Idiom vs. Metaphor: Explained

What is the difference between idiom vs. metaphor? Both have a part in the English language and culture that you should understand.

Idioms and metaphors have some similarities, but they are not the same thing. An idiom can have a figurative and literal meaning, while a metaphor is a figure of speech that refers to one thing to show a fact about another thing.

Common idioms and metaphors are so much a part of the English language that native speakers may not even think about them when they use them. However, this particular use of words gets confusing for those new to the language.

Looking at some examples of idiom vs. metaphor will help you understand the differences between these two English literary devices. When you have a good grasp of this type of figurative language, you can make your writing more engaging and interesting.

For more advice on how to improve your writing, check out our article on using tone of voice. 

Decoding the Difference Between Idiom vs. Metaphor

Idiom vs Metaphor

Before we can look at idiom and metaphor examples, first, you must understand what the two words mean. The main difference between the two is that an idiom is a short word, phrase, or group of words with a known second meaning, while a metaphor usually requires some surrounding context to understand.

What Is an Idiom?

The word idiom comes from the Latin word idiomÄ«, which means “special property.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word means “an expression that cannot be understood from the meaning of its separate words, but that has a separate meaning of its own.” 

For example, the expression “cold feet” can mean to be nervous about something, but the meaning of the words “cold feet” does not actually apply to your emotions. However, this phraseology is something English language speakers easily accept.

An idiom can be a metaphor, but it is so widely accepted that the reader or listener does not need surrounding context to understand the meaning. 

Common Idioms in the English Language

Here are some idioms that most English speakers have no trouble understanding, even though the individual words or phrases do not make sense the way people use them if taken literally.

  • A short fuse: This idiom refers to someone who has a quick temper.
  • Crying wolf: This adage comes from a classic children's story and means asking for help when needed.
  • Cold turkey: When someone quits or starts something addictive suddenly without any preparation, this phrase applies.
  • Couch potato: Someone who likes to sit around and not get much exercise can fit this very visual description.
  • Down for the count: When someone is tired or giving up, then this idiom applies.
  • Face the music: This phrase means to deal with the reality of a bad situation or the consequences of one's actions.
  • Fish out of water: Someone or something that is out of place.
  • Get over something: This idiom applies if you can move past something challenging.
  • Hit the books: This phrase means to study hard.
  • On the ball: Someone that is quick to react or understand things can be described as “on the ball.” 
  • Pitch in: No one is going to throw a ball when asked to pitch in, but they will join in on the activity.
  • Plain as day: An idiom that means something is very clear and obvious.
  • Second fiddle: Something that is less important than something else.
  • Sit tight: While someone might sit while they wait, this phrase means to sit.
  • Sleep on it: While this might refer to actually sleeping and waiting until the next day, it refers to waiting before making a decision. 
  • Up in the air: When something is up in the air, it means it is undecided or uncertain.

What Is a Metaphor?

Idiom vs. Metaphor
Metaphor is a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing to show or suggest that they are similar

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a metaphor as “a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing to show or suggest that they are similar.” 

There are several figures of speech that can be considered types of metaphors. They include:

  • Simile
  • Hyperbole
  • Metonymy
  • Personification 

One of the most famous metaphors in English literature is “All the word's a stage” from Shakespeare's As You Like It. clearly, the playwright was not saying the world literally was a stage, but rather compared life to a play acted out in front of an audience. 

Four Types of Metaphors

Metaphors usually fall into one of these four categories:

  • Standard metaphor: This compares two unlike things with a sentence that says X is Y.
  • Implied metaphor: This type of metaphor compares two things but does not name one of the things.
  • Extended metaphor: Extended metaphors extend past one sentence. They may include the entire story or poem to create descriptive comparisons.
  • Dead metaphor: When a metaphor changes its meaning over time due to over-use, it no longer conveys the original meaning and becomes dead. Dead metaphors can also be simply over-used metaphors, even if the meaning is still known.

Common Metaphors in the English Language

Metaphors tend to be longer phrases than idioms. Here are some standard metaphor examples to consider. 

  • The class was a zoo before Christmas break. Here, the class obviously is not made up of wild animals, but the implied comparison is that the children were wild like zoo animals.
  • The wind howled like a wolf. Of course, most people will admit that the wind does not actually sound like a wolf, but this metaphor works for a noisy, windy day.
  • The sound of the baby laughing was music to my ears. This metaphor is common for sounds that people find particularly pleasant, even if they are not actually musical sounds.
  • You are an angel. Most people are not angelic, but this comparison compares someone to an angel due to their good, kind actions.

Examples of Implied Metaphors

Here are some examples of implied metaphors where one item is not explicitly mentioned:

  • The general barked orders at his men. Here the writer compares the general to a dog barking at his men, but the word “dog” is not in the sentence. 
  • The mean girl prowled about, ready to pounce on her prey the moment an opportunity presented. Here the bully is described as a wild cat getting ready to pounce.
  • The racer was chomping at the bit for the starting gun. So here, the comparison is between the racer and a horse at the starting line.

Example of Extended Metaphors

Extended metaphors show up in classic literature. Here are some commonly known examples:

  • “Hope is The Thing With Features” by Emily Dickinson. In this poem, the entire poem describes hope like a little bird complete with feathers that can weather any storm.
  • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. Frost compares life to a twisting, turning road winding through the woods in this famous poem.
  • “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. The entire play is not a metaphor, but Romeo's monologue that starts with “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” is an extended metaphor comparing Juliet to the sun.

Examples of Dead Metaphors

Metaphors work because of the visual image they create, and dead metaphors lose their impact because we no longer have that mental image in mind. They still show up in English, but they do not have as much impact. Some dead metaphors that have lost some of their meaning include:

  • Time is running out: We no longer use hourglasses, so though we understand this metaphor, its meaning is losing impactfulness.
  • Stick in the mud: This phrase comes from a time when cars or wagons would easily get stuck in the mud on dirt roads, but it is losing its impact.
  • Fly off the handle: This phase is still common, but we no longer know where its meaning originated.

A Final Word on Idiom vs. Metaphor

An idiom is a short group of words with a non-literal meaning. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things.

Both idioms and metaphors make writing and speech more impactful because of the visual images they create. Both have a place in your writing, as long as you understand what they are and how to use them well.

If you want to really take things to the next level, look at our article on how to improve your vocabulary in your writing.

FAQs on Idiom vs. Metaphor

Are idioms metaphors?

Idioms can be metaphors, especially implied metaphors, because they require the reader or listener to compare unlike things to understand the meaning.

How is an idiom different from a metaphor?

Idioms make a point using colloquial, culturally-specific language. They may be metaphors but may not always be. Metaphors compare two unlike things to make a point.

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