A mixed metaphor is not a common literary device that we often find in poetry or literature. It is somewhat an “unacceptable” tool to compare two or more distinct ideas in a single sentence when only one comparison makes good sense. We often use this device in our day-to-day language, without even knowing it. For example, when we say, “we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” we are using two distinct metaphors in order to say, “we’ll deal with the problem when we face it.”
Mixed metaphor pronunciation: mikst meh-tuh-for
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Mixed Metaphor Definition and Meaning
A mixed metaphor, shortened as “mixaphor,” is a figurative device that occurs when two metaphors are mixed up creating an incongruous comparison.
A mixed metaphor, sometimes also called a “malaphor,” is an implicit comparison, that is often overarching, contradictory, or incompatible, between two or more dissimilar metaphors, similes, or idioms. It is often regarded as an artistic “error,” that produces a ludicrous effect on listeners who are not familiar with it. For instance, we are not familiar with the expression, “to nip a rat in the bud.” Thus, the use of a mixed metaphor in this phrase creates a comic effect. In contrast to that, our familiarity with the expression, “we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” does not evoke amusement, rather it incites a sense of urgency in listeners.
Best Mixed Metaphor Examples
Here is a list of some notable usage of mixed metaphors in our day-to-day conversations, parliamentary speeches, magazines, newspapers, and television shows.
- “It’s like stabbing a hole in the dark”
- “Too many chefs in too many pies”
- “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” (Irish Politician Boyle Roche)
- “The committee was tired of stoking public outrage with fortnightly gobbets of scandal. It decided to publish everything it had left, warts and all. Now everyone is tarred with the same ugly brush, and the myth that forever simmers in the public consciousness–that the House shelters 435 parasitic, fat-cat deadbeats–has received another shot of adrenalin.” (Washington Post)
- “If we can hit that bull’s-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards… Checkmate.” (Futurama by Matt Groening)
- “Rather than wallowing in tears, let this passionate community strike while the iron is hot. It probably won’t cost the National Park Service a single penny, will be no skin off its nose, will heal the community and it presents a golden opportunity for first-person interpretation.”
Examples of Mixed Metaphors in Literature
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
When we discuss literary devices, we often quote William Shakespeare’s works. It is because he was the master of literally, every literary device, and used them in order to amuse the audience with the freshness of figurative comparisons and associations. In these lines quoted above, Hamlet, the hero of the play, considers taking arms or waging war against a “sea of troubles.” It is a use of mixed metaphor. Two incongruous ideas, “sea” and “army” are mixed together to create the mixed metaphor, “sea of troubles.”
The Sun Rising by John Donne
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
It is another beautiful example of a mixed metaphor. Generally, the disparate yet intellectual comparisons made by Donne are considered metaphysical conceits. However, we can cite a few conceits from Donne’s works to discuss mixed metaphors.
In this stanza taken from one of the best-known poems of John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising,’ the speaker first compares his lover to “states” and himself to “princes” of those states. In the last lines, he incongruously uses the same metaphorical thread to compare the bed to the center of the lover’s world and the walls of their room to the “sphere.”
Read more John Donne poetry.
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
Here are a few lines from one of the best-loved poems of E. E. Cummings. In these lines, the speaker first compares his father to his “fate” and then to “sweet.” It is an example of a mixed metaphor. Similarly, he presents another comparison between the “world” and “true” or the truth.
Check out more E. E. Cummings poems.
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
In these lines, Dickinson uses a mixed metaphor or an extended metaphor to compare “Life” to an object locked on a shelf. This objectified representation of life is compared to a “Porcelain” and “Cup” respectively. In this way, Dickinson uses three distinct metaphors to describe life. That’s why these lines can be regarded as an example of mixed metaphor.
Mixed Metaphor and Catachresis
Catachresis is a type of mixed metaphor. When writers use mixed metaphors unintentionally or for a specific artistic effect, it is called catachresis. It is also regarded as an erroneous use of figurative devices that occurs when two or more words are compared in a way that significantly departs from conventional meaning. Mixed metaphors are somewhat similar to catachresis. However, a mixed metaphor is not considered an erroneous use of metaphor. It is an artistic device to evoke amusement or laughter.
What is a Dead Metaphor?
A dead metaphor or malaphor is a type of metaphor in which the sense of an original comparison is lost due to overuse, repetition, and popular usage. Dead metaphors can be understood even if the original meaning is not known. Some common examples of dead metaphors are: “Time is running out,” “Until the cows freeze over,” “Face and hands, on a cloak,” “Sound like a broken record,” “Body of an essay,” etc.
In Hamlet’s soliloquy, ‘To be, or not to be,’ Shakespeare describes coping with life’s troubles with a mixed metaphor. It is described as “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” In this phrase, Shakespeare uses two metaphors in order to compare them with “troubles.” One is the “sea” and the other one, which is implied, is “army” or “host.”
When we unconsciously mix up metaphors, the association forms a mixed metaphor. It occurs when two or more dissimilar ideas are incongruously put together to create a ludicrous or artistic effect. For instance, when we say, “we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” we are mixing up metaphors.
Some of the mixed metaphors that are commonly “misused” include “Too many chefs in too many pies,” “It’s like stabbing a hole in the dark,” “You have to give him balls for that,” etc.
Related Literary Terms
- Metaphor: is used to describe an object, person, or action without using the words “like” and “as.”
- Catachresis: is a figure of speech that occurs when writers use mixed metaphors incongruously.
- Extended Metaphor: a type of metaphor that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire piece of poetry.
- Implied Metaphor: is a figurative device that occurs when a comparison is implied, rather than explicitly shown.
- Analogy: is an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
- Conceit: is a different type of figurative comparison popularized by John Donne.
- Watch: What is a Mixed Metaphor?
- Learn: The Different Types of Themes in Poetry
- Explore: Some of the Best Poems That Use Metaphors