In a metaphor, the vehicle is the figure of speech itself–that is, the immediate image that embodies or “carries” the tenor (the subject of the metaphor). The interaction of vehicle and tenor results in the meaning of the metaphor.
For example, if you call a person who spoils other people’s fun a “wet blanket,” “wet blanket” is the vehicle and the spoilsport is the tenor.
The terms vehicle and tenor were introduced by British rhetorician Ivor Armstrong Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). Richards emphasized the “tension” that often exists between vehicle and tenor.
In the article “Metaphor Shifting in the Dynamics of Talk,” Lynne Cameron observes that the “multiple possibilities” evoked by a vehicle “are both derived from and constrained by speakers’ experience of the world, their socio-cultural contexts, and their discourse purposes” (Confronting Metaphor in Use, 2008).
See Examples and Observations below. Also see:
Examples and Observations
- Tenor and Vehicle
“Because he was dissatisfied with the traditional grammatical and rhetorical account of metaphor, which he believed emphasized its merely decorative and embellishing powers, I. A. Richards in 1936 reintroduced this pair of terms . . . with the notion of ‘a borrowing between and intercourse of thoughts.’ Since any metaphor at its simplest gives two parts, the thing meant and the thing said, Richards used tenor to refer to the thing meant—purport, underlying meaning, or main subject of the metaphor—and vehicle to mean the thing said—that which serves to carry or embody the tenor as the analogy brought to the subject. . . .
“The vehicle, [Richards said], ‘is not normally mere embellishment of a tenor which is otherwise unchanged by it but . . . vehicle and tenor in cooperation give a meaning of more varied powers than can be ascribed to either.'”
(Norman Friedman in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman et al. Princeton University Press, 2012)
- Time Bombs as Vehicles
– “Unambiguous vehicle terms are those that people agree about: there is consensus about what properties they represent. One example of an unambiguous vehicle is time bomb. People agree that time bomb epitomizes something that can cause considerable damage at some unpredictable time in the future.”
(Sam Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphor to Idioms. Oxford University Press, 2001)
– “Some three decades after China launched its highly controversial policy restricting families to having one child, the government may soon allow a two-child policy to curb a demographic time bomb. . . .
“The law is believed to have resulted in millions of forced abortions, and has left China with the combination of a rapidly ageing population, a shallow labour pool and an imbalance in the sex ratio. The result is a demographic time bomb.”
(Kashmira Gander, “China May Scrap One-Child Policy to Curb Demographic Time Bomb.” The Independent [UK], July 23, 2015)
– “Wedged in the narrow space behind us was the umbrella stroller that held Teddy,