Which Word Wednesday: Allegory, Metaphor, and Simile

By October 12, 2011 language No Comments

Last week I mentioned two extraordinary allegories—John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places—in a post over at EWO Women of the Word.

I was reminded of these heart-engaging books while reading selected Proverbs from The Message translation of the Bible for the E100 reading challenge I’m doing with gals from my church. The Message author, Eugene Peterson, takes the Bible’s use of the personification of Wisdom and gives her a few friends (Lady Wisdom, Brother Knowledge, Understanding, Common Sense, Madame Insight, and Clear Thinking), as well as a few foes (Temptress, Seductress, Simpletons, Cynics, and Idiots).

The references got me wondering if allegory was the proper term for these examples, which in turn was fodder for this week’s match up for Which Word Wednesday. So let’s sort out the differences between allegories, metaphors, and similes, shall we? As usual, we’ll start with the Oxford American Dictionary for the definitions:

allegory :: noun
A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

metaphor :: noun
A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

simile :: noun
A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.

An allegory is a complete story created to communicate hidden meanings—so the books I mentioned are, indeed, in this camp.

As for metaphors and similes, both are phrases and could be easily confused. Ron Evans helps with a few insights in The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language1:

“When Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage, he expressed what was to become a famous metaphor.

“Saying that someone’s writing is as clear as mud is a good example of a simile.”

To say “the world’s a stage” means that life is full of experiences that are like scenes within a play and with people who are like the actors. It compares one thing to another by making a previously unidentified connection.

And to say that something is “clear as mud” is to compare bad writing, which is unclear, to the equally unclear thick goop that is mud.

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What’s my WWW verdict? Allegories, metaphors, and similes help us see truths in creative ways. But use with caution—today’s creative truth can quickly become tomorrow’s cliché.

What’s your verdict? Do you like to use allegories, metaphors, and similes to tell truths in fresh ways? What’s your favorite allegory? Cast your vote and share your thoughts in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 145.

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