LBJ’S Great Society

LBJ signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Source: Wikipedia

Hello! In my last post, I began analyzing the metaphors used in the speeches of three US presidents famous for trying to revolutionize social programs – Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society and now Joe Biden’s Build Back Better program.  Having discussed the speeches of FDR last time, I now move to analyzing the speeches of Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president.  He became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He served from 1963 to 1969.  He is most famous for his innovative social programs he nicknamed the War on Poverty and the Great Society.  Incredibly, many of the social programs that we may take for granted today were created by the Johnson administration. These programs include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Housing and Urban Development Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Immigration and Naturalization Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Not too shabby for one president, eh?

Source: Wikipedia

Many of the recent initiatives in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan have reminded pundits of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.  So I was curious if the rhetorical strategies and metaphors used by LBJ in his speeches were similar to those of FDR and Biden. I am not a historian or political scientist, but I will try to give an overview of the importance of some of his speeches.  In the examples below, I will supply excerpts from his speeches within quotation marks with the targeted metaphors italicized.  I will also provide the exact date of the speech in case anyone would like to track down the speech in its entirety.  All of the quotations are taken from the book, The Speeches of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2015). Finally, I will also note when a speech was particularly important as in inaugural address (IA) or one of the many State of the Union Addresses (SOTU). 

I was very impressed with the intelligence and wit in his public addresses, often delivered in a folksy style, perhaps not surprising given that he was from a small town in Texas. Some of his domestic programs seemed to have been inspired by his experiences teaching Mexican immigrants in a local high school before getting into politics.  

His views were also formed by the efforts of his father, a local politician.  In his inaugural address in 1965, he discussed the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan after the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. He said, “My father fought them many long years ago in Texas and I have fought them all my life because I believe them to threaten the peace of every community where they exist.  I will continue to fight them because I know their loyalty is not to the United States of America but instead to a hooded society of bigots.” 3/26/65 

Source: Wikipedia

Despite these examples of a narrow focus due to his rural upbringing, he also had a wide worldview.  In his inaugural address in 1965, he became philosophical about the emerging space program and the future of America using a journey metaphor. He said, “Think of our world as it looks from that rocket that is heading toward Mars. It is like a child’s globe, hanging in space, the continent stuck to its side like colored maps.  We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth.  And each of us, in the span of time, has really only a moment among our companions.”  1/20/65 IA

He also showed a good sense of humor.  In 1965 he gave a brief speech at a meeting of political cartoonist. He said he was happy to meet with the cartoonists because, “…after looking at some cartoons you had drawn, I thought I’d invite you over to see me in person.  After all I had nothing to lose.” 5/13/65

Rhetorical Strategies

In terms of the rhetorical strategies used in his speeches, I was a little disappointed.  Given that he was a colleague and good friend of two of the best orators of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, I was expecting many rhetorical flourishes in his speeches.  However, there were only a few that I could find.  He did deliver one clever chiasmus.  As discussed in other blog posts, a chiasmus (kye-AZ-muss) occurs when there is a two-part expression in which the subject and object in the first part are reversed in the second part.  Perhaps the most famous example in US politics is JFK’s expression, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  A week after JFK’s assassination, Johnson stated, “We will demonstrate anew that the strong can be just in the use of strength; and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 11/27/63 

Source: Wikimedia commons

He also used the strategy of repetition a few times, most markedly in a section of a speech to students at the University of Michigan in 1965.  He repeated the military metaphor of a battle to challenge them to help him build the Great Society.  

Example:  “So, will you join the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?

Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty?

Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all nations to live in enduring peace—as neighbors and not as mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is the only foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?” 5/22/64 


Given his folksy speaking style and the fact that he was surrounded by brilliant orators, I was not surprised to see that LBJ (or his speech writers) used a wide variety of metaphors in his speeches.  Also, not surprisingly, since he was from the Texas hill country, he uses a few metaphors from nature and animals to describe and explain his points in his speeches.  


