2.7 Figurative Language

Figurative Language


…e.g. Challenging the representation of the Queen as a very earnest, quite serious, though benevolent and generous, but rather humourless, and perhaps long suffering, old woman with a lot on her plate…

1. Simile


…similes are the most straightforward of figurative devices, and so often the least effective, certainly less subtle. The key to a simile, as with all figurative devices is the comparison of the subject to something else in order to draw out the features or certain aspects of the subject:


Her majesty is as regal as a young child about the sherry.


…the key feature of a simile is the direct comparison, using the words “as” or “like”…


She is like a grey-haired spinster who forgot to put the cat out.


…to present the Queen as rather hapless, as opposed to serious and weighty, her actions might be compared to those of an especially silly animal or any inanimate object which is seen as cumbersome or ridiculous…


She moved across the raised platform as a rather portly spider might approach a particularly disappointing dinner.


…again, the key, as with all figurative attempts, is with the base comparison; the more imaginative and original the comparison the better; however, take care with choosing a comparison which stretches the reader’s credulity too far, or introduces associations which are not wanted: a paedophile’s palms might sweat like those of the Queen’s, but the association of the two would be going too far.


2. Quasi Simile


This is where the words “as” or “like” are implied, but aren’t explicitly part of the figure of speech:


Her royal majesty had all the royalty of an empty can of special brew, and all the majesty of a chippy sausage dropped in the gutter.


…the word “seems” or the clause “it was as though…” might be used…



She might seem like a lost and confused child at the fair, but…



It was as though an inmate of the local care home had finally managed the opening stage of her bid for freedom.


3. Metaphor


…where the comparison is made as though it wasn’t in fact a comparison, but a direct equivalence: e.g. “the queen is a lost child”, then the figure of speech has become a fully fledged metaphor.


Indeed, the term “fully fledged metaphor” is itself a metaphor. Why?


…because, to be fully fledged means to have your adult feathers, and metaphors, literally speaking, do not have feathers, adult or otherwise.


…which is the best clue for identifying when a metaphorical device is being used: what is being said cannot literally be the case:


The queen is a broken pencil in the hands of a monkey.


…however, what this might mean is anyone’s guess. The meaning of a successful metaphor is always clear; where different possible interpretations are meant to exist that too should be clear, but never should a metaphor confuse:


Her majesty is a Ford Cortina rounding a corner on two wheels.


…which might make sense in the context of the piece it is from, but on its own doesn’t signify anything.



…the explanation might follow directly:


The poor old dear is a rather shaggy old coat: out of fashion and last seen in a charity shop.


…but the best metaphors can stand on their own, making the reader see the subject (the queen) anew:


Her royal highness is more of a cantering show pony than a regal old warhorse.


…or see an aspect of the Queen in a new way:


Her face is hard set in cement; her eyes dull pebbles left behind by a forgetful child.


4. Second Order Metaphor


Once the equivalence is assumed, then you can really get to work:


As Prince Phillip buzzed about her majesty, she idly swatted in every direction, finally managing to take out three foreign dignitaries, two bemused flunkeys and a raft of very underwhelmed erstwhile royalists.



…or work on the assumption that she is a wading bird or a gold fish in a tank or a breeze rippling the leaves in the young trees, or an exceptionally difficult quadratic equation:



One never knows whether to multiply both sides of this equation by x, throw about a few brackets, peek into a more clever pupil’s exercise book, or just let the x’s and y’s breed more x’s and y’s and leave the problem proliferate in your locker until the exam week finally comes around, when, with any luck, Prince Phillip will be soused, Parliament will be about to be dissolved and another minor royal will be caught with an extremity in someone else’s rhubarb crumble.


…is the queen such an enigma wrapped in a puzzle inside a mystery?


5. Extended Metaphor



A metaphor can dominate a whole text or a large part of it; once a comparison is introduced to your reader through the initial use of the metaphor, the similarities between the subject and what it is being compared to can be teased out and played around with fro some time. Of course, it all depends how fruitful the original comparison is.


For example how fruitful would the comparison be between the Queen and a polar bear?


At first she cannot be seen, the great lumbering beast of the Arctic, the white swell of that unfortunate frock billowing against the white swell of a hundred more unfortunate surplices, but when she sidles up to an especially promising water hole…

…in amongst the trays of martinis, she barely roars, but the rubbery backs of a hundred wet seals shiver, and as the twist about, their mouths agape, hoping for a fragment to fall from her greasy chops, they barely look, not daring to hope that the attention of her supreme highness would be anything other than brief and painful…

…the blood of her most recent meal barely discernible on the fur about her mouth, nor is the look of fear from her pray reflected in the hard black beads of her eyes…

…Yes, she nods; it has been an unpleasant winter, but the ice wastes will still surround her majesty for the all too brief summer season…

…which is when she finally lands herself on a loose piece of ice and drifts off amidst a hundred such fragments into a placid sea that could never melt the ground beneath her majesty’s feet.



…maybe a better starting point comparison would have been more useful. But the extended metaphor works very well to give this piece of writing coherence (it binds it together); more importantly it works to draw out aspects of the Queen which are peculiar to the opinion of the author: we see the Queen anew, as the author would have us see her.


6. Cliché / Dying Metaphor


The key ingredients of a good metaphor is originality; it is in the nature of language that if a metaphor has been used too often before, to the point where everyone (more or less) is familiar with it, it loses its effect:


Isn’t the Queen is a dragon?

…a crafty old fox?

…a wrinkled prune?

…a cold and distant mother figure.


…these metaphors have become clichés, “tired and worn out” phrases (which is itself a cliché). Once upon a time they were fresh and original, but now they don’t work, they don’t make a reader stop and think; they are simply passed by, barely registering on the reader’s attention and certainly not making the reader look anew on the subject being described.


7. Dead Metaphor


…is even calling a person “distant” a metaphor?


Some metaphors are so old and overused that we have forgotten that they are in fact metaphors.


The Queen was quite brilliant in her reply to the persistent inquiry of the Russian Ambassador.


… “brilliant” used to mean, and still does mean, brightly shining; however, at some point someone used it metaphorically or figuratively, to mean that someone was really good, so good it was as though they were shining brightly through just how very good they were. Back then, this figure of speech would have struck the reader as odd, as clearly metaphorical and given them pause for thought, making them look upon the subject and their supposed very-goodness anew.


Alas, no longer, this is now a dead metaphor, with “brilliant” having in the interim acquired the additional dictionary meaning of “very good”


8. Idiom


An idiom is, like all figurative devices, a figure of speech, but it is one peculiar to our everyday speech, and not an especial effort to explain just how we see the subject.


So there you are: the Queen is…

She might turn up her nose at…

…after giving old Philip a slap on the wrist…

Philip, the rather confused back-seat driver of the royal family…



…which is not to say that you can’t reinvigorate a dead or dying metaphor, or even an idiom…



She turned on the Master-at-Arms with all the savoir-faire of a back seat driver on crack cocaine…


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