‘I literally’¦’ do you catch yourself saying that a lot? No, you cannot literally laugh your head off ‘ it is impossible. You are figuratively laughing your head off. Figurative language is what makes English a truly diverse and beautiful language. To clear up the figurative vs literal confusion, here are some of the best examples of figurative speech.
One of the most common types of figurative language and one much used by writers is the simile. It compares two things that differ slightly though they are similar, using connecting words such as ‘like’. It is subtler than metaphor (the next example on our list) but can make outrageous comparisons. Some examples include:
‘Usain Bolt runs as fast as lightning’.
‘That pig is as fat as a house’.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has the rather beautiful “The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.’
One of the most used examples of figurative language, especially as a literary device, is metaphor. Used extensively at the more literary end of fiction, it draws comparisons between things that are vastly different. There is a danger in that in writing, metaphor can sometimes come off as pretentious. A good example is:
‘Wallowing in self-pity’, you can only wallow in a physical place such as mud yet the word works when talking of a negative state of mind and seeming to enjoy being there.
This is something we do in every-day speech as well as in literature; it is comparing inanimate objects or concepts to people. Psychologically, we anthropomorphise when we attempt to instil human values and feelings on animals or objects too. Good examples include:
‘We acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent.’ ‘ Appolonius of Tyana
The clichÃƒ©: ‘Justice is blind and sometimes, deaf too’
This is one that most people know, even if they do not know the word that describes it. It is the use of exaggerated language in order to make a point. Typically used by politicians and the media in order to elicit an emotional response, the following examples are perfect demonstrations:
‘I can’t wait to put this box down, it weighs a tonne’ (when a human cannot carry that much)
‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times!’
‘If I had a penny for every time I heard that, I’d be a millionaire!’
The direct opposite of hyperbole, it understates the gravity of a situation, playing it down almost to the point of being comical. It is often used in comedy. There are many examples of this:
‘The Pond’ is an informal nickname by Brits and Americans for The Atlantic Ocean.
Similarly, British radio DJ Chris Moyles has been known to refer to the country’s capital London as ‘London Village’.
In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in a battle scene at the beginning, the Black Knight loses an arm but dismisses it as ‘merely a flesh wound’.
Often used in nursery rhymes and other poetry, there are a number of common stock phrases that use the method. Elocution lessons for higher class ladies in England commonly use the phrase ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’. Politicians take to using it sometimes to create catchy slogans such as this speech by Martin Luther King.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The character V in the film V For Vendetta uses it several times, particularly after he hacks the BTM feed: ‘And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission’
The term is often used for serious discussions of science and philosophy but it is also used as a literary device and in general use as a figure of speech (verbal paradox). It is a statement that contradicts itself yet is true. Good examples include:
‘I am sorry for the length of this letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one” Blaise Pascal
And this amusing one from Oscar Wilde.
Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.
These are a combination of words used in literature, but especially speech, that have figurative meaning purely through common usage ‘ generally the words taken literally can have an awkward or confusing meaning. Examples are:
‘Pulling my leg’ which means to play a joke on somebody.
‘Raining cats and dogs’ to mean raining heavily.
When something costs ‘an arm and a leg’, indicating very expensive.
And the rather unfortunate if taken literally ‘keep your eye out for the postman.’
Depending on how it is used, allusion is sometimes be a form of figurative language. It makes reference to something without making direct reference. Consequently, it presumes prior knowledge on behalf of the target audience to specific values or a description. Typically, what is being referenced is common knowledge but the description falls down when there is not familiarity. Good examples include:
‘His looks were like Adonis and his personality like that of Narcissus’
‘I went to Las Vegas once. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah!’
One of the most interesting and amusing figures of speech is that which juxtaposes two different things that appear to be contradictory. Oxymorons can be confusing yet can gain acceptance through quirkiness or for want of a better term.
The film title Living Dead is an oxymoron (the living cannot be dead) and the term has now entered the vernacular to mean zombies. The Simon & Garfunkel song title The Sound of Silence is also an oxymoron, as are the common phrases ‘same difference’, ‘organised chaos’ and ‘sweet sorrow’.
Language is a beautiful thing and the English language has some of the most colourful expressions and turns of phrases. The fact that is so diverse, spoken on every continent either as a first or second language and with its two biggest users as (it is said) ‘two nations divided by a common language’, it has morphed and changed. It is also very descriptive and some of those examples above make it what it is.