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: