A few years back I stumbled upon a term that illuminated my understanding of why some metaphors fall flat. I have waded through the muddy waters of the Internet and have seen neither hide nor hair of the elusive term. It has truly become my white whale.

I don't remember if it was a term from literature or psychology, but basically it was used to describe why a statement like "she was trying to thread an elephant through the eye of a needle" does not make sense to people who do not know what a needle or an elephant is.

But this phrase does not actually describe what I'm looking for. The phrase I'm looking for has to do with me using a metaphor to describe some personal discovery. For instance, someone finds a novel solution for a long standing problem. When asked to explain how he came to find the new solution he says "I thought of the problem as wanting to boil a pot of water. After that it was simple." When the problem at hand had to do with physics or engineering, thinking of the problem as "boiling a pot of water" has nothing to do with the problem and no one else sees the connection, but it let him glean some insight that helped him solve the problem.

The term I'm looking for has to do with "the boiling pot of water" having some significance to him that other people can't understand since they did not make all the thought gymnastics to have that same viewpoint.

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    I can think of a phrase, e.g. 'culturally specific' or 'specific to a given culture'. I can't think of a single word, except perhaps non-transcultural (!!!?) P.S. Do you mean 'illusive' (deceptive) or 'elusive' (hard to find)? Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 14:56
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    I feel like reading around "felicity conditions" in speech-act theory and pragmatics might point you in the right direction. You could say that the felicity conditions were not in place for the understanding of the metaphor. Or maybe we are just dealing with an obtuse person (which is also part of felicity conditions, too)
    – R.Cunliffe
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 15:13
  • I think you meant elusive (difficult to find, catch, or achieve), not illusive (deceptive; illusory). And if you know the background to easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle you should realise that your reference to threading there is something of a "mixed metaphor" anyway. The relevant "needle" is a man-sized (not camel-sized) entrance to a walled city (such as Jerusalem), not something you would draw elephant-sized thread through. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 15:49
  • Thanks for the correction on the word illusive, that was my mistake. I've never heard of threading a camel, but I guess the idea is the same someone is trying to do something that is seemingly impossible. Thanks @cunliffe I'll look into the felicity condition. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 16:10
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    @EdwinAshworth I know, I just don't think it's very good. I do have the right to dislike stuff, right? Of course, the pearl. Sure.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 18:47

7 Answers 7


One thing that comes to mind is that the listener may not have the frame of reference to understand the metaphor.

If nobody but the speaker sees how the metaphor makes any sense, you could say the metaphor was idiosyncratic.

Not sure if either is exactly what you meant, but I'm leaving them here just in case they might.


"Other people can't understand since they did not make all the thought gymnastics to have that view point."

I believe you're thinking of something along the lines of an individual's mental model.

From Wikipedia:

A mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.

A mental model is a kind of internal symbol or representation of external reality, hypothesized to play a major role in cognition, reasoning and decision-making. Kenneth Craik suggested in 1943 that the mind constructs "small-scale models" of reality that it uses to anticipate events.

Jay Wright Forrester defined general mental models as:

The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system (Forrester, 1971).

In psychology, the term mental models is sometimes used to refer to mental representations or mental simulation generally. At other times it is used to refer to § Mental models and reasoning and to the mental model theory of reasoning developed by Philip Johnson-Laird and Ruth M.J. Byrne.

As each person has their own subjective experiences so does each person have their own mental model of the way the world works—and each person forms their own associations between things and events and outcomes. It's those parts of our mental models that we have in common that allow us to interact with each other. But we can also think and react uniquely because of the differences between our individual mental models.

So, when your person looks at a pot of boiling water, it triggers an association that they have (and which others don't) that leads them to think of a solution to a problem that others cannot.

Returning to the original question of metaphors (although you've since indicated that wasn't your main point), if you don't understand the references behind a metaphor (they are not part of your mental model), then you will not be able to form the relationships required to understand the metaphor.


If you are trying to remember something you have read in the context of metaphors that fall flat, maybe that was the expression "dead metaphor". When everyone saw horses every day, the metaphor "he took the bit between his teeth" made sense, but does it now? It is dead (or on the way there).

  • It is somewhat unclear whether the question is about (1) the cases in which one fails to understand the intended metaphorical meaning, because one doesn't know the literal meaning of the expression, or (2) the cases in which one understands the intended meaning, but fails to understand the metaphorical nature of the expression, because one doesn't know its literal meaning. Dead metaphor may, in some cases, be an apt term for (2), but not for (1).
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 0:17

Someone who is too literal-minded may have trouble with metaphors. But sometimes a metaphor is too opaque, even for those who are able to process figurative language with ease.

  • You are close to what I'm looking for. The word I had hear was a term for why me describing my though process, my eureka idea, is not sufficient a breadcrumb for others to arrive at the same conclusion or understand the thought process I've undergone to get there. Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 19:27

A “colloquialism” is a word or phrase based on informal conversation. It requires prior knowledge or experience to understand.

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    Hello, and welcome to the EL&U. This site encouraged its users to provide research for the information they give.
    – fev
    Commented Jan 14, 2021 at 15:00

There are people who can understand an analogy coming from a person they have no common experience with. I guess because they HAVE the knowledge and NOT the experience.

If one cannot understand a metaphor, is it possible said being also has a hard time comprehending analogy? Metaphors are a type of analogy. So the next question would be, “Is it numerous metaphors said being cannot catch? Or is it specific metaphors said being cannot catch? (Meaning not all, but specific metaphors)

Regardless of that answer, i believe the term mental models is correct in what you’re searching for.

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    – Joachim
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 7:10

Are you talking about an epiphany? That would be a moment of sudden insight, possibly triggered by an external cue whose capacity to trigger said insight depends on a very specific (idiosyncratic) thought process. Since most others would lack such a mindset, offering a metaphor using the same cue would likely be unfruitful. Some alternate names are Aha! or Eureka! moment.

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