander H. Leighton

A special form of understatement is litotes, a term sometimes used as a synonym for understatement in general. More narrowly it means emphasizing a positive by doubling a negative as when we express admiration for a shot in tennis by exclaiming, "Not bad," or stress someone's bravery by saying that he "did not play the coward."

Whatever we call it, understatement is a powerful figure of speech. To naive readers it sometimes seems callous or insensitive: some of Swift's contemporaries, for example, thought his irony to be mere cruelty. But when it really connects with subject and reader, understatement is more explosive than hyperbole.


A pun is a word employed in two or more senses, or a word used in a context that suggests a second term sounding like it. In either case the two meanings must interact, usually, though not necessarily, in a humorous way. In the first of the two following examples, the pun depends on different senses of the same word; in the second, on one word's sounding like another:

A cannon-ball took off his legs, so he laid down his arms.

Thomas Hood

During the two previous centuries musical styles went in one era and out of the Other. . . . Frank Muir

While puns resemble irony in simultaneously using words in different senses, they differ in important ways. For one thing, a pun is today almost exclusively a device of humor (though in earlier centuries poets and dramatists often em ployed puns for serious meanings). Here, for instance, Mark Twain makes a joke by punning on the expression "raising chickens":

Even as a schoolboy poultry-raising was a study with me, and I may say without egotism that as early as the age of seventeen I was acquainted with all the best and speediest methods of raising chickens, from raising them off a roost by burning Lucifer matches under their noses, down to lifting them off a fence on a frosty night by insinuating a warm board under their feet.

For another thing, puns reveal unexpected connections. In this they are less like irony than like simile and metaphor. A good pun not only amuses us, but also points to unrealized similarities. The humorist S. J. Perelman entitles one collection of essays The Road to Miltown, or Under the Spreading Atrophy (Miltown was the brand name of a popular tranquilizer.) Punning on "a tree," the word "atrophy" echoes a famous phrase of sentimental poetry, "under the spreading chestnut tree"; and the participle "spreading" acquires a sinister implication, far removed from the pleasant connotations it has in Longfellow's poem, "The Village Blacksmith." In an age given to the wholesale swallowing of tranquilizers, atrophy may indeed be spreading.

Because they became a sign of "low" humor in the late nineteenth century, many people consider puns unseemly in anything but avowedly humorous writing. That judgment is a bit harsh. A bad pun is regrettable. But a good both clever and worth making.


Zeugma (pronounced ZOOG-ma) is a special kind of pun involving a verb used with two or more objects, but with a difference of meaning. Here the novelist Lawrence Durrell is describing the plight of a maiden chased by lustful monks:

Joanna, pursued by the three monks, ran about the room, leaping over tables and chairs, sometimes throwing a dish or a scriptural maxim at her pursuers.

And here is a wry of a piano:

Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience. Ambrose Bierce

Zeugma, like puns generally, is a comic figure of speech. It is witty and amusing, and increases meaning by linking disparities: pairing of dishes and scriptural maxims reveals their equal inefficacy in Joanna's plight.


An image is a word or expression that speaks directly to one or more of the senses, as in this description of the Seine in Paris:

The river was brown and green—olive-green under the bridges— and a rainbow-coloured scum floated at the sides. Jean Rhys

Images are classified according to the sense to which they primarily appeal. Visual images, like those in the sentence above, are the most common. Next in frequency, probably, are auditory images, directed to the ear:

The [medieval] house lacked air, light, and comfort moderne; but people had little taste for privacy. They lived most of their lives on the streets, noisy indeed by day, with pounding hammers, screaming saws, clattering wooden shoes, street cries of vendors of goods and services, and the hand bells of pietists, summoning all to pray for the souls of the dead. Morris Bshop

Images can appeal to other senses: to smell, taste, touch, even to the muscular sense of movement and balance (these are called kinesthetic images). Here, for example, is an indictment of the odors of a modern city:

... [T]he reek of gasoline exhaust, the sour smell of a subway crowd, the pervasive odor of a garbage dump, the sulphurous fumes of a chemical works, the carbolated rankness of a public lavatory ... the chlorinated exudation of ordinary drinking water. ...

Lewis Mumford

Often an image stimulates two or more senses simultaneously, though it is directed primarily to one. Thus in Rhys's sentence about the Seine, the imagery, while essentially visual, also suggests the feel of the water and the smell of the scum.

At their simplest, images re-create sensory experience. Bishop makes us "hear" a medieval city. In the following passage the writer "images" the experience of walking in a small stream:

Exploring a streambed can be done on a purely sensual level. How it all feels—moss, wet rock, soft mud under feet; cold fast mountain water or the touch of a sun-warmed gentle brook; water wrapping itself around your ankles or knees, swirling in little eddies, sparkling in small pools, rushing away white and foamy over rapids, or calmly meandering over glistening pebbles. Ruth Rudner description also shows how images may be mixed to appeal to several senses. Many of her words are tactile: "soft mud under feet," "the touch of a sun-warmed gentle brook," "water wrapping itself around your ankles or knees." Others are visual: "moss, wet rock," "swirling in little eddies," "sparkling," "glistening pebbles." Still others, kines-thetic: "swirling" again, "rushing away," "calmly meandering."

But images can be stretched to signify more than sensual experience. Here, for instance, is a description of a California landscape, scene of a murderous love affair:

The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their foliage, too lush, too un-settlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. Joan Didion

Literally these images describe the trees and the bark-strewn ground. Yet they suggest unnaturalness and evil too, a morbid aura of death. We cannot say that they "mean" evil and death, as we may say that the vehicle of a metaphor sig-the thing for which it stands. Nonetheless the images have overtones that give the passage a sinister vibrato.

At times this sort of implication is carried so far that an image acquires symbolic value, rendering a complex, abstract idea in a sharp perception. At the end of the following sentence the novelist and essayist George Orwell turns an image into a symbol of judgment:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.


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    Is spikes traps and awkward turns a simile or metaphor?
    5 years ago

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