At its most basic, an analogy is a comparison of two things to show their similarities. Sometimes the things being compared are quite similar, but other times they could be very different. Nevertheless, an analogy explains one thing in terms of another to highlight the ways in which they are alike.
Many analogies are so useful that they are part of everyday speech. These are often known as figures of speech or idioms. Each analogy below makes a comparison between two things:
- Finding a good man is like finding a needle in a haystack: As Dusty Springfield knows, finding a small needle in a pile of hay takes a long time, so the task at hand is likely to be hard and tedious.
- That's as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: It looks like you're doing something helpful but really it will make no difference in the end.
- Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process: E.B White's famous analogy shows that sometimes it's better not to know too much.
- That movie was a roller coaster ride of emotions: While you're not flying through the air, the twists, turns and surprises of a movie plot can leave you feeling like you've been through quite an experience.
- Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get: An often-used analogy from Forrest Gump shows that life has many choices and surprises, just like a box of chocolates.
Writers use many forms of analogies in their work to make a comparison that is memorable and helps the reader better understand their point. Consider these examples of analogies from famous writers and public figures:
- "I am to dancing what Roseanne is to singing and Donald Duck to motivational speeches. I am as graceful as a refrigerator falling down a flight of stairs." - Leonard Pitts, "Curse of Rhythm Impairment" Miami Herald, Sep. 28, 2009.
- "If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it to you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe." Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways.
- "Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." - Don Marquis.
- "They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water." - George Orwell, "A Hanging."
- "Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded." - Henry Kissinger in a Memo to President Richard Nixon.
- "... worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum." - Baz Luhrmann, "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)."
- "Dumb gorgeous people should not be allowed to use literature when competing in the pick-up pool. It's like bald people wearing hats." - Matt McGrath from the movie Broken Hearts Club.
You will find word analogies, or verbal analogies, used in standardized tests and sometimes in job interviews where you must show the relationship between two objects or concepts using logic and reasoning. These analogies are set up in a standard format. For example:
tree : leaf :: flower : petal
This analogy is read aloud as:
Tree is to leaf as flower is to petal.
This analogy highlights the relationship between the whole (a tree and a flower) and its parts (a leaf and a petal). On tests of logic, one portion of the analogy is left blank and students are left to choose an answer that makes sense to complete the comparison. For example:
dog : puppy :: cat : _______
To solve the analogy, you must first determine the relationship between dog and puppy. Once you realize that a puppy is a baby dog, you can find the corresponding relationship for a cat. A baby cat is a kitten, so the completed analogy is
Dog : puppy :: cat : kitten
Though there is no limit to the possibilities when it comes to word analogies, here are some examples to familiarize yourself with the concept:
- hammer : nail :: comb : hair
- white : black :: up : down
- mansion : shack :: yacht : dinghy
- short : light :: long : heavy
- bees : hive :: bears : den
- speak : sing :: walk : dance
- chef : food :: sculptor : stone
- like : love :: dislike : hate
Analogies, similes and metaphors are closely related, but they are not the same. Because making comparisons is so useful in both speaking and writing, they are all key literary devices, but an analogy is more of a logical argument than a simple figure of speech. You may have noticed that some common analogies are built around similes but extend the comparison.
A simile compares two things using the words "like" or "as" to create a new meaning. These comparisons are direct and typically easy to understand. For example:
- As sly as a fox
- As stubborn as a mule
- As blind as a bat
- Crazy like a fox
- Quick like a cat
Metaphors are a figure of speech used to make comparisons. These comparisons describe one thing in terms of another, but without using the words "like" or "as". For example, describing a woman in terms of a flower can highlight her beauty:
"Her petal-soft smile blossomed in the morning sun."
In this case, the woman's lips are described as petals that blossom, so the comparison creates an association between the qualities of a woman and a flower without directly saying it.
While metaphors are often extensive, here are a few brief examples:
- You are the wind beneath my wings.
- He is a diamond in the rough.
- Life is a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs.
- America is the great melting pot.
- My mother is the warden at my house.
Making comparisons between two different things requires a flexible use of language. Though on the surface a metaphor or complex analogy may not make much sense, digging a little deeper to understand the relationships between the things being compared will usually clear things up. Some analogies are steeped in the culture of a particular place or time, and this adds a layer of interest and a challenge, especially when you're learning a new language.
English is particularly complex when it comes to analogies in both everyday speech and as literary devices, but with practice you can become more adept at teasing apart the meaning of these creative comparisons to enrich your understanding and your expression.