7. Reading Obstacles 4: Metaphorical Meanings




Readers can unknowingly misunderstand a word with metaphorical meaning, seeing an alternative, more familiar meaning that such words usually have.



A metaphorical meaning (sometimes called a “figurative meaning”) is a type of secondary meaning that many words develop. Take the word root. Its two main meanings are “part of a plant that grows underground” and “cause” (as in the root of the problem). The “cause” meaning is metaphorical.

Metaphorical meanings have a number of important features. Firstly, they have a clear connection to the primary meaning (if there is no such connection, there is no metaphorical meaning, and we must talk not of different meanings of the same word, but of different words that have the same spelling and pronunciation, in other words of “homonyms” – see 11. Reading Obstacles 6).

Secondly, the kind of connection to the primary meaning must be the right one: a word’s meanings can be connected together in other ways than metaphorically (for example “general concept/subcategory” – see 23. Subtypes). The main link between a metaphorical meaning and a primary one must be the presence of the same general idea behind both. For example, the general idea behind underground plant parts and causes is that of “origin”.

In addition to this, a metaphorical meaning tends to be newer than the corresponding primary meaning and more abstract. This is because words when first formed usually have only one meaning”, and metaphorical meanings grow out of these previously-established meanings as the people who use the words start to notice abstract similarities (like “origin”) between the established meaning and new meanings (like “cause”) that they want to express.

Other examples of words with a metaphorical meaning are a mess (basic meaning = “an untidy area”, metaphorical meaning = “a difficulty”), to flower (basic meaning = “to produce a flower”, metaphorical meaning = “to enter a golden age”), under (basic meaning = “positioned directly below”, metaphorical meaning = “ruled or managed by”), and haunted (basic meaning = “afflicted by ghosts”, metaphorical meaning = “afflicted by problems or bad memories”).

The second of these examples illustrates a very large group of related metaphorical meanings in English: those involving plants and agriculture. Others in the group are expressed by the verbs blossom, branch, droop, wilt, wither, stem from, sow, reap, grow, ripen, yield and harvest, the nouns branch, fruit, root and seed and the adjectives budding, fertile, fruitful and ripe. English has numerous other major categories of metaphorical meaning like this, for example war, sport, religion and the sea. These may or may not be mirrored in other languages. Where they are not, yet more problems can be created for readers (see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture).



Evidence for the difficulty of words that can be used metaphorically is provided by the number of times they turned out to be involved in text extracts reported as problematic by speakers of other languages during a small research project (see the 1999 Guinlist article What can learners tell us about their reading difficulties?). All of the examples in the exercise below were obtained during this research.

The problem with words that can be used metaphorically is their ability to be understood in more than one way. This is the same as the problem with multi-use words (see 3. Multi-Use Words), homonyms (see 11. Homonyms and Homographs) and ambiguous grammar (see 124. Structures with a Double Meaning 1). Readers with a limited English vocabulary will not always be affected: if they know both meanings they should be able to choose the right one, and if they know neither meaning they will be aware that they have a comprehension problem and will be able to take some such successful remedial action as guessing (see 177. How to Guess Meanings in a Text) or consulting a dictionary.

The real problem arises when only one of the two meanings is known – a likely situation with less experienced English users – and the known meaning is not the one that the word has in a particular text. In such situations, the reader is not likely to realise that there is a comprehension problem, since the word will nevertheless look familiar. The result will be either a false belief that the text has been comprehended, or a confusion whose source is difficult to identify.

In most cases where only one of the two meanings is known, I expect this meaning to be the non-metaphorical (“literal”) one. This is because such meanings, being usually more concrete, are likely to be encountered earlier in language learning than metaphorical ones. Sometimes, however, the metaphorical meaning can be the only one known. This might be the case, for example, with words in fixed phrases, e.g. a chorus of criticism (see 180. Nouns that Count the Uncountable), or words whose literal meaning are very specific to English culture, such as stumped (literally an aspect of the game of cricket, metaphorically a synonym of puzzled – see 137. Words that Reflect English Culture).


PRACTICE EXERCISE (Words with Metaphorical Meaning)

Identify (with a dictionary if necessary) the basic and the metaphorical meaning of each highlighted word below. Answers are provided at the end.


1. At the peril of its soul it (the news report) must see that the supply (of news) is not tainted.

2. Two reasons in particular prompted the need for action.

3. These skills have hitherto been the domain of what are called typographers.

4. However, there is no doubt that heat conservation was behind the abiding preference for thatched roofs, despite the fire risks which led municipal authorities to forbid their use, within urban areas at least.

5. We may deplore the present divorce between spirituality and theology.


ANSWERS (PM = Primary Meaning; MM = Metaphorical Meaning)

1. “soul” = spiritual life (PM); existence/economic survival (MM).

2. “prompted” = pushed sb to do sth (PM); caused (MM).

3. “domain” = area that one controls (PM); area of activity (MM)

4. “behind” = placed at the back of (PM); causing (MM)

5. “divorce” = marital separation (PM); separation (MM).


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