The term dead metaphor is somewhat strange. The reason is that it’s hard to decide whether something is a metaphor or not if it doesn’t actually arouse a certain image in the reader’s mind. Dead metaphors don’t require you to interpret them literally, for example, when you see a phrase “kick the bucket,” there is no direct relationship between the described action and death.
Figure of Speech
Dead metaphors are figures of speech. They have lost their initial meaning due to their frequent figurative use and outdated terms. Dead metaphors are, in general, outdated sayings that have lost their initial meaning for younger generations. However, the older generations may still know what these metaphors were about. The use of metaphors changes with time depending on the cultural environment. Even though they lose their original meaning, they remain relevant in certain geographical regions due to their social and cultural context.
How to Use Dead Metaphors
Dead metaphors were commonly used in old literature, yet being almost unrecognizable in their original form now, because our language changes with time and archaic phrases are no longer used. Here are three examples of dead metaphors that creative writing experts won’t like:
- The body of a research paper is its main portion
This metaphor is so common in education that it has changed its descriptive nature and became a term.
- Passing through the eye of a needle
The hole in the needle is now called the eye of the needle. Thus, it’s not a metaphor anymore, because the descriptive function has been lost, and now the descriptor is a part of the object.
- Hands of a clock, life is no bed of roses, a face of a clock
All these metaphors have become integral parts of our language, so when we use one of them, we don’t even think about its meaning. We use words “hands” and “face” when talking about clocks all the time, so we don’t need specifications unless we are talking to a watchmaker.
More Context for the Metaphor
Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, and some other cognitive linguists state that dead metaphors don’t exist. They think that such metaphors don’t lose their original meaning and don’t become outdated, instead, these metaphors go through complicated processes of cognitive language and become more effective. These metaphors are not meant to be used explicitly because they become a part of our unconscious.
Dead metaphors become so common that they don’t require a reader to know nor understand their original meanings. The evolution of language causes many semantic shifts. Some metaphors become so integrated into the culture and language that no one who uses them is able to trace their origin. Some dead metaphors also have so obvious and well-known origins that we don’t even think about them. The example of such metaphors is “falling in love.”
According to Nietzsche, allusions keep dead metaphors alive. He said that all the literal terminology consists of dead metaphors. R.W. Gibbs says that a metaphor can turn into a dead metaphor only if it loses its main function, i.e. if it stops being a metaphor, which never happens. According to Max Black, dead metaphors shouldn’t be considered metaphors at all, because they are a completely different part of the language.
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