In its simplest sense, a metaphor is a figure of speech where, essentially, a simile is ellipted to what is apparently a false statement, but as the intention is to emphasise the similarity rather than deceive, this is an accepted linguistic device.

Bob is like a tiger.

Bob is a tiger.

John Lawler is an expert on pointing out in his invaluable and fascinating contributions the extended metaphors on which a lot of our language is built, such as the container metaphor(s) and up-is-achievement metaphor. In a recent post, he pointed out that 'zenith' is used metaphorically as 'high point [of eg a career]'.

However, Wikipedia has this to say about dead metaphors:

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.[2] If the verb "to plough" retained the simple meaning of "to turn up the earth with a plough," then the idea of a car "ploughing through traffic" would clearly be a metaphor. The expression would be a comparison between the motion of the plough cutting through the soil and a car speeding through traffic. In order to understand it, one would need to grasp the comparison. However, "to plough" has taken on an additional meaning of "to move in a fast and uncontrolled manner," and so to say that a car "ploughed through the traffic" is a literal statement. No knowledge of the original metaphorical symbolism is necessary to understanding the statement.

For 'zenith', Elliott Frith found a dictionary definition:

Zenith noun

the strongest or most successful period of time

Should we revise our usage of the word 'metaphor' in such cases?

  • 4
    I think we should lay this question out to pasture. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 15:40
  • 7
    It's beautiful that for discussion of outmoded metaphors, they are described as metaphorically dead.
    – Andy
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 15:42
  • 3
    @RyeɃreḁd: I think the usage lay out to pasture should be put out to grass. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 15:52
  • 2
    A metaphor isn't killed by some maniac adding it to a definition list in a dictionary.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 17:45
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    @Kris How many brains you claim to have is your affair, but even accepting that decree from a single dictionary, does ' now accepted as quasi-literal' mean that the term 'metaphor' is still acceptable, or changing to 'quasi-metaphor' or 'ex-metaphor' ...? Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 9:34

4 Answers 4


No, There is no imperative to create a new construct here.

When a metaphor ''loses its metaphorical properties'' due to the demise of colloquial meaning of its components, where the meaning remains we call this an idiom. Where the meaning is lost entirely, we call it a dead metaphor. Both of these descriptions are accurate, depending on the time, place and persons from and to which the phrase is spoken or written.

Also I believe the following phrasing manipulates the outcome of the discussion:

'high point [e.g., of a career]'

The above definition includes his very own implied assumption of "high" being strong or successful! It would be far more accurate to simply use the following phrasing in our definition of the zenith of a career:

'strongest or most successful point [e.g., of a career]'

I believe this is simply a discussion of the difference between metaphor and idiom.

In the case of the phrase "Falling in Love" we're really looking at an idiom. Whether or not a person understands this phrase is a combination of 1) whether they've heard that particular idiom, and 2) whether idiom exists in their native paradigm at all (e.g. certain languages have no idioms, and the concept of idiom can be a challenging new one).

However, this is completely separate from the fact that a limber mind can interpret meaning in places where it has not been literally defined. We call this metaphor.

  • That's not what I asked. Specifically, does " 'zenith' is used metaphorically" need rephrasing in the light of the definition " 'zenith': the strongest or most successful period of time" (as Max Black argues)? Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 19:06

TL;DR Yes, a dead metaphor has ceased to be a metaphor. It's dead. The point to saying it is a dead metaphor is because it is no longer a metaphor. The metaphorical part of it is gone. The literal meaning is now the new one.

What is a dead metaphor? It's a word or phrase that was at one time being used metaphorically, but now that original meaning is no longer present and the word means only the new thing. To be literal minded, there's no carrying over any more, the carrying over is done, you're on the other side.

For example, 'literally' is a dead metaphor. It used to mean 'as written', but now it means 'without any figurative meaning.' You don't even think of writing at all.

If a word or phrase starts out as literal, then moves on to a metaphor, then moves on to a dead metaphor, the fact that it is called 'dead' implies that it is no longer a metaphor, it no longer has its original literal meaning. The literal meaning is no longer there, the metaphorical meaning is barely there, it is not the new meaning entirely without any hint of the metaphor. The metaphor is gone.

One can extract the original meaning by thinking literally (words can maintain multiple meanings and one can simply switch to the older meaning), or one may need to look at the etymology to see that semantic drift has occurred and the original meaning no longer applies.

Note that, in 'dead metaphor', 'dead' is a dead metaphor; you had no idea that you were not taking it literally as 'heart not beating', just 'it doesn't work that way anymore'.

