Fresh metaphors

Photo: Lars P. via Flickr

Picking metaphors and similes is like picking vegetables — the fresh ones have the most flavor. A good metaphor isn’t as old and hackneyed as the presidential horse race, nor is it as bewildering as a new version of Windows on the first day. Learn from the masters of metaphor, like Matt Taibbi. Metaphors should be clever, but not ostentatiously so.

Here are the top tips in the metaphor user’s manual:

  • Don’t mix metaphors, and don’t overdo them. For a refresher on this, see the tale of Christopher L. Gasper, the steely-eyed squeaker swiper.
  • Don’t take a metaphor too far. Unless you’re very clever, you’ll be lucky to extend your metaphor beyond a sentence or two. Eventually, you readers will figure out that planning a startup launch isn’t actually exactly like baking a cherry pie.
  • Do be selective. Use metaphors for illumination, not decoration.

Why fresh metaphors matter, with examples

A fresh metaphor is one that you haven’t read before, but that immediately clarifies a situation. A reader encountering a hackneyed metaphor thinks, “Oh, that again,” if they think at all. If your metaphor is strained and overengineered, they’ll say “Huh?” — and if you explain the extended metaphor, you break the mood. The ideal metaphor is one you just coined that’s topical and clearly fits the situation. The right response from the reader is a wry smile.

Let’s look at some examples. (These are, strictly speaking, similes, but let’s not be pedantic.)



As dumb as a post.

As dumb as a box of rocks. (Hey, Google suggested it.)


As dumb as a turkey with Alzheimer’s disease.


As dumb as fighting Donald Trump with nothing but facts.

As dumb as opening the third casino in a 50-mile radius.



As slow as molasses.

As slow as a snail.


As slow as my computer from 2009 running Photoshop.


Moving as slowly as a guy with a bad hangover.

As slow as rush hour traffic.



As happy as a clam. (How happy are clams, really, with their tiny little brains?)

As happy as a pig in shit. (Happy, and offensive.)


As happy as a Tumblr user when Homestuck updates. (Obscure.)


As happy as a road warrior getting a first-class upgrade.

As happy as a venture capitalist with an IPO.

How to come up with metaphors

The best examples come with context. You’re writing and you have to explain something. The situation is unusual, but it reminds you of some other situation or emotion.

Take a second and free your mind from the immediate context. What else makes you feel like this? Is is something everyone has experienced, or at least most of the people in your target audience? Will they relate?

Then just drop it in and move on. Your audience will get the message, but they’ll pay attention the subject matter, not to you. And that’s the point.




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  1. I was interviewing a veteran who had lost his vision in his later years. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around waiting — like a nut on a log — for other people to do things for me.” When I listened back to our conversation, I kept stumbling over that metaphor. I’d never heard it before, and it shouldn’t have made sense, but I got this very clear picture of a lonely acorn on a log in a forest. I ended up using it in his story — if only to capture how he talked.

    Metaphors are important in framing (and reframing) issues. It’s a topic of interest for me. Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” family metaphor was really useful in helping me understand how seemingly contradictory political beliefs hang together. Frameworks Institute has a great little online course that includes metaphors and framing. And NLP (neurolinguistic programming) also explores metaphors and how they shape our thinking/behaviors.

  2. Alternatively, take a trip to Texas, where you can pick up metaphors that might be hackneyed in Texas, but seem fresh to everyone outside of Texas. Faster than a minnow can swim a dipper, raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock, all over something like white on rice.