This is an extract from Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah.

Something in his manner caused me to hesitate. To be summoned by Second Brother out of the blue and be treated so royally was cause for suspicion.

After receiving the answers from a test paper, I found out that in this context it made the literary device of out of the blue to be a metaphor; not an idiom. I am confused as the sites that I came across either said a metaphorical idiom or simply an idiom.

Can anyone show me how metaphor is the correct literary device in the context and not idiom? And how to identify if it is a metaphor or an idiom in other contexts to prevent further mistakes?

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    An idiom is like a word: to be taken as a whole and not considered as a composition of its elements. In fact, focusing on the components may mislead you regarding the meaning of the whole (e.g. in kicked the bucket there is no bucket and it wasn't kicked). A metaphor is a kind of analogy, which intentionally choose an emphasizes elements to draw a parallel with some other (analogous) situation. Having read these definitions, you may note they are not mutually exclusive: one person may use a phrase "blindly" as a word having some fixed meaning, and a it her may be using it metaphorically. – Dan Bron Sep 17 '15 at 12:43
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    Some metaphors, through overuse, can become idioms, to the extend native speakers become unaware or unconcerned with the original meaning; this is termed bleaching. In any case, you can look phrases up in a good dictionary; most opaque idioms will be listed (with etymologies/origins) and most de novo metaphors will not (for obvious reasons). Finally, note: "out of the [clear] blue [sky]', where there was nothing before. – Dan Bron Sep 17 '15 at 12:46
  • @DanBron to sum up what you just mentioned, out of the blue in that context can be used as a metaphor. Am I correct? – CipherBot Sep 17 '15 at 12:48
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    The point of my comments was to give you the big picture, and not focus on the particular example. If you summed it up as "out of the blue is a metaphor", you've missed the point. To repeat one pertinent sentence: Having read these definitions, you may note they are not mutually exclusive: one person may use the phrase as [an idiom,] a word having some fixed meaning, and another [person] may be using it metaphorically". Another pertinent sentence: "some metaphors can become idioms". Another (paraphrased): if you can look it up in a dictionary, it can be considered an idiom. – Dan Bron Sep 17 '15 at 12:53
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    Yes, that's correct, though it's not so much the context of the utterance which establishes its nature, but what's going on in the mind of its speaker: if the speaker intends it metaphorically, it's a metaphor, if idiomatically, an idiom, and if both (a case you must consider), a metaphorical idiom. Now that that's been established: pragmatically, speaking as a monolingual native speaker of English, in my experience, this particular phrase is rarely if ever intended or used metaphorically. People just use it to mean "surprisingly", without even giving a thought to its component words. – Dan Bron Sep 17 '15 at 13:09

As to the problem whether something is a metaphor you can find divergent views depending on how you define metaphor.

My view: "out of the blue" is short for "like a bolt out of the blue sky", a simple comparison with "like" or if you prefer the literary term a simile. Metaphors substitue a normal word by another expression that has some similarity with the normal word, but they don't use "like". If you use "black gold" for petroleum you use a metaphor. Comparisons with "like" or "as" are no metaphors.

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I would call it a "figure of speech".

We don't typically know in advance that something is going to fall out of the sky (or that lightning will strike when the sky is clear with "a bolt out of the blue" per rogermue). It is quite a shock when that happens. There's an implicit comparison to that degree of unexpectedness, and that makes it metaphorical.

His phone call came out of the blue. We hadn't spoken in years.

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M-W's Learner's Dictionary has a good comparison of idiom, metaphor, and simile.

Using those descriptions, I believe "out of the blue" should be considered a metaphor ("a word or phrase typically used to describe one thing but unexpectedly used to describe something different") rather than an idiom ("an expression that conveys something different from its literal meaning, and that cannot be guessed from the meanings of its individual words").

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