Dead Metaphor — Definition & Examples

Daniel Bal
Written by
Daniel Bal
Edited by
Courtney Adamo
Fact-checked by
Paul Mazzola

What is a dead metaphor?

A dead metaphor is a figure of speech that describes when the figurative meaning of a metaphor shifts away from its original meaning. The metaphorical meaning becomes so familiar that the literal meaning is forgotten.

There are two reasons why a metaphor "dies:"

  • Repetition: After using a metaphor repetitively for an extended period, it loses the connection to its initial imagery. It becomes so common that it is understood without knowing the earlier connotation.

  • Semantic shift: Semantics deal with the meaning of words. Therefore, a dead metaphor occurs if the meaning of a word within it shifts over time.

How dead metaphors become dead
How dead metaphors become dead

Dead metaphors can also be called a frozen metaphor or a historical metaphor. The English language is always changing, so figurative language is too. The evolution of a language is responsible for dead metaphors.

What is a dead metaphor
What is a dead metaphor
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Examples of dead metaphors

The following is a list of dead metaphors with their literal and figurative meanings:

List of dead metaphors
Dead Metaphor Literal Meaning Figurative Meaning
Go belly up What happens to a fish when it dies Bankrupt; ruined
Nip it in the bud Snipping a flower before it has the chance to bloom To stop something at an early stage
Flying off the handle Ax blade flung off its handle Someone losing his/her sense of self-control
Time is running out The sand in the top of an hourglass was almost all in the bottom There is not enough time to finish something
Head over heels Being the wrong way up (upside down; topsy turvy) Being extremely excited
Deadline Inmates would be shot if they passed a certain line in the prison yard Time limit
Stick in the mud Reference to a horse-drawn carriage being stuck in the mud Person who resists change
Roll up/down the window Use the spinning lever below the window to open/close it Close the window
Hang up the phone Disconnect the phone by putting it back on the receiver End a phone call

Dead metaphor examples
Dead metaphor examples