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Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew BibleMetaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept$

Joseph Lam

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780199394647

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199394647.001.0001

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(p.215) Appendix On Metaphor and Simile

(p.215) Appendix On Metaphor and Simile

Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible

Joseph Lam

Oxford University Press

There is a tentative but emerging consensus within recent theoretical literature that simile is a subspecies of metaphor.1 It is worth noting, however, that this understanding is nothing new, for it was already the opinion of Aristotle: “The simile also is a metaphor; the difference is but slight.”2

In order to explain this view of simile, the following definitions need to be established (here relying heavily on the argument of Sam Glucksberg in Understanding Figurative Language):3

  1. i. a literal comparison is a statement of the form “A is like B” in which A and B are of the same category or level of abstraction;

  2. ii. a metaphorical comparison or simile is a statement of the form “A is like B” in which A and B are not of the same category or level of abstraction.

Immediately it is clear that the presence or absence of the word like is not determinative for metaphoricity; like-statements can be either literal or metaphorical depending on the perceived relationship between the terms A and B.

Two distinguishing characteristics of similes vis-à-vis literal comparisons can be adduced to support the contention that simile is a subspecies of metaphor. First, similes differ from literal comparisons in that the latter are reversible whereas the former are not.4 So, the statement Copper is like tin (a literal comparison) can be changed to Tin is like copper and still make sense—indeed, the two represent virtually the same predication. But My job is like a jail (a simile) cannot be changed to *A jail is like my job and still make sense, at least not the same (metaphorical) sense. Note that non-reversibility is also a characteristic of metaphorical statements of the form “A is B”: My job is a jail cannot be rephrased to *A jail is my job without either yielding nonsense or a completely different sense. (The apparent intelligibility of A (p.216) jail is my job requires continuing to construe A jail as the predicate of the sentence, reading it as “B is A.” Compare, for instance, the first line of the famous hymn of Luther, A mighty fortress is our God.)

The second distinguishing characteristic relates to the truth-conditional relationships that hold between similes and equational metaphorical statements (but not literal comparisons). A simile, or metaphorical comparison, always allows one to infer the truth of its corresponding metaphorical equational statement.5 If My job is like a jail is true, so is the inference My job is a jail. But such is not the case with literal comparisons. Copper is like tin does not lead one to infer that Copper is tin.

These two properties of similes lead inexorably to the conclusion that they are ultimately reducible to metaphor. As mentioned, this position is by no means unusual, though different explanations have been offered for the function of the token like in these contexts. One way of explaining it is to say that the simile “A is like B” is merely a weakened form of the corresponding equational statement “A is B,” with the like functioning as a “hedge” or a weakening element. As Stern explains, referring to the hypothetical example of Juliet is not like the sun, she is the sun:

Semantically, “is the sun” and “is like the sun” express the same content (in the same contexts) but they differ rhetorically or pragmatically. As many authors suggest, a simile is less direct and forceful than its corresponding metaphor. The reason is not that it is “shorter” or more concise than the other, but that “like” functions as a hedge, or qualifier, on the content. What is denied in the first clause is the qualification, not the content simpliciter, which in turn is affirmed with emphasis in the second clause. But clauses, however, are interpreted metaphorically.6

Another explanation of the function of like, one that is offered by Glucksberg, involves understanding the simile “A is B” as essentially a class-inclusion statement in which B is not interpreted literally but represents an ad hoc superordinate category (call it #B#7) generated in context.8 So, My lawyer is a shark could be analyzed as My lawyer is #a shark# where #a shark# denotes not the marine animal but an ad hoc superordinate category inclusive of all animate beings that are predatory, ruthless, aggressive, etc. In turn, the corresponding simile My lawyer is like a shark could be analyzed as My lawyer is #like a shark# where #like a shark# represents the same ad hoc category, and where the word like serves as an explicit marker of the category generation.

Whatever the best explanation is for the function of like in similes, many theorists are in agreement that they ought to be considered metaphorical statements. Therefore, in this study, Biblical Hebrew statements utilizing the preposition are treated as metaphorical where the context justifies this interpretation (i.e., where A and B in the statement “A B” differ in category or level of abstraction).


(1.) E.g., Stern, Metaphor, 229–232; Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language, 29–37; Guttenplan, Objects of Metaphor, 202–209.

(2.) Rhetoric 1406b20, as cited in Stern, Metaphor, 229.

(3.) Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language, 29–38. Virtually all of the linguistic examples in the following discussion are from that work.

(4.) “Metaphoric comparisons provide the extreme case of assymetry. Metaphors are not just assymetrical; they are non-reversible . . . ” (Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language, 32).

(5.) See Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language, 36–38.

(6.) Stern, Metaphor in Context, 232. The explanation of like as a “hedge” is also characteristic of Guttenplan’s account (Objects of Metaphor, 206–209), though that is offered in the context of a much more idiosyncratic explanation of metaphor in general.

(7.) The use of enclosing # symbols here is not from Glucksberg; it is my own (ad hoc) way of making explicit certain aspects of Glucksberg’s account, inspired by Stern’s creation of an Mthat operator (see Stern, Metaphor in Context). Any resemblance between this notation and the use of hashtags on social media is coincidental.

(8.) On metaphor as class inclusion and its implications, see Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language, 38–51.