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What is figurative language?

You know what Tynamite says, British people are the masters of figurative language, banter, wit and frivolous chat.
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tynamite
tynamite's avatar Figurative speech is speech that is not literal. Figurative is the opposite of literal. Literal english is when the words mean exactly what the definitions of the dictionary say about what those words mean. However figurative speech is when someone gets the actual meaning of a word (or words), and uses it in a way to twist the definition to give an implicit meaning to the audience, in a way of which being explicit would not suffice.

Below are some examples of such and the way that figurative language can be used.

Coded honesty

Imagine that a popular guy who girls fight over, is in a room with four girls. One of them doesn't like him any more due to past experiences but used to, and the other three like him and are trying to get with him. So three girls are all chatting him up at the same time, and one is in dismay to see what is going on. The guy Sheridon says that he is in a relationship with Meena, and the distant girl doubts this and thinks that he is only saying that so he can get the girls to leave him alone. The following thing is then said.

"I think you're pretending to be in a relationship with Meena" the earlier girl claimed.
"I didn't say anything of the sort" Sheridon responded.
Sheridon does not deny her claim, but he cannot be honest while the other people in the room are watching him. So he said what he said as "coded honesty", so he could tell her that she's right, without anyone else in the room knowing that he is agreeing with her that she knows what is really going on.

When Sheridon said what he said, he is correct that he didn't say he's pretending, but on an implicit level, because he is not denying it and is saying that his actions should be believed over his words, he is implictly agreeing with her in a coded way that only she will understand.

Trying not to be forthright

A guy asked submissive girl a question, and as she's submissive, she doesn't want to directly tell him what to do, more so let him do whatever he chooses to do. If she ever does ask someone to do something, she always does so indirectly, but in this instance, she won't ask directly or indirectly, she'll just let him know that she is ready for whatever decision, yes or no, upmost or wavering effort, that he is willing to give to her.

"I'm having trouble thinking of a new conversational topic today. We've spoken for hours. I should come up with more tomorrow. Talk to you later." Sheridon said to her friend Meena
Meena replied "You should. I'm all for it."
"I don't understand. I should talk to you tomorrow, or even more so now?"
"Whatever you want" Meena answered being dosile.

Generalising

Using the words "everyone" or "no-one" to make a generalisation, one can talk figuratively. Of course the generalisation doesn't apply to everyone in the group, but as it applies to the majority of people in the group, the words "everyone" or "no-one" suffices, as it shows the implicit message not that everyone is that way, but that the phonomenon is so common within a particualr group, you might as well keep it in mind when interacting with them or understanding them, even though acting in bad faith is not advocated in the sentence.

"Sex is physical for women and mental for men"
"Profit and tax are both theft."
"Everyone knows that it's illegal to cross the road at a red light, but everyone does it anyway,"
"Nobody buys newspapers any more"

To be pessimistic

Anyone who knows me, (or at least speaks to me), knows that I have lots of phrases that I keep repeating over and over again in conversation. One of them is "that's life". I was speaking to a filipino girl, and I told her that, and as English is not her first language, she didn't know what I meant by that, so I first told her what two meanings I meant by that, and then explained to her what figurative language is (as I'm doing here), as I didn't think she'd ever heard of it for her to ask that question.

"My local bank reduced its opening hours, and I didn't know, so when I went to the bank it was shut."
"That's life"
In that instance, (or every instance I say it), "that's life", means the following two things.


  1. Life doesn't always go the way you want it to go
  2. Everyone has problems in their life, no matter how privileged you are -no matter how much intelligence, health, education, attractiveness or safety you have

To be humourous

Another way you can use figurative speech, is to be funny. Everyone who is funny has their own sense of humour. I call my sense of humour "slant humour", it's very much like deadpan humour, but it's a unique type of deadpan, that other people who use deadpan do not use, so I prefer to say I use "slant humour". See the example below of using figurative speech to be funny.

"Hey. How are you" my friend asked me
"Life sucks" I replied
"So do I" said my friend, copying my sense of humour
As the response was meant to be funny, it is not clear whether my friend is being serious or not with their statement. As it is implied that my friend's response is flippant and not serious, and that what they said is incoherent as it doesn't follow from what I said, but distorts the meaning of what I said within the context of the conversation, the response my friend made is figuative.

(I have not yet explained what my sense of humour is and how it works. Maybe I should write it up one day.)



Those are the five ways I typically use figuative language, but I know that there must be even more ways of using it. If you know any more uses for figurative language than the five I gave, comment on this answer below with the ways that you know.
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