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Metaphorical language--comprising most commonly metaphor and simile--allows a writer to identify one thing with another in order to show how the first thing mentioned is similar to the second thing. For example, a football player might be described as "a lion" on the field or as having played "like a lion in today's game." In the first example, the writer is using a metaphor to compare the player to a lion and, in the second, a simile, which is a comparison using the words "like" or "as." In both cases, the writer is comparing the football to a powerful animal in the hope of evoking an image (the power of a lion) that helps the reader understand the power of the football player.
In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," as Irving is describing the sounds coming from the schoolhouse, he notes
From hence the low murmur of his pupil's voices, conning over their lessons, might be heard of a drowsy summer's day, like the hum of a bee-hive. . . .
This example of metaphorical language--because it uses the word "like" to make the comparison--is a simile, and the value of such language is that it both adds texture to the description and insures that the reader "hears" the sound because most readers would have been familiar with the sound of a bee hive.
A few lines later, Irving describes Ichabod Crane, as the schoolmaster and disciplinarian:
I would not have it imagined, however, that he was one of those cruel potentates of the school, who joy in the smart of their subjects. . . .
Here, Irving is comparing Crane, in the negative, to a potentate, a ruler with absolute and arbitrary power over his subjects. This is a particularly effective use of metaphorical language because Irving's readers, for whom the American Revolution was a living memory, would be repelled by the image of a cruel potentate. Although Crane has many faults, being like a cruel potentate is not one of them.
Metaphorical language, then, compares two dissimilar things in order to show how the first person, object, or action resembles the second thing (or is unlike the second thing), and the result is often an image that the reader can understand more clearly because the reader understands, based on his or her experience, how those two things are alike.
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