“Symbolism” vs. “Metaphor” – Difference Explained (With Examples)

As “metaphors” and “symbolism” can be considered to be related or similar, it is often quite confusing for folks to truly understand what the difference between these two terms is. This article will be highlighting the correct definitions, difference, and use between “symbolism” and a “metaphor”.

What Is The Difference Between “Symbolism” And “Metaphor”?

The difference between “symbolism” and a “metaphor” is that “symbolism” makes use of characters or a specific image to represent something else, while a “metaphor” is used to compare seemingly unrelated or opposite things. “Symbolism” uses no comparison, while the comparison is the centralized idea behind a “metaphor”.

“Symbolism” vs. “Metaphor”

We can also consider a “metaphor” to be a direct substitution of one object or idea for another and also to change their surface meanings, while the inner meaning is entirely unchanging.

On the other hand, “symbolism” is used to imply something else and the surface meaning of the symbol or image used is far less important than the actual meaning.

What Does “Symbolism” Mean?

We can consider “symbolism” to be the idea that certain images, symbols, things, etc., can be used accurately to represent something else. Because of this, we use “symbolism” to represent ideas, meaning, or qualities. “Symbolism” may represent something universally or hold meaning to an individual person.

When looking at Cambridge Dictionary, we can see that “symbolism” is defined as the use of symbols in art, literature, films, etc. to represent ideas or the meaning of something. Furthermore, “symbolism” is a type of art and literature developed in the late 19th century, that tries to express ideas or states of mind, rather than represent the real world, using the power of words and images.

What Are Examples Of “Symbolism”?

We will now look over the following examples, that showcase how “symbolism” is utilized:

  • A Rainbow: viewed as a symbol of hope, luck, or promise.
  • Red Roses: viewed as a symbol of everlasting love and romance.
  • Four Leaf Clovers: viewed as the ultimate symbol of good luck or fortune.
  • Hearts: viewed as a symbol of love, passion, and romance.
  • Bald Eagle: viewed as a symbol of independence, freedom, and resilience.
  • Doves: viewed as a symbol of peace, freedom, grace, divinity, or a messenger in a spiritual context.
  • Wedding Rings: viewed as symbols of marriage and the commitment of two people.
  • Clocks: viewed as a symbol of the inevitability of change or a looming deadline.
  • Butterflies: viewed as a symbol of beauty, and great inner transformation.
  • Serpents: viewed as a symbol of cunningness, corruption, and even inner darkness.
  • Tortoises: viewed as a symbol of the strength of mind, perseverance, and intelligence.
  • Clouds: viewed as a symbol for an incoming storm or trouble that is brewing.
  • Ravens: viewed as an ominous symbol for death, misfortune, and disaster.
  • A Cross: viewed as a symbol of spirituality and healing – with the four points symbolizing self, nature, wisdom, and higher power.
  • Water: viewed as a symbol of vitality, birth, fertility, and cleansing.

What Does “Metaphor” Mean?

We should consider a “metaphor” to be a figure of speech in which a particular phrase or word is applied to an object, action, etc., to which it is not literally applicable. Because of this, we regard “metaphors” as symbolic or representative of something else – generally something that is abstract.

When looking at Cambridge Dictionary, we can see that a “metaphor” is defined as an expression, often found in literature, that describes a person or object by referring to something that is considered to have similar characteristics to that person or object.

What Are Examples Of A “Metaphor”?

We will now look over some examples that highlight how a “metaphor” is used:

  • She has a heart made of stone.
  • The mind is as deep as an ocean.
  • Laughter is the music of the soul.
  • A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep.
  • Time is money – you should spend yours wisely.
  • New York city is the jungle that never sleeps.
  • Love is a battlefield.
  • She is the black sheep of the family.
  • I am buried in a sea of paperwork.
  • Life is a highway with all of its twists and turns.
  • My toddler is a real pig when he is eating.
  • His words cut deeper than a knife.
  • She’s been going through a rollercoaster of emotions.
  • He has absolutely broken my heart.
  • You are truly the apple of my eye.

Are “Symbolism” and “Metaphors” Interchangeable?

We should not consider “symbolism” and “metaphors” to be interchangeable, as this would be highly incorrect and inaccurate. We should think of a “metaphor” as an analogy between two different things, whereas “symbolism” will use symbols to merely showcase a representation of something.

Because of the different meanings that a “metaphor” and “symbolism” hold, they are used differently, it would be very improper and nonsensical to use one in place of the other.

A key difference to keep in mind is that something can be a symbol, without being a “metaphor”. An example of this would be a handshake, which is considered a symbolic gesture of friendship or meeting someone new. However, a handshake cannot be considered a “metaphor”.

Is “Symbolism” or “Metaphor” Used The Most?

When looking into the data provided by Google Ngram Viewer, we can see that in the present day, “metaphor” is used far more often than that of “symbolism”, however, this was not always the case. From the beginning to the mid-1900s, “symbolism” was slightly more frequently used.

“Symbolism” vs. “Metaphor” english usage

As we can see, the use of “symbolism” has steadily increased from the 1900s into the present day, however, the use has not seen the mass popularity that “metaphor” has – particularly from 1980 into the 2000s.

On the other hand, “metaphor” did see a reduction or decline in use from the 1800s to the 1940s. Although this wasn’t a massive drawback in popularity, the term was certainly not used as often. However, from the 1970s to the present day, there has been a very large increase in use, which is still increasing into the present day.