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I have the following sentence which I thought was implying that a metaphor is like a moustache

  • Today I learnt how to wax a metaphor

Having checked through wiktionary the only literal (i.e. transitive verb) meaning of "wax" that may be applied is:

5 (transitive, archaic, usually of a musical or oral performance) To record

But the term is archaic, and I can't quite place the idea of learning to record a metaphor (rather than recording its expression).


  1. Is the above bulleted statement a metaphor?
  2. Is that because it cannot be read literally?
  • I suppose that it can be read literally but the oddity of what it denotes would suggest a metaphorical reading of it all the same - this time with an alternative definition of "wax" (i.e. to record). but then it's a judgment between metaphorical meanings, rather than a literal and figurative reading – concerned Dec 30 '15 at 6:56
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    You need to give a lot more context, the surrounding paragraph and motivation. Another explanation is that it may be poor usage (i.e. the attempt at a metaphor may just not work). – Mitch Dec 31 '15 at 16:26
  • ok thanks! i think if it is grasped as a metaphor, then the target audience would understand - given their shared assumptions about metaphors and moustaches too confusing to really list – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 16:28
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Yes, the statement

Today I learnt how to wax a metaphor

is itself a metaphor.

Without more context, it's not possible to say for sure what the intended meaning of 'to wax' is in that metaphor, but the most likely meaning is

To increase [the metaphor] gradually in size, ..., strength, or intensity....

[wax. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved December 30 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wax .]

Another possible meaning, that seems less likely to me, is

To coat, treat, or polish with wax.

(op. cit.)

In this latter sense, 'to wax' a metaphor would mean to make it more slippery, as with waxed skis, or more polished, as with floors.

The statement is a metaphor, but whether or not it can

... be read literally

does not bear directly on whether or not the statement is or is not a metaphor.

  1. Other things than metaphors cannot be read literally. One prominent example of another thing that cannot be read literally is nonsense, which, if read metaphorically, is no longer nonsense.

  2. Some metaphors can be read literally, but are nonetheless metaphors. This is by far the most common case for metaphors. An example is your idea that 'waxing' in the sense of 'recording' is literal. The actual referent of 'to wax' in that sense is 'to record in wax', which itself refers to the substance used for phonographic recording. Thus 'to wax' in the sense you took for literal means 'to record [on wax]'--but phonographic recordings long ago ceased to be made in wax:

A decade later, Edison developed a greatly improved phonograph that employed a hollow wax cylinder instead of a foil sheet. This proved to be both a better-sounding and far more useful device. The wax phonograph cylinder created the recorded sound market at the end of the 1880s and dominated it through the early years of the 20th century.

(From Wikipedia.)

A metaphor is a metaphor because it is

a poetically or rhetorically ambitious use of words, a figurative as opposed to literal use.

(See Hills, David, "Metaphor", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/metaphor/.)

A deceptively simple but nonetheless complete definition of metaphor is this from Silva Rhetoricae:

A comparison made by referring to one thing as another.

In the case of your example, a metaphor is referred to with a verb that applies to skis, or floors, or another thing entirely.

  • thanks. you point out the obvious ambiguity to identifying the tenor. what is the term for this property? may i also ask, supposing the figure draws a likeness between metaphors and moustaches, if the vehicle includes its being waxed, or not ? – concerned Dec 30 '15 at 8:28
  • @user3293056, the tenor is metaphor (as subject); the vehicle is the waxing. If the context makes clear that metaphors are being referred to as (not compared to or likened to--different figure) moustaches, then yes, moustaches are part of the vehicle. The terminology is perhaps clearer when thought of as primary (metaphor) and secondary (waxing) subjects--terminology from Beardsley rather than Richards. See the article linked from the Enc. of Philos. – JEL Dec 30 '15 at 8:37
  • @user3293056, if the vehicle/secondary subject is explicitly a moustache or moustaches, the metaphorical sense of 'to wax' is 'to shape [a metaphor] as a moustache is shaped after being impregnated with wax'. – JEL Dec 30 '15 at 8:41
  • so in the SEP example of implicit metaphor the entire focus of the sentence "I shall flutter helplessly closer and closer until you burn me to death at last." is the secondary subject ? that seems wrong – concerned Dec 30 '15 at 8:56
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    yeah if so then i misunderstood the article, which is frustrating. thanks for your help – concerned Dec 30 '15 at 9:08
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"To wax a metaphor" may be poetic, but it is not a metaphor. From the OED:

Of a quality, activity, event, etc.: To come into being, spring up, begin, arise, occur. Also with up. Of the day: To appear, dawn.

and

to wax forth, to be born or created.

So, your example Today I learnt how to wax a metaphor means, literally, that Today I learnt how to (create/bring into being/cause to appear or occur) a metaphor. Archaic for sure, but not metaphoric.

A metaphor is a sentence like all the world is a stage which works by viewing the world as having some of the characteristics of a stage, and has the form of the world being spoken of as a stage when it only resembles a stage, which makes it different to a simile which normally uses "as" or "like". Keep in mind that the conceptual view of metaphor as anything that maps the characteristics of A onto B covers a much wider range of forms.

In your example, nothing is being spoken of as being something else, nor is any characteristic being transferred to something else, so it is not a metaphor by either the traditional or the conceptual model.

  • i found the hit and that definition is "obsolete" – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 8:24
  • i downvoted cos your answer needs more explanation of when an expression should be read as obsolete rather than metaphoric. obsolete means "no longer in use in the English language", and i struggle to believe that it should be read that way – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 8:28
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    @user3293056 ~ first, Oxford Dictionaries is not the Oxford English Dictionary. Second, what makes you think that an archaic term means it must be a metaphor? The two things are totally unrelated. There is a lot of obsolete language in use right now in legal, ceremonial, or literate contexts, and 'wax' is still in current use to describe the growing phase of the moon -> moonconnection.com/moon_phases.phtml. Thirdly, I have explained what defines a metaphor. If you think "I learnt how to wax a metaphor" is metaphoric, please go ahead and explain it to me. – Roaring Fish Dec 31 '15 at 9:22
  • i'm confused... i already asked (imho politely) for when a term should be read in its obsolete sense as opposed to metaphorically, and i make it clear i thought that the statement in the OP expressed likeness between a metaphor and a moustache - by saying that i learnt to wax [that the vehicle of moustache is implied by the metaphor's focus]. yes it is an unusual etc. comparison – concerned Dec 31 '15 at 9:29

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