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Dead Metaphor

In a way, the very term dead metaphor is somewhat paradoxical. This is because insofar as the dead metaphor does not actually evoke the relevant images in the listener's mind, it is questionable whether the thing is really a metaphor at all. For example, people do not generally think of literally kicking a bucket when they say "kick the bucket"; the relationship between the specified act and the act of dying is nebulous one. 

A true figure of speech

A dead metaphor is a figure of speech which has lost its original meaning and imaginative force through frequent use or outdated terminology. An example of a dead metaphor is a saying that is outdated, perhaps one that an older relation uses, such as a grandfather or grandmother. Note, however, that these metaphors, while being dead to the next generation, still hold their original meaning for the grandparent generation, who holds the knowledge and information to properly understand an aged metaphor. The life of a metaphor is also dependent upon cultural and social norms within a portion of society; in this way a dead metaphor stays alive in a certain pocket of the world because it is still relevant.

Usage rules for dead metaphors

Dead metaphors are rampant in literature from previous centuries and decades, although they may be nearly unrecognizable in their oldest form due to archaic language. Below are some examples of dead metaphors that a creative writing professor might dislike:

Example 1: The body of an essay is its main portion.

This metaphor is used so often in teaching essay writing that it has become a term instead of a descriptive metaphor.

Example 2: The thread flew through the eye of the needle.

The eye of the needle has become what the hole in the needle is called; therefore it can no longer be called a metaphor as the descriptor has become a part of the needle itself.

Example 3: Face of a clock; hands of a clock, life is no bed of roses, etc.

These metaphors are so entrenched in the English language (like speaking or essay writing) that they have become part of the way we speak, and we don’t even have to think about their meanings. In the case of the clock’s face and hands, these are their names almost all the time, unless specifications as being a watchmaker or repairperson are involved.

Another name for a dead metaphor is a frozen metaphor or a historical metaphor.

More context for the dead metaphor

Some cognitive linguists, namely George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, believe that there is no such thing as a dead metaphor, and that rather than becoming outdated or non-referential to their original meanings, so-called “dead metaphors” actually become more effective through deep entrenchment and efficiency within our cognitive language processes. In other words, dead metaphors become obsolete because they become a part of the unconscious and therefore no longer need to be spoken or written explicitly. 

Since dead metaphors have become so conventional, they might be understood without knowledge of previous connotations. Dead metaphors occur when there is a semantic shift in a language that causes evolution. In this case the metaphor becomes literalized. Some dead metaphors are so ensconced in a language and culture that their original origins are unknown; no one remembers the original circumstances they were created in. Other dead metaphors’ origins may be so common and widely known that they are not usually thought about, for instance the idea of falling in love. 

Nietzsche argued that all “literal” language and terminology is composed of dead metaphors which are kept alive through allusions. R. W. Gibbs believes that a metaphor can only be dead if it loses its ability to become a metaphor, which never occurs. Max Black believed that dead metaphors should not be classified as metaphors, but should be renamed as another part of speech or literature.

Further reading on this divisive topic is available online and elsewhere: Andrzej Pazelec wrote “The Death of Metaphor” on the topic in 2006 for the Instytut Filologii Angielskiej in Poland; Gregory W. Dawes wrote “The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-33” for the Journal of Biblical Literature;  and Samuel Guttenplan wrote Objects of Metaphor published in 2005.

Dead Metaphor is the also the title of a collection of three plays by Canada’s number one playwright, George F. Walker, published in 2015. The title play, Dead Metaphor, is an examination of the intersection of a politician’s personal and professional life; The Ravine is about a mayoral candidate whose wife lives in a nearby gully and is trying to have him professionally assassinated; and The Burden of Self-Awareness is about money versus personal values.

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