a poet's glossary

dead metaphor A metaphor that has supposedly been used so often that it has lost its capacity to describe one thing in terms of another, and no longer operates as a metaphor. Do we think of the heart when we say that this definition strikes the heart of the matter. The question of whether or not a dead metaphor is still a metaphor has been debated in recent years. Metaphors may not be surprising –I'm skating on thin ice here–but they can still work as metaphors. Zoltán Kövecses explains: “The ‘dead metaphor’ account misses an important point… . The metaphors … may be highly conventionally and effortlessly used, but this does not mean that they have lost their vigor in thought and that they are dead. On the contrary, they are 'alive’ in the most important sense–they govern our thought–they are 'metaphors we live by.’” Some poets, such as Samuel Johnson in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), make a point of invigorating dead metaphors. Giambattista Vico contended in The New Science (1725) that all language begins with metaphor and that the first metaphors were drawn from the human body. A great deal of what we think of as literal speech consists of dead metaphors, as when we say “the mouth of a river,” “veins of minerals,” “murmuring waves,” “weeping willows,” “the bowels of the earth,” and “smiling skies.” We speak the vestiges of ancient metaphorical language.

— A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch

See also: cliché, convention, metaphor, personification