A large number of questions on ELL are asking for the meaning of metaphors. Many are from song lyrics or poetry, about which there are a number of meta questions. Some are from literature, most recently:

What does 'a box-like plan' mean? I met this in '' This Side of Paradise''

And sometimes they come from the news media.

I wonder if these should really be considered specific to the English language? The meaning of a metaphor is mostly derived from the concepts represented in the words, not the particular language used. If you do a literal translation of the metaphor into another language, it would usually have the same meaning (although that doesn't mean the same phrase would necessarily be used by a native of the other language).

This is different from an idiom, whose meaning is not necessarily determined from the literal meanings of the words, and a word-for-word translation would not make sense. Which is why questions about idioms are perfectly on-topic.

It seems to me that many people post these questions in lieu of trying to think imaginatively about the phrase they've heard/read. If they don't immediately understand the phrase, they seem to assume it's an idiom and give up. I'd like to encourage them to make more effort first.

Some of the questions do show a little attempt to discern the meaning, they ask "Does phrase mean definition?", and perhaps these should be acceptable. But questions like the above feel like they're just asking us to do their thinking for them.

  • 2
    I take your point, but k worry that the embedded metaphors may vary between languages. Off the top of my head, in the West, the color red is associated with danger, anger, and romantic love. But I believe in the East it's associated with good luck. So, for example, directly transliteration "seeing red" or "rose-colored glasses", into Mandarin, for example, might not help untangle their meanings? On the her hand, we have one user who consistently asks "to burrow beneath" the meanings of branching etymologies, which wouldn't be required if he applied metaphorical thinking....
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 30, 2015 at 21:01
  • 1
    That's a very good point, metaphors are closely related to culture, and languages tend to be aligned with cultures.
    – Barmar
    Jul 30, 2015 at 21:05
  • Language is part of culture, like blood is part of the body. They can't be considered independently. And all languages use metaphor extensively. Metaphors are a significant part of meaning, and I'd say questions about them are perfectly in order. Some initial readings here and here and here. These point to other sources for the curious. Aug 14, 2015 at 19:07


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