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Figurative Language

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a while, and I don’t think I’ve got it worked out yet.


Firstly, what’s the gap between literal and figurative language? Literal language is generally thought of as ‘according to the proper meaning of a word’. Figurative language, then, is when words are applied not according to their ‘proper’ meaning.

Unfortunately words cross their ‘proper bounds’ all the time, and the figurative can become literal. Is referring to the ‘leg’ of a table a proper or a figurative usage? Was it perhaps once figurative but its usage has now become literal, so that within the bounds of this lexeme’s semantic domain one must include ‘one of several generally-vertical portions of a table used to elevate the horizontal portion off the ground’?

When it comes to the Bible, nobody reads literally. And calling oneself a ‘literalist’ is itself a figurative use of the word, because it usually means ‘someone who holds to a higher concept of inspiration/authority/etc. than that group of Others’. The attempt to distinguish between ‘literal’ and ‘literalistic’, while sometimes helpful, it itself this kind of exercise in Othering. Those who want to frame themselves as ‘literal’ refer to the genre of a text, the intention of an author, the ‘normal’ ways of meaning applied in language; i.e., the recognise that the Scriptures contain figurative usages.

Our real points of contention come when we try and work out where does Figurative language ‘start’, where does it ‘end’, and where is ‘too far’? Does Figurative interpretation have ‘proper limits’? This is the concern with ‘allegory’.

What is allegory? Typically, allegory is understood to be a figure of speech involving a sustained or extended metaphor (itself not a very helpful word, “a word or phrase applied to an object or action to which it does not normally refer, to create an implied likeness or comparison”) in which multiple points of comparison are made, transforming the original text into a highly symbolic or coded text.

Rather than giving you an example of allegorical interpretation of Scripture, I want to illustrate with an allegory used within Scripture:

Judges 9:8-15

“The trees were determined to go out and choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’  But the olive tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my oil, which is used to honor gods and men, just to sway above the other trees!’ “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my sweet figs, my excellent fruit, just to sway above the other trees!’ “So the trees said to the grapevine, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the grapevine said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my wine, which makes gods and men so happy, just to sway above the other trees!’ “So all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be our king!’ The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to choose me as your king, then come along, find safety under my branches! Otherwise may fire blaze from the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (NET Bible)

Actually, you probably need to read all of 1-20 to get the proper context, but this is an allegory that is easily understood. It’s an extended metaphor with multiple points of comparison, giving a vivid symbolic narrative. The allegory is controlled by the author – he gives us the points of comparison and the limits of the allegory itself, in vv16-20.

The problem, generally, with allegorical interpretation of Scripture is that it is uncontrolled because the text and its author have no scope for limiting the points of comparison or analogy.

Those who rail in favour of ‘literalism’ often do so against allegorical interpretation and especially its excesses and caricatures. But attacking the extremes of figural language is no more convincing than attacking literalism by constructing a straw man of ‘literalists’ who refuse to accept even the most common figures of speech.

I think we need to do ‘better’ in this area. We need a more thorough-going thoughtfulness about how figurative language works, and how it is bounded. I hope to keep exploring this in some future posts, which I will get to whenever I get to them. But feel free to add some thoughts and questions in the comments.


  1. pnitz says:

    The bounds of a figure is the main point of comparison. The main point of comparison is rarely in question. The disputes come with the details that could either be a part of the figure, or could simply be details that make the figure a vivid picture. Are the birds sitting in the mustard plant a figure for the Gentiles who come into the kingdom, or does this just show us how big this garden plant is? Since taking the birds as representing Gentiles does not violate the parable’s main point of comparison, either interpretation would be acceptable.

    I don’t think we find a solution for these questions in the analysis of figures. A certain amount of analysis can be helpful. Learning the names and patterns of a few basic types of figures is useful. Identifying and sticking to the point of comparison is important. Perhaps methodically listing the “topic, image, and ground” of the figure is useful. But, in my opinion, that’s about the limit of the usefulness of analysis when it comes to figures. It is synthetic thinking, not analytic, that will ultimately lead to a good understanding of difficult figures. It is sitting back, mulling it over, letting the mind see the comparison, and letting the ambiguous aspects of the figure stand unresolved. This is the forte of oral cultures and the pronounced weakness of modern Western scholars. A symphony is best appreciated by the musician. .

    [i][If we want to analyze the aforegoing figure, we’d call it a “Hypocatastasis” (see ὑποκατάστασις, Bullinger, pg 744). Only the Image is mentioned, leaving the Topic implied. Restated as a Simile: “As a musician can best appreciate a symphony, so those best able to understand metaphoric speech are those who use it.” I offer this hypocatastasis as a cheeky way of proving my point. A figure such as hypocatastasis is entirely disallowed in modern Western prose. No one would stop and mull over it long enough to make the connection. The writer would be accused of being vague, unclear. Yet, to someone who breathes metaphors in and out every day (not me!) I bet this hypocatastasis would be child’s play to interpret.][/i]


  2. I always appreciate your comments Paul.

    I am not sure that “the bounds of a figure is the main point of comparison”, but I do think the question of analysis of figures often depends upon working out the point of comparison. That is, any time we are dealing with comparisons, we are talking about two ‘things’ that are like in some way. The question is always, “in what way(s) are they alike” and the important corollary is “in what ways are they unalike”.

    It is not actually analysis of figures that necessarily interests me here, though I do find it interesting. The western tradition has no shortage of categories and typologies for working out ‘what to call figure X’. Rather, my questions are more in the realm of philosophy of language than philology. What is metaphor, how is it possible, how does reference even work?


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