List of English-language metaphors

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A list of metaphors in the English language organised by type. A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels". Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance. In this broader sense, antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile would all be considered types of metaphor. Aristotle used both this sense and the regular, current sense above.[1] With metaphor, unlike analogy, specific interpretations are not given explicitly.


Body parts[edit]


  • Taken aback, on a square-pingas the sails were 'taken aback' when the wind was blowing on the wrong side of the sails causing a dangerous situation. Later used to indicate a difficult or unexpected situation.[2]
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Clear the decks to get everything out of the way as a warship went into action.[2]
  • Show someone the ropes to show or explain to someone how to do a task or operation. Taken from the use of ropes to orient and adjust the sails.
  • Sail close to the wind is to operate hazardously on very slim margins, usually applied in a financial sense. Derived from the technique of sailing close to the direction of the oncoming wind.
  • Loaded to the gunwales
  • Back and fill
  • On one's beam ends
  • Awash
  • Adrift
  • A wide berth
  • Flagship
  • Unmoored
  • Nail one's colors to the mast
  • Flying the flag
  • Plain sailing
  • With flying colors - the colors was the national flag flown at sea during battle, a ship would surrender by lowering the colors and the term is now used to indicate a triumphant victory or win.[2]
  • In the doldrums
  • All hands to the pumps
  • Weathering a storm
  • A different tack
  • Swinging the lead is to avoid duty by feigning illness or injury, original a confusion between Swing the leg which related to the way dogs can run on three legs to gain sympathy and the sailor's term heaving the lead which was to take soundings.[2]
  • Left high and dry
  • Three sheets to the wind, meaning "staggering drunk," refers to a ship whose sheets have come loose, causing the sails to flap uncontrolled and the ship to meander at the mercy of the elements. Also, "Three sheets in the wind, unsteady from drink."[3]
  • Sun over the yardarm: This phrase is widely used, both afloat and ashore, to indicate that the time of day has been reached at which it is acceptable to have lunch or (more commonly) to have an alcoholic beverage.
  • "Take soundings": In suspected shallow waters, a crew member may have the task of repeatedly throwing into the water a lead line, or piece of lead tied to a string knotted every fathom, for the purpose of estimating the depth of the sea.[4] This saying the nautical equivalent of "Take the lay of the land": see how things are going, or see what people think about a proposed course of action.[citation needed]
  • "By and large" comes from a term for sailing a ship slightly off of the wind [1]
  • "To the bitter end" may have originally referred to a rope fastened to the bitt, a post attached on the deck of a ship.[2], although this etymology has been disputed [3]





Richard Honeck described three forms of scientific metaphors: "mixed scientific metaphor, the scientific metaphor theme, and the scientific metaphor that redefines a concept from a theory."[5]






  1. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) pp.653–55: "A rhetorical figure with two senses, both originating with Aristotle in the 4c BC: (I) All figures of speech that achieve their effects through association, comparison and resemblance. Figures like antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile are [in that sense] all species of metaphor. [But] this sense is not current, ..."
  2. ^ a b c d Jeans, Peter D (1998). Ship to Shore. Oxford, England: ABC-Clio. ISBN 1-85109-321-4.
  3. ^ Smyth, William Henry; Belcher, Edward (1867). The sailor's word-book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms, including some more especially military and scientific ... as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. London: Blackie and Son. pp. 680, 121.
  4. ^ "Regulation 34 - Safe Navigation". IMO RESOLUTION A.893(21) adopted on 25 November 1999. Retrieved March 26, 2007.
  5. ^ Honeck, Richard P. (1980) Cognition and figurative language pp.405-417
Further reading
  • Isil, Olivia A. (1966). When a loose cannon flogs a dead horse there's the devil to pay: seafaring words in everyday speech. Camden ME: International Marine. ISBN 978-0-07-032877-8.
  • Miller, Charles A. (2003). Ship of state: the nautical metaphors of Thomas Jefferson : with numerous examples by other writers from classical antiquity to the present. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-2516-6.
  • Milligan, Christopher S.; Smith, David C. (1997). "Language from the Sea: Discovering the Meaning and Origin of Nautical Metaphors". English Quarterly. 28 (4): 36–40.
  • Naval Air Station Jacksonville (1942). "Service Jargon". 9780070328778A-V(S) Indoctrination School. Department of the Navy. Retrieved June 17, 2010.