Metaphorically speaking

I’ve written before about Eminem’s writing skills. He’s good. Strip away the vulgarities and obscenities. He’s great.

The following lyrics are from “Love the Way You Lie”:

“I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like. And right now, it’s a steel knife in my windpipe.”

Here, he heads toward a simile, but in the end, he uses a metaphor. Footnote: any good kitchen knife is forged with surgical-grade stainless steel, not the old Bessemer alloy.

Instead of telling us what it feels like — a stabbing, painful feeling — he tells us the loss of the girl is a steel knife in his throat.

Much more graphic. Much more memorable. Much more immediate.

That’s the key difference between these two vehicles of comparative language.

A simile is a roundabout version; a metaphor, forcefully direct. Metaphors link the tangible to the conceptual and help us understand complex or multivariate ideas.

Their etymological history can be traced to the Greek for “transfer.” Good metaphors take time and thought. The best ones stick with readers. They can convey the essence of an entire article in one concise phrase.

One reason the simile seems weak these days is the introduction (read: abhorrent and grammatically improper overuse, myself included) of the word “like” in American lingo.

As one of my profs put it, the word is a time-filler when your mouth is moving faster than your brain.

Slow down and speak.

Substituting “like” as an every-third-word placeholder has diminished the power of the simile by eliminating half of the available words. Many times, “as” comes off too formal.

Skip the whole business and opt for the metaphor.

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