Death by Metaphor and How Not to Use Them.

Maori love themselves a good metaphor. And for good reason, it is a powerful tool that easily conveys layers of meaning and complex concepts in a very simple way. Metaphors not only create vivid pictures, but emotional reactions within the reader too. They help the reader to ‘get it’.

Traditionally, Māori were masters of metaphor and knew its magic. You need not look too far at all to find thousands and thousands of examples in the Māori language and the potent effect they have on communicating messages. Maori often draw from nature to construct their metaphors. Nature metaphors are powerful because of their ability to reach and connect with the masses. Everybody knows what rain feels like, or the uneasiness of rough waters.  For example, the lyrics from the famous song Pokarekare ana nga wai o Waiapu, the writers likens his love to the agitated waters of a river. We get that.

Basically, a metaphor is a bridge, it connects things (here the bridge is a metaphor for a metaphor!). Our songs, our prayers, our orators, our everyday language of Maori are full with the power of metaphor. Here are some examples of other common metaphors from whakatauki/proverbs;

Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi

With your basket and my basket the people will live

The basket is a metaphor for sharing and co-operation.


He kotuku rerenga tahi

A white heron flies once

The uniqueness of this bird is a metaphor for something very special and unusual about to take place.


Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane

The totara has fallen in the forest of Tane

The totara is a huge tree that grows for hundreds of years. The greatness of the totara is a metaphor for when someone of importance passes away.

You might think metaphors are best left for poets, but you are wrong! Anyone who writes can use metaphor, evening boring industry reports and academic writing can be made to come alive with a good metaphor. Here are some examples;

Academic Example

The Mauipreneur – Josie Keelan uses our cheeky, mischievous and legendary Maui character in her academic paper to connect our people to entrepreneurship. We all know Maui and through him, we get to understand entrepreneurship, an often complex and scary concept for some.


Industry Report Example

The Maori Economic Development Strategy, uses the phrase ‘He kai kei aku ringa’, this translates as ‘the food is in my hand’, telling us that we have the ability to grab all that we need to sustain us. It’s a beautiful metaphor, simplistic and bridges a boring clinical industry report to an everyday concept that we can all relate to.

As Māori academics, we are most probably prone to using the odd metaphor here and there in our scholarly writing, because it is a natural form of communication for us. But we should be aware of the pitfalls that can come with a poorly executed metaphor which distracts and confuses your ideas you are conveying.

These are my current pet peeves and what I refer to as death by metaphor.

Cliché metaphors

Cliché metaphors are those which are overused. Mostly, they become overused because they are really bloody good for describing just about everything. How many times have we seen the waka (canoe) metaphor, for nearly every organisation and their new strategy plan they are rolling out. All the symbolism that center around the waka makes it an easy target to use as a metaphor. The kete (woven basket) metaphor is another example of an overused metaphor. Again, it is easy to use because it describes so well the complexity of layers that many concepts come with. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them but make sure you add a fresh and original angle to it.

Cliche boring metaphor example

Our organisation is a waka, where we are moving forward all together.

Original and fresh metaphor example

Our dream is that commercial success is the wind in the sails of our tribal development. (Ngai Tahu Vision statement)


Over Extended Metaphors

Another common problem with metaphors is the tendency to mix them or overwork them, usually from over thinking it. Too many metaphors, or the over extension of a metaphor can cause writing to become flowery and light. Like an unfulfilled promise, metaphors without substance are empty and weak.

Flowery example

In business, each department is like the strand of kete, that is overlaid, and woven into each other, crossing over and into each other, layer upon layer till it comes together to form a complete whole. (something I just made up)

Badly Constructed Metaphors

These are metaphors that don’t connect well or add much depth or meaning to the idea or concept. Make sure you’re not putting out metaphors that are clear to you and only you.

Bad metaphor

You must be prepared to build mountains when you wind up your business venture. 

To think in metaphors is a skill, and like all skills, it can be developed with practice. So I encourage you to practice so we can engage in rich and exciting communication!

Here’s a couple of tips.

  • Good match/fit between the metaphor with the concept
  • Simplicity over complexity
  • Be original, be fresh
  • Try it out on people to see what reactions you get and if people ‘get it’.
  • Read poetry and train your brain to love metaphor.
  • If you are Māori, the Nga Moteatea books are a treasure trove of metaphor
  • Even better learn Te Reo Maori.
  • Don’t force a metaphor, just because you want to be fancy.
  • Look for key words in your writing that will help you to spin off a good metaphor.

So get out there and see the world in metaphors!


Huahuatau = metaphor

Kupu whakarite = simile

Photo Credit: Dittmer, Wilhelm, 1866-1909. Maui fishing New Zealand out of the ocean. [London, Routledge, 1907]. Te Tohunga. The ancient legends and traditions of the Maoris, orally collected and pictured by W. Dittmer. Ref: PUBL-0088-049. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.



  1. Manuhiri

    I remember one occasion when I was very young, I asked my grandmother a question. In reply, she used a metaphor that was completely baffling. In later years I came to realise that she was deliberately misleading me to illustrate that I was not yet ready to know the answer to that question. Metaphor is indeed a powerful tool.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Sarah Beamish

        Whoa…my koro (born and raised in NZ but moved to Canada) would always say “womsheewooka for a goose’s bridle” when I would ask what something is. I have never heard of anyone else saying something like this!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Stephanie Lees

        That was a common expression in my large pakeha whānau also, particularly in the 1960s when I was a child – the older siblings used it a lot mystifying those of us in the younger crew. I took it as a “never you mind” answer when I was young but do not know if that is correct.


  2. Manuhiri

    Ugh, I knew you gonna ask me that and you would think I’d remember. But, I asked a lot of questions, and got back a lot of random answers and being young, I tended to ignore it or not appreciate it. Which, in hindsight, clearly demonstrates how right she was. My mother, on the other hand, just told us outright lies – “if you eat cheese, you will grow taller”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. George

    Awesome to come across this site for so long I’ll process metaphors to myself in my head from conversations with others mostly at a party or something where just a twist of there own words will create something in which there trying to explain.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gaylene Sheehan

    Morena ..this is amazing ! Ngati Porou Nga Puhi whakapapa…metaphor’s all my life favourite those that are given from my kaiarahi wairua Maui …most recent one..A Fish called Iwi..what a wonderful link of confirmation Kia ora

    Liked by 1 person

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