Etymology of Significant Terms | Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon Roots and Affixes | Greek, Roman, and Norse Mythology | Analogies | Literal and Figurative Meaning of Words | Denotative and Connotative Meaning | Summary
|LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE MEANING OF WORDS
As we said in our last Instruction, analogies can be difficult because the same word can mean different things to different people. In our next Instruction, you’ll learn the difference between the denotative and connotative meaning of words (which is not as awful as it sounds).
In this Instruction, you’ll learn the difference between literal and figurative meanings.
Literal means straightforward or factual; the dictionary meaning of a word. When someone says “I mean that literally,” they mean “exactly” -- just the facts!
A figurative meaning is far more interesting – it’s imaginative; it conveys not just the facts but an idea. It encourages us to use our imaginations. Here is an example:
“Mervin runs like a duck.”
This does not mean that poor Mervin runs exactly like a water bird. We’re using figurative language – in this case a figure of speech called a simile. By comparing the way Mervin runs to the way a duck runs, we’re suggesting that Mervin waddles and that he is awkward. If we wanted to be literal, we would say, “Mervin is awkward and he waddles when he runs.” “Mervin runs like a duck” is far more colorful and interesting. Books, movies and TV shows are full of figurative language – and so is everyday speech.
How do we know if someone is using figurative language? When the literal meaning doesn’t quite make sense and another one (the figurative one) does.
There are many different ways to use figurative language. These ways are called “figures of speech” or tropes. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Simile -- when one thing is explicitly compared to another with the use of the words “like” or “as.” For example, “Mervin runs like a duck,” or “time is like a river.” What does the phrase “time is like a river” mean? It might mean that both life and a river wander a meandering path or that both life and a river go endlessly on. The meaning is up to you.
Metaphor – when one thing is compared to another without the use of the words “like” or “as.” For example, the metaphor “life is a game.” What does that mean? That life has its winners and losers? That it has rules? Again it’s up to you. And a lot depends on the context in which the metaphor is used.
Here is another example: “pulling the rug out from under someone” means to undermine him or her; “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” means that you shouldn’t change your mind once you’ve started doing something. People use metaphors all the time and sometimes they mix them up. “This is no time to pull the rug out in the middle of the stream” is a prime example of what’s called a “ mixed metaphor.”
Imagery – the use of words to create a mental picture of something. For example, if you read the words “the sea was calm,” you create a calm sea in your imagination.
Symbolism – the use of one thing to represent something else. Literally, a country’s flag is just a piece of cloth but symbolically it means patriotism and love of country. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the country for which it stands” spells it out pretty clearly.
Litotes -- expressing the affirmative by negating its opposite, for example: “a few unannounced quizzes are not inconceivable,” which means that you’d darn well better conceive of getting an unannounced quiz. A figure of speech called meiosis is an extreme form of this, which means using wildly out-of-proportion references such as “a nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”
Onomatopoeia – the use or formation of words that sound like what they describe: “hum,” “gurgle,” “rustle,” “hiss” and “cackle” would be good examples.
Paradox – a seemingly contradictory statement which may have some truth to it. For example, George Bernard Shaw’s remark, “what a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.”
Oxymoron (a kind of condensed paradox) – putting words together which would seem to contradict each other, such as “bittersweet.” Or, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I must be cruel to be kind.”
Allusion – an indirect reference to something else, often a myth or legend or poem or other work of literature.
Personification – the attribution of personality to an impersonal thing. For example, “England expects every man to do his duty” – Lord Nelson.
Hyperbole – an exaggerated or extravagant statement used to make a strong point, but not intended to be taken literally, such as “I am continuous as the stars that shine,” from a poem by William Wordsworth.
Metonymy – the use of a name of one thing in place of the name it symbolizes. For example, in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” he writes of that city as “Hog Butcher for the World” (Chicago was once the center of the world’s meat packing industry).
Synecdoche – substitution of a part for the whole, as in “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” (referring to a whole woman, Helen of Troy, and not just her face – although she was reported to have had a gorgeous one).
Irony -- something that intentionally means the exact opposite of what the words actually say. For example, saying “he was no mean villain” to indicate that he was, a father calling his little boy “Big Fellah,” or somebody calling his gigantic friend “Tiny.”
Sarcasm -- a tauntingly or contemptuously ironic remark such as saying “Nice driving, Bud” to a man who’s just sideswiped your car or “Nice day” in a downpour.
Alliteration – the repeating of consonants at the beginning of words, for example: “Let us go forth to lead the land we love” from J.F. Kennedy’s Inaugural address. Milton defined rhyme as “the jingling sound of like endings.” Alliteration could be defined as “the jingling sound of like beginnings.”
Antithesis - the opposition or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction. For example, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” from Barry Goldwater’s speech when he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for President.
See how easily your mind can go back and forth between literal and figurative meanings?
The most commonly-used tropes (figures of speech) are imagery, symbolism, metaphor and irony – which correspond to description, analogy, comparison and contrast in literal speech or writing.
As you can see, there are many ways for a writer or speaker to say what he or she means. A police report or testimony in court should probably stick to literal language, but figurative language is appropriate – and welcome -- almost anywhere else!
For more examples of figures of speech and more examples of literal and figurative meanings, click: