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Dead Metaphors

There are many words or phrases we use in our daily conversations or in writing yet we don’t know in what category of literary devices they fall. An example of such a phrase is “the body of an essay”. That phrase is a dead metaphor. Do you know what a dead metaphor is? Let’s get started with its definition.

The definition of a dead metaphor

A dead metaphor is a figure of speech that has lost its original meaning and imaginative effect as a result of frequent usage for a long time. Dead metaphors are a type or category of metaphors. To get a better understanding of a dead metaphor, we will have to take a look at the definition of the word “metaphor”. We know that a metaphor is a literary device used to compare one thing to another for rhetorical effect. When dealing with metaphors we do not consider their literal meaning but instead, we look at their deeper (or implied) meaning. For instance, the metaphor “he is a lion” does not mean that the person being referred to is a lion. The metaphor implies that the subject of concern is brave, (a known quality of a lion). Dead metaphors are also called historical metaphors or frozen metaphors.

Dead metaphors used to have an implied meaning, but over time the effectiveness of their words has diminished and people identify them by their literal meaning. You can hardly argue that the phrase “the body of an essay” makes a lot of sense when considering its literal meaning. An essay has a body after all, doesn’t it? One thing about dead metaphors is that one can easily relate to their literal meaning even without being told their meaning. Let’s take a look at some of the examples of dead metaphors and their meanings.

Examples of dead metaphors

The hands of a clock: The hands of a clock include the hour hand, the minute hand, and the second hand. We no longer see the usage of the word “hands” in this metaphor as implied but rather literal. We have all accepted the idea that a clock has hands.

The face of a clock: This is used to refer to the panel of display of a clock. We know that it’s only living things that have faces (and hands), but the meaning of this metaphor has now become literal.

The legs of a table: This is used to refer to the supporting projections of a table. This metaphor can also take the form “the foot of the table or bed.”

In the same boat: This is used to refer to the idea or act of people sharing a common circumstance or situation.

Other examples of dead metaphors


Fly off the handle

Hang up the phone

Run out of time (comes from the working of an hourglass)

Laughing stock

Brand new

Cut! (Used in the film industry)


Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Keith Mbuya