Is there a term that describes the act of giving tangible qualities to an intangible noun?

I stumbled over a metaphor


I felt sadness condense on my skin

The first one might just be "figure of speech", but perhaps there is a more specific name.

  • 2
    I guess it is the good old metaphor, only robed in verbal form. Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 4:36
  • Anything that is not literal is called 'figurative' or a 'figure of speech'. So both are figures of speech. Which particular one for each is up to judgement. I don't know if there is such a label specifically for a concrete thing replacing an abstract idea. Here's a good collection of some of them: Silva Rhetoricae
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 2:24
  • Indeed, it is metaphor, which is just another term for "figure of speech", "simile", or "metonymy". All of these terms and many more are referring to the same cognitive phenomenon. Take a look at Lakoff and Johnson. Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 16:01
  • Does this answer your question? A word for "to make more concrete" in philosophical context? Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 15:05

3 Answers 3


reification: essentially making something intangible (or abstract), tangible

to make something more real or consider it as real:

  • 3
    Can you provide an example sentence to demonstrate?
    – NVZ
    Commented Mar 31, 2022 at 2:13

The closest word I could find was personification which means:

personification — the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being.

Its synonym is anthropomorphism.

The key difference between the word you seek and personification is that you are not strictly describing human characteristics. Personification isn't strictly human in nature but it does typically refer to characteristics that are related to active beings or people. More strictly:

  • Describing a non-human with human terms (e.g. the dog pondered its existence thoughtfully)
  • Describing an inanimate object with animate terms (e.g. the sun smiled down on us)

But what you want is a term that refers to an intangible object as if it were tangible. This is very similar to personification and I was able to find a few descriptions of personification that included such usage. An example:

One of the primary uses of personification is in metaphor, in which something tangible is used to represent something intangible. By personifying the intangible, it takes on a sort of life in the mind of a reader or listener. A person might describe a bad experience as a nightmare, or like a roller coaster ride. A storm could be described as an angry child throwing a tantrum, yelling and screaming and throwing things about. Death is often personified as the grim reaper, a frightening robed figure carrying a scythe whose job is taking the souls of the dead to the afterlife. — wiseGEEK

Dictionary definitions do not seem to support this usage but until a more appropriate word enters the English lexicon it is the closest match.

Aside from that, the more generic term would be metaphor:

metaphor — a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.

  • 1
    Hmm. The Grim Reaper is personification (death is turned into a person); but nightmare and roller coaster are simply metaphor, surely?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 18:54
  • @AndrewLeach: The internets seem to be somewhat divided on this. As the answer notes, dictionaries don't typically include the tangible to intangible variation but I was able to find various sites claiming that it qualifies as personification. I'll add a note about metaphor but I suspect the asker was looking for a more specific term.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 18:57
  • Personification was my first gut reaction to the question as well. Metaphor is probably more correct though.
    – Preston
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 20:58

The word embodiment works well in this case.

  • 2
    Hello and welcome to EL&U. Thank you for contributing an answer. As Stack Exchange aims to be a database of authoritative answers, please provide some substantiation for your answer (have a look at MrHen's answer). Examples include relevant links (with appropriate citations) and reasoned arguments.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 16:48

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