South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer got a lot of flak this week for a folksy anecdote about his grandmother telling him not to feed stray animals — which he relayed while discussing government handouts for poor Americans. My favorite argument he’s made in his own defense was that his statement is “being used as an analogy, not a metaphor.”
OK, so people tend to use the words simile, metaphor and analogy interchangeably. But they have subtle differences. As you may remember from grade school, a simile is when you make a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” A metaphor omits those words with the understanding that the listener will take the statement as a figure of speech: “Before Katie has had her coffee, she’s a bear.” I’m guessing this is what Bauer meant in his defense: A metaphor is not meant to be taken literally — it’s a poetic flourish.
An analogy is a little harder to define. It’s also a comparison, but it tends to be more pragmatic. It’s used to illustrate a concept: A is to B as C is to D, get it? However, Webster’s makes the point that it generally “infers that if two or more things agree with one another in some respects they will probably agree in others.” So if Bauer was using the stray animals/poor people comparison as an analogy, he could have been implying they have more things in common than just looking for handouts and reproducing without “know[ing] any better.”
Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear to me that arguing his statement was a metaphor — not an analogy — is really just parsing words to distract from the actual content. Each linguistic tool is by definition a comparison (which by its definition notes similarities), and that’s enough to offend plenty without drawing any further connotations from his words. But at least we all got a literary lesson.