figure of speech

[ fig-yeruhv speech ]
/ ˈfɪg yər əv ˈspitʃ /
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noun, plural fig·ures of speech.Rhetoric.
any expressive use of language, as a metaphor, simile, personification, or antithesis, in which words are used in other than their literal sense, or in other than their ordinary locutions, in order to suggest a picture or image or for other special effect.Compare trope (def. 1).
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Origin of figure of speech

First recorded in 1815–25
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a figure of speech?

A figure of speech is a word or phrase that’s used to be expressive (figurative) rather than literal. We use figures of speech to create a mental image for our audience or for another special effect, such as an implied meaning.

English has many different kinds of figures of speech. For example, a simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly unrelated things, as in He ran across the field like a cheetah. Personification is a figure of speech in which nonhuman things are given human attributes, as in The car slammed into the cruel, unforgiving wall. And irony is a figure of speech in which words are used to imply the opposite of what they actually mean, as in “Beautiful weather!” he said as he came in from the thunderstorm.

Why is figure of speech important?

The first records of the phrase figure of speech come from around 1815. The phrase combines the word figure, which means “a representation or symbol,” and the word speech, which means “oral communication.” A figure of speech relies on the listener or reader to know or be able to determine the intended meaning behind the figure of speech rather than the literal definitions of the words being used.

Figures of speech are a neat quirk of language and are used in both oral and written communication. They often require the listener or reader to go beyond the words themselves and logically determine what the user of a figure of speech actually meant.

A particularly interesting kind of figure of speech is the idiom, as as Get a dose of one’s own medicine. When interpreted literally, many idioms seem to make no sense at all, such as raining cats and dogs, which means “raining heavily.” Idioms rarely translate across languages and may even be limited to a particular culture or region.

Did you know … ?

Figures of speech can be found in every language. In fact, many of the names for the figures of speech we use in English come from the same figures of speech that were used by ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome.

What are real-life examples of figure of speech?

This chart gives some more examples of idioms, a commonly used type of figure of speech:


We use figures of speech all of the time. Sometimes, a person misjudges if a listener or reader will actually understand the figure of speech they use.


What other words are related to figure of speech?

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following is NOT an example of a figure of speech?

A. simile
B. metaphor
C. hyperbole
D. fact

British Dictionary definitions for figure of speech

figure of speech

an expression of language, such as simile, metaphor, or personification, by which the usual or literal meaning of a word is not employed
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012