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What is Dead Metaphor? A Simple Explanation!

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Metaphors are one of the most loved and used expressions not just by great writers but by us too. Therefore, when we hear about ‘Dead Metaphors’, it creates a dreary picture in front of our eyes. 

So, what is Dead Metaphor?

Dead metaphor (a.k.a. Frozen or Historical Metaphor) is a figure of speech that has been used so excessively & repeatedly over time that it lost its link to the imagination or picture it was originally supposed to create in our minds. They lose their figurative meaning and imagery. Their conventional meaning becomes the actual meaning over time. Therefore, we can understand the implied meaning without knowing where it came from. 

Dead Metaphors are actually much simpler than mentioned above. We hear them every day. In fact, we use them every day unknowingly. In this article, I have tried to explain the concept of “Dead Metaphors” in the simplest way I could. 


What is Dead Metaphor?
How to use Dead Metaphors in a Sentence?
Dead Metaphor vs. Live Metaphors
Dead Metaphor vs. Clichés

What is Dead Metaphor?

Have you ever come across a phrase that means one thing literally and the whole other thing figuratively/metaphorically? One is the conventional one, and the other is the original meaning of the term. You must have. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we use those phrases and where they come from. Chances are you are using what we call ‘Dead Metaphors’. 

For example, “Fly off the Handle”. Conventionally, we use this phrase when someone loses their temper – like they are exploding with anger all of sudden. But this has no relation with “flying” or “handle” or anything literal. We have no idea where this phrase comes from and why people started associating it with losing one’s temper. This figure of speech has been used so much that now their meaning is literally ‘dead’. No one knows where they came from or the situations in which they were created. But everyone knows what they mean. In fact, it becomes so common that people don’t even recognize it as a Metaphor.

This happens because of Semantic Shift. The word ‘Semantic’ refers to the ‘meaning’ of a word. So, Semantic Shift means as we progressed, the usage of language, especially words, evolved over time. This shift involved “Literalization of Metaphors”.

This is best explained in the book Continuity and Change in the Rhetoric of the Moral Majority By David Snowball.

He says,

“Metaphors do not, however, last forever. Since this “energetic” function seems to be a key element of metaphor, we may say that an expression that has lost its ability to excite has lost its metaphorical character. Such a phrase will not necessarily pass out of common usage, but simply become part of the everyday, literal elements of the language.”

– Continuity and Change in the Rhetoric of the Moral Majority By David Snowball

Many scholarly fellows have talked about this in their works like “Rorty on the literalization of metaphor” by Tony Edwards and “The Death of Dead Metaphor” by George Lakoff

The trick to determining whether a dead metaphor is relevant is if you could infer the meaning of the phrase without having encountered it before in any variation. Many times, dead metaphors are simply idiomatic statements or figures of speech that are irrelevant in today’s age. 

How to use Dead Metaphors in a Sentence?

Here are some simple examples of dead metaphors and their usage:

 Dead Metaphor Conventional MeaningUsage in a sentence
Fly off the HandleUsed when someone loses their temper – like they are exploding with anger all of suddenAfter listening to that news, she just flew off the handle.
Brand newNew, latestHer company just got a brand new computer. It’s state of the art.
Go belly upGo broke or bankruptShe put all her money in that scammy investment scheme and now she is about to go belly up.
DeadlineTime limitI don’t think I will be able to finish this paper before the deadline.
Falling head-over-heels in love To be completely in love with someone typically in a romantic wayOh, Romeo had fallen head over heels in love with Juliet.
Time is running outTo have less or no more time to finish a taskGet him admitted to a hospital ASAP! Time is running out.
GroundbreakingInnovativeSheldon and Leonard’s research was groundbreaking! 

Dead Metaphor vs. Live Metaphors 

Live metaphors are also called original metaphors because they continue to have an association with the original intended meaning of the metaphor. An example of this is ‘man of the match’, ‘to the moon and back’, etc. Here to the moon and back means traveling a great distance and man of the match means someone important in an event. 

Literary definitions put dead metaphors and clichés into the same category. Their origination is easily forgotten, and the conventional meaning can take on a different note altogether. Only the social context of a dead metaphor can bridge this gap. Examples of dead metaphors are ‘raining cats and dogs’, and ‘a heart of gold’. Nobody saw it rain cats and dogs, no one has a literal heart of gold, but someone in the past started using this term and now they are super popular.  

Dead Metaphor vs. Clichés

Dead Metaphorsclichés
Dead metaphors may be clichésNot all clichés are dead metaphors
Dead Metaphors lose their literal meaning and absorb the new conventional meaning as a result of being overused.clichés lose their impact as a result of being overused.
For example, When a boss tells their employees, “This was the agenda. Let’s dive in.” Their employees don’t think of a pool, diver, or water – not even for a second. “Dive in” = “Let’s begin and go deeper” has become so common, that it’s now a dictionary meaning.Examples,
as shiny as a diamond.
As white as snow
back from the dead
can of worms


Dead metaphors are mostly figures of speech that have contextually become the go-to terms to use to describe a certain intensity. Samuel Guttenpla says that dead metaphors cease to be metaphors. However, they cannot lose their metaphorical meaning, and so remain to be in use throughout history for the meaning that people have annotated to it. 

We hope this helped! Taking seemingly difficult topics and explaining them in a simple manner is what we like to do! 🙂

You may also like: Is ‘Hairs’ a word? Hair v/s Hairs: Plural Form of Hair!

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