Dead metaphor

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A dead metaphor is a metaphor which has lost the original imagery of its meaning owing to extensive, repetitive popular usage. Because dead metaphors have a conventional meaning that differs from the original, they can be understood without knowing their earlier connotation. Dead metaphors are generally the result of a semantic shift in the evolution of a language,[1] a process called the literalization of a metaphor.[2] A distinction is often made between those dead metaphors whose origins are entirely unknown to the majority of people using them (such as the expression "to kick the bucket") and those whose source is widely known or symbolism easily understood but not often thought about (the idea of "falling in love"). Friedrich Nietzsche argues that "literal" vocabulary is all composed of dead metaphor that has become worn out by over-use and familiarity, though the allusions it makes continue to be influential.[3]

There is debate among literary scholars whether so-called "dead metaphors" are dead or are metaphors. Literary scholar R.W. Gibbs noted that for a metaphor to be dead, it would necessarily lose the metaphorical qualities that it comprises. These qualities, however, still remain. A person can understand the expression "falling head-over-heels in love" even if they have never encountered that variant of the phrase "falling in love." Analytic philosopher Max Black argued that the dead metaphor should not be considered a metaphor at all, but rather classified as a separate vocabulary item.[4]


There are many examples of dead metaphors in the English language. A brief list of examples is given below.

  • flowerbed
  • head teacher
  • forerunner
  • to run for office
  • to lose face
  • to lend a hand
  • to broadcast -- originally meant to spead seeds when planting crops
  • pilot -- originally meant the rudder of a boat.
  • flair -- originally meant a sweet smell.
  • a computer mouse
  • (tele)phone is ringing (original telephones had bells)
  • Dial the (tele)phone (early telephones had a rotary dial)
  • fishing for compliments
  • seeds of doubt
  • catch her name
  • world wide web
  • tulip -- originally meant the eastern headdress, the turban.
  • turn-on
  • flared jeans
  • he ploughed through the traffic lights
  • foothills or the foot of a mountain
  • brow of the hill
  • branches of government
  • windfall gain
  • fly
  • kidney beans
  • "nightfall" - originally from the growing shade under an object which occurs when the object is dropped or falling
  • The Body of an essay- originally connected to human anatomy


  1. ^ Pawelec, Andrzej. "The Death of Metaphor" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-12-08. [dead link]
  2. ^ David Snowball, Continuity and Change in the Rhetoric of the Moral Majority, p.126
  3. ^ McKinnon, AM. (2012). 'Metaphors in and for the Sociology of Religion: Towards a Theory after Nietzsche'. Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol 27, no. 2, pp. 203-216. [1]
  4. ^ Travers, Michael David (June 1996). "Programming with Agents". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2009-12-08. 

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