Also, in 'dead metaphor', 'metaphor' is a dead metaphor. It literally means, by translation (also a metaphor for 'metaphor' and a literal translation of 'metaphor' from Greek roots into Latin ones)... where was I... oh yeah... 'meta' means across, and -fer' means carry or bear, so together 'carrying across' like a bridge, and word meanings aren't literally being carried across.

Also 'dead metaphor' is a dead metaphor. If you've followed this far, a dead metaphor is neither dead nor a metaphor nor a literal dead metaphor. It's something that doesn't mean what it used to mean and you hardly think of what that first meaning was (OK, it mostly depends on dead because it is very 'metaphor'-like).

Follow, root (v3), like, used to, depends, very, all these had different meanings way back when and slowly drifted to take on new metaphorical meanings. To some extent, all words are metaphors.

  • And, dead metaphors often pose as the truth: “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions." --Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
    – gregory
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 15:52

The following extract is from Figurative language and lexicography {2015} by Professor Alice Deignan, Head of School and Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Leeds:

This chapter explores the issues in dealing with figurative language in dictionaries. It uses the understanding of 'figurative language' that is generally shared by applied and corpus linguists, as opposed to scholars of poetry and literature. In this understanding, 'figurative language' covers all uses that are understood in some way as being an extension or transference of meaning from a literal meaning; the term is not restricted to novel or creative uses. This understanding of 'figurative' therefore includes conventionalized uses of words, such as warm to describe friendly behavior, or see to describe thinking, as well as more recent but established uses such as green to describe environmental issues. By far the most studied kind of figurative language is metaphor, which is the focus of most of this chapter.

I see it as confirmation that even dead metaphorical usages (few of us think automatically of physics when we read "They were given a warm reception", opthalmology when someone says "I fail to see how this will help", or chlorophyll on hearing "The Greens want to scrap tuition fees"), obviously here (and in fact generally) seen as a subset of figurative usages, are still considered to be metaphorical usages by applied and corpus linguists if not scholars of poetry and literature. Conventionally, these senses may be given their own definitions in modern dictionaries (eg warm = friendly, hospitable (and can also =, ironically, hostile!), and these senses may or may not be flagged 'figurative'.

That is the acceptable answer on ELU.

  • This answer seems to amount to: dead metaphors can be treated as metaphors for some purposes, while for other purposes, they can't. Has there ever been any reason to doubt that?
    – jsw29
    Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 16:40
  • Since no one has found and posted an answer in the intervening 6 years, and Deignan sees fit to post such a statement, I'd say your response hardly needs answering. And recently someone wrote 'As for "sitting" there is nothing metaphorical about it since it has come to mean "to be in a particular place". The person writing this was plainly stating a contrary opinion. '[N]othing metaphorical about it'. End of story Good night. Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 18:36
  • The remark that there is nothing metaphorical about that use of sitting was, as @LPH explained in the comments, made in a context to which its nonmetaphorical aspects were more relevant than the metaphorical ones. That remark is compatible with acknowledging that thinking of sitting as metaphorical could be illuminating in some other context.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jun 28, 2020 at 21:56
  • I note that the question has There is debate among literary scholars -- It is then for literary scholars to resolve it, not linguists and grammarians, etc.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 20:18
  • Some literary scholars doubtless debate the best way out of the Covid crisis. That does not mean that the issue must (/should / can) be resolved by literary scholars. The issue involves the definition of 'metaphor', which is certainly a linguistics issue. Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 15:20

Should the phrase "'zenith' is used metaphorically" be rephrased?

It depends: who is the speaker? what's the point are they making? When are they writing?

I consider writing "'zenith' is used metaphorically as 'high point [of eg a career]' a metaphoric construction in the late stages of its life (circa 2020). While younger native speakers may disagree, considering this comparison entirely dead (i.e. literal and therfore potentially confusing), some older speakers will still consider 'zenith' confined to astronomy (and/or geometry). The point being, a metaphor dies slowly and gradually--a binary figurative/literal switch isn't just flicked off. In due course, this word may loose its sense of a path overhead and take on its latest meanings associated with time--the evolution seems natural enough: from something spatial to something in spacetime.

If we accept that 'zenith' has changed its field of associations, then yes, we should ask Lawler to rephrase the sentence. ("Ah, sorry but the arm of a chair is no longer metaphoric.") If there's some frisson left in the construction, then his claim still holds relevance today.

On a more practical level, simple tense or mood adjustments could be the corrective one desires:

'zenith' was used metaphorically [by so-and-so in 19xx]. 
'zenith' may be used metaphorically here... 
  • << 'zenith' was used metaphorically [by so-and-so in 19xx]. >> does not give the time reference: Did so-and-so regard it as a metaphorical usage, is the narrator saying that it was generally considered metaphorical in 19xx, or is the narrator saying that it is considered metaphorical [even] today? Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 16:57

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