Literary Lexicon: What’s A Dying Metaphor?


“A dying metaphor is a derogatory term coined by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell defines a dying metaphor as a metaphor that isn’t dead (dead metaphors are different, as they are treated like ordinary words), but has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of inventing an original phrase for themselves. In short, a cliché. Example: Achilles’ heel. Orwell suggests that writers scan their work for such dying forms that they have ‘seen regularly before in print’ and replace them with alternative language patterns.” (Wikipedia)

We need to say the things we need to say in ways that only we can say them.

Do you find yourself falling in with dying metaphors?  Flee them!  Even if you’re trying to be ironic.  These are the among the things that drive you crazy about bad writing, so make sure you keep earning your right to be bothered: excise all those dated, dying metaphors from your writing.

I understand.  It’s not like we use them on purpose. We all know better already.  But they are tenacious.  They are good ideas at 3 AM.  They are placeholders for better, truer thoughts and more honest and beautiful images.

What are some of the worst overused metaphors (or similes) you’ve come across?

20 thoughts on “Literary Lexicon: What’s A Dying Metaphor?

    1. Oops! I just checked dictionary for the meaning of Metaphor in Bangla (my 1st language). Now I totally understand what it means. The reason I asked you first was to understand the meaning of it in English so that I could get English on my mind. Sometimes this technique doesn’t work you know. :)

      Thanks for your reply.

      1. Are their any sort of standard metaphors in Bangla that you could translate for us? It’s fun to see what carries over between languages and what gets lost in translation.

  1. Guilty, guilty, guilty! I’m working on becoming more cognizant of resting on cliche. If there were a 12-step program for over-used metaphor recovery, I’d be at the meetings faithfully (as long as they have coffee).

    Maybe knowing is half the battle. (Damn, see what I mean? LOL.)

  2. I just did this as a group exercise with an Introduction to Creative Writing course I teach. They came up with some pretty good (read bad) ones.

    Check them out if you get a second.

  3. Will you cut me some slack if I sell myself short?
    I forgive blog-speak. Even if it’s ironic.

    I recently read a book of collected New Yorker articles. One topical skewering I enjoyed was titled “The Cliché Expert Takes the Stand”. Published in 1935.

    1. Slack will be cut. I use cliches in casual commenting all the time (at least once today already), but I’m going to try to be more consistent. Eyes on the prize. One day at a time. Any. given. Sunday.

      Who wrote the New Yorker piece? I’d like to see that one.

  4. from Fierce Pajamas: an Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker.

    “The Cliche Expert Takes the Stand,” by Frank Sullivan.

    Q – Mr. Arbuthnot, you are an expert in the use of the cliche, are you not?
    A – Yes, sir, I am a certified public cliche expert.
    Q – In that case would you be good enough to answer a few questions on the use and application of the cliche in ordinary speech and writing?
    A – I should be only too glad to do so.
    Q – Thank you. Now, just for the record – you live in New York?
    A – I like to visit New York but I wouldn’t live here if you gave me the place.
    Q – Then where do you live?
    A – Any old place I hang my hat is home sweet home to me.
    Q – What is your age?
    A – I am fat, fair, and forty.
    Q – What is your occupation?
    A – Well, after burning the midnight oil at an institution of higher learning, I was for a while a tiller of the soil. Then I went down to the sea in ships for a while, and later, at various times, I have been a guardian of the law, a gentleman of the Fourth Estate, a poet at heart, a bon vivant and reconteur, a prominent clubman and man about town, an eminent-
    Q – Just what is your occupation at the moment, Mr. Arbuthnot?
    A – At the moment I am an unidentified man of about forty, shabbily clad.

  5. Hmm, you’ve got me thinking. Do I use dying metaphors? Sometimes but like you said, I don’t mean to. I want to an original ;). I do find myself using phrases like ” Until the fat lady sings”. So dead. Ouch! K

  6. In another bizarre synchronicity, yesterday I renewed my check-out of Orwell’s essay collection “All Art Is Propaganda”.

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