10 Metals and Minerals for Metaphors

By Mark Nichol

Metals and minerals sometimes inspire associations with human characteristics or with circumstances, as in the case of the examples below:

1. Adamant

Few people realize that this word, which in adjectival form means “insistent” or “unyielding,” has a lustrous origin: It comes from a Greek noun by way of Latin and originally referred to a diamond or any hard metal. In English, it also is a noun referring to the same materials or any similarly adamantine substances (yes, adamantine is a variant adjective).

2. Brassy

From an association with the stridency of brass musical instruments, this adjective has come to refer not just to a quality of sound (as well as a description for the metal compound) but also to bold, clamorous, or unruly behavior.

3. Bronze

The comparison of deeply tanned skin with the color of the metallic compound has resulted in the use of bronze to refer to a person with dark skin, either due to genetics or to extensive tanning, as in the reference to a physically imposing man with this hue as “a bronzed god.”

4. Flinty

This term meaning “stern, unyielding” comes from the hard variety of quartz known as flint, which sparks when struck by steel and has therefore been used for millennia to start fires (though the “flint” in cigarette lighters is actually an iron alloy). The word skinflint, a synonym for miser, evokes the image of someone attempting to peel a layer off of a hunk of flint (a futile gesture because of its hardness).

5. Golden

The value placed on the element gold has led to the use of the adjective golden for various figurative references. Among these, a golden musical tone is a mellow, resonant one; someone or something that is or is expected to be excellent, popular, or otherwise remarkable is marked, for instance, as a golden boy; an age or era might be described as golden; and a favorable occasion is often referred to as a golden opportunity.

6. Iron

The word for this fundamental metallic element has been appropriated as an adjective denoting strength (“iron will”), robustness (“iron constitution”), relentlessness (“iron determination”), and firmness (“iron grip”). The rarely used noun form of these figurative senses is ironness.

7. Leaden

Lead, because of its density and its dull color, is associated with literal (“leaden trudge”) and figurative (“leaden skies”) heaviness, as well as with dispirited or unsubtle characteristics.

8. Ossified

This term literally denotes changing into bone and figuratively refers to becoming set in one’s ways. (Although bone is not strictly a mineral, it is largely composed of various minerals, hence its inclusion on the list.)

9. Silver

The adjective form of the noun silver refers to soft or dulcet sounds (as of chimes), or to eloquent persuasion (“silver tongued”). Glossy gray hair is often referred to as silver, and that description leads to connotations of mature elegance (“silver-haired dignity”).

10. Steely

This adjective referring to strength and hardness is best known as part of the clichés “steely determination” and “steely resolve.”

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4 Responses to “10 Metals and Minerals for Metaphors”

  • Deborah H

    “Sterling” is a good word, though I tend to overuse it.

  • Stephen Thorn

    There is also “mercurial,” meaning quick to change one’s mood or attitude. This comes from the elemental metal mercury, which has long been used for thermometers because of its unusual properties (the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, its marked contraction when chilled and expansion when warmed, etc.).

  • Pam Hanson-Holtry

    What about “salt?” The “salt of the earth,” meaning a reliable person. Or taken with “a grain of salt” meaning to regard something as exaggerated. Or “worth one’s salt,” meaning to have great value. You can also “salt” or stash something away, such as money. Of course, then there’s an “old salt,” or experienced sailor.

  • Lena

    This is interesting, largely inspired by the ‘nature’ of the metals.

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