What’s the difference between metaphors, similes, and analogies? Not a lot, unless you’re a word nerd like me.
Short answer: Metaphors describe an idea; similes do the same, but use “like” or “as.” Analogies are that mystery comparison that we all pretend to know what it means, but we really think it’s a simile.
In Marketing, analogies pack a lot in a tiny overhead bin space.
They can help us explain convoluted ideas or applications more simply. They can help our audiences understand what we do or what we sell.
And (important!) analogies can help us be more memorable.
A metaphor compares two things, one to the other, but doesn’t use the words “like” or “as.” They’re more powerful and almost make a strong commitment to the comparison.
As George Savile once said, “Men’s words are bullets that their enemies take up and make use of against them.”
Or William Shakespeare in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
Did you see it? Men’s words are bullets. They’re not like bullets, they ARE bullets. And all the men and women (are) merely players. Not like, are.
Metaphors tend to be more poetic and you can create greater imagery with them.
They’re also morally superior to similes. (More on that in a minute.)
The weasel word of the comparison game! I’m not a fan of similes because they are weaker than metaphors. The big difference between a simile and a metaphor is the words “like” or “as.”
“Life is like a box of chocolates,” Forrest Gump famously said. He didn’t want to commit to the image, so he said it’s only like a box of chocolates.
Similes compare two unlike items in order to create meaning at a deeper level. “My love is like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June,” said Robert Burns.
If I were Mrs. Burns (Jean Armour), I’d be worried about that relationship: He can’t commit to a metaphor, but he’s going to commit to you?
Other similes include “as blind as a bat,” “as clumsy as an ox,” and “like watching paint dry.”
Part metaphor, part simile, all argument. That is, an analogy is a type of argument or explanation that compares two items but in relation to each other as a way to explain one of the items.
“Our latest company reorganization is about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” or “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” (E.B. White)
But They All Look the Same.
Of course, when you really look at it, it’s hard to make a distinction between analogies and similes. Are similes the shorter aphorisms? “As blind as a bat” and “clumsy as an ox?” And are phrases like “Watching the play was like watching paint dry” analogies because they’re longer?
As I was researching this piece, I found article after article that mixed up the use of these three terms. But I found one explanation that seemed to explain the difference. As Robert Lee Brewer, senior editor of Writer’s Digest, said,
A metaphor is something, a simile is like something, and an analogy explains how one thing being like another helps explain them both.
See? Clear as mud.
Basically, the three terms can be used almost interchangeably and you could argue for days about whether “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile or an analogy.
<One of my favorite albums of all time is Tom Waits’ Nighthawks At The Diner, and I especially love the song, “Putnam County”. In it, Waits says the following verse.
And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveeta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town
There, Waits uses a combination of metaphors and similes as a way to describe the morning sunlight banging on your windows after a hard night’s drinking. And you can see how he uses the devices for a most-powerful effect.
Regardless, the easy thing to remember is that similes (and analogies) use “like” or “as” and metaphors do not.
That makes metaphors more powerful and morally superior, but we’ll argue about that later.
Photo credit: CarbonNYC (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 2.0)