What is the difference between metaphorical, allegorical, and figurative?

  • Specifically, what context? Poetry? Poems?
    – Alenanno
    May 3, 2011 at 7:09
  • @Alenanno, no context. I'd like to know in which contexts these words can be used naturally, hence the difference part.
    – user3286
    May 3, 2011 at 7:14

3 Answers 3


Metaphor comes from the Greek μετά + φέρω ("I carry with") and is a rhetorical figure used to "carry" the meaning of a word into another.

For instance:

Main Square is the heart of the town

In this case the square is not actually a heart, but can be considered as the "pulsating center" of the town.

George is a fox

Meaning he is sly, not that he is actually a fox.

Note that if you say

George is as sly as a fox

that is not a metaphor, but a simile as you are comparing George to a fox, you are not saying he is one.

Allegory comes from the Greek ἄλλος + ἀγορεύω (to speak something different) is in a certain way similar to metaphor, as it expresses a concept using a different word. Contrary to metaphor, however, the shift of the meaning is often deep and hidden (that is probably why in common talk you will be likely to use a metaphor but not an allegory). My English literature is a bit rusty, especially this early in the morning... but I can give you an example from the Italian literature. In the first book of the Divina Commedia, Dante meets three beasts blocking his path: a lion, a lonza (some kind of leopard), and a she-wolf. These are allegories for the sins that Dante thinks can block the path of man towards (religious) liberation and work against ethic: pride, lust and greed.

It is important, here, to consider that in this case you actually have two meanings: the literary meaning and the hidden meaning. Dante is walking through a forest and he finds three beasts that block his way. You can stop there and just take this as the meaning. Or you can understand the image the author is conveying and see that the forest represents life and the beasts are capital sins. On the other hand, in the example of metaphor I wrote before you only have one meaning. Unless you are very naïve (or imaginative) you will never think there is a heart in the center of the town!

Finally, figurative refers in general to figures of speech, such as allegories and metaphors, and many others.

  • @Alenanno: Hope I got the translations right... I always studied Dante in Italian. I also extended my answer a little bit.
    – nico
    May 3, 2011 at 7:52
  • Where did you translate? Anyway, yeah but, maybe you already know, it's early italian, called Vulgar. (just saying) :D
    – Alenanno
    May 3, 2011 at 10:47
  • @Alenanno: sorry I was not clear... I was referring to the names of the sins, hope I got the right ones! :) And you're right, technically the Dante wrote in Vulgar, not Italian.
    – nico
    May 3, 2011 at 11:11
  • 2
    The sins are: Lonza = Lust; Lion = Pride, She-wolf = Greed.
    – Alenanno
    May 3, 2011 at 11:46
  • 1
    Nice! I wonder what differences are between idiomatic and metaphoric/figurative?
    – Tim
    Nov 1, 2011 at 2:30

All three are about nonliteral readings.

  • figurative, or figuratively means that, for a given phrase, you should understand it in it's nonliteral meaning. It is a current pattern for people to use the word 'literally' when they really should be using 'figuratively' (yes, an example of a figure of speech or trope is metaphor or allegory, and figurative derives its meaning eventually from 'figure of speech')
  • metaphor, or metaphorically, is a short phrase intended to be understood in its figurative meaning, without explicitly saying so. 'metaphor' is autological (self-describing, see this recent question) since etymologically it describes itself (it is a figurative 'carrying over' of meaning).
  • an allegory is a story that can be understood both literally and as referring one to one with some external already know situation.

Metaphor in casual usage has come to mean figurative, that is, a non literal statement. However metaphor has a much tighter meaning that that. Allegory is a story where there are some obvious parallels and lessons from the comparitive situation.

There is a progression of comparative figures of speech in English, each stronger than the previous. They are simile, metaphor and hypocatastasis. Here are examples of a mom talking to her child:

Your room is like a pigsty, clean it up. (Simile, the comparison is made with "like" or "as".) Your room is a pigsty, clean it up. (Metaphor, a declaration that the room "is" a pigsty.) "Clean up this pigsty!" (Hypocatastasis, the comparative word is used in substitution.)

In all cases the meaning is "your room shares some characteristics of a pig sty."

With apologies to our porcine friends.

  • I can't find any evidence of hypocatastasis before Bullinger as cited in Wikipedia's definition, but +1 for a better example than his. Useful term, but I don't get the derivation. Hypo = below normal and catastasis = the climax of a drama. Huh? Oct 30, 2011 at 20:43
  • @FumbleFingers I don't know of an earlier source either, I am pretty sure Bullinger made up a lot of names, although he undoubtedly did extensive research to categorize the names extant. However, as I am sure you know, just because something doesn't have a name doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Clearly this particular figurative form not only exists, but is actually quite common.
    – Fraser Orr
    Oct 31, 2011 at 2:16

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