For instance, he uses the common metaphor of the yoke of an animal to describe people being oppressed in society, as if people are restrained by their circumstances in the same way that farm animals are restrained by a heavy yoke around their necks.

Source: Wikipedia

Example: “We have shown that we can also be a formidable foe to those who reject the path of peace and those who seek to impose upon us or our allies the yoke of tyranny.”  “…the yoke of dictatorship and the yoke of colonialism is being thrown off of nations all around the world, and new nations are being born, and independence and freedom are on the march.” 10/9/64

Example: “…to cast off the yoke of discrimination and disease…” 2/23/66

He also compares people who preach violence as venom or poison into the bloodstream of the country. 

Example: “The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another.  So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence.  Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of the law, and those who pour venom into our Nation’s bloodstream.” 11/27/63

Example: “It is this work that I most want us to do: to banish rancor from our words and malice from out hearts; to close down the poison spring of hatred and intolerance and fanaticism…” 11/28/63

Example: “Let us close the springs of racial poison.”  7/2/64

In one of his last State of the Union Addresses, he uses the common metaphors of mountain peaks or clouds on the horizon to measure economic indicators or to signify possible trouble in the future. 

Example: “True, there are some clouds on the horizon.  Prices are rising. Interest rates have passed the peak of 1966; and if there is continued inaction on the tax bill, they will climb even higher.” 1/17/68 SOTU

In an extended sequence, LBJ compares the plight of African-Americans (commonly called Negroes at the time) to two rivers in the country. He contrasts these rivers by using metaphors of light and darkness. 

Example: “Three and a half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown.  They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom.  They did not mingle fear and joy, in expectation that in this New World anything would be possible to a man strong enough to react to it.

            They came in darkness and they came in chains.” 

“The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers.  Welling up from that tiny Jamestown spring they flow through the centuries along divided channels.”  8/6/65 

“It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, that an American victory was also a Negro victory.  And the two rivers—one shining with promise, the other dark-stained with oppression—began to move toward one another.”  

“So we will move step by step—often painfully but, I think, with clear vision—along the path toward American freedom.” 8/6/65

Light and Dark

LBJ used metaphors of light and dark in several other speeches.  In one of his first speeches, he praised the accomplishments of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. A few months later, he talked about the future of his own presidency.

Example: “3 years as President the world became a little safer and the way ahead became a little brighter.” 12/17/63

Example: “Our tomorrow is on its way.  It can be a shape of darkness or it can be a thing of beauty.” 8/27/64  Democratic National Convention acceptance speech

He referenced the Bible several times in his speeches with references to light and dark metaphors.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “The scripture promises: ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in the thine heart, which shall not be put out.’

Together, and with millions more, we can light that candle of understanding in the heart of all America.

            And, once lit, it will never again go out.” 6/4/65

Up until the end of the very end of his presidency, he was very optimistic about the future, even when faced with the interminable war in Vietnam.

Example: “By shining a light of inquiry and discussion upon very dark and isolated conflicts, it has pressed the nations of the world to conform their courses to the requirements of the United Nations Charter.” 6/25/65

Example: “The high hopes of the aggressor have been dimmed and the tide of the battle has been turned.”  2/23/66 

Example: When the US proves that guerilla warfare cannot succeed… “Once that lesson is learned, a shadow that hangs over all of Asia tonight will, I think, begin to recede.” 7/12/66


Another way of showing his optimism was through metaphors of vision or looking towards the future.  In an extended passage, LBJ used the rhetorical strategy of repetition once more. 

Example: “In short, it is no time for delay.  It is time for action—strong, forward-looking action on the pending education bills to help bring the light of learning to every home and hamlet in America—strong, forward-looking action on youth employment opportunities; strong, forward-looking action on the pending foreign aid bill, making clear that we are not forfeiting our responsibilities to this hemisphere or the world, nor erasing Executive flexibility in the conduct of foreign affairs—and strong, prompt, and forward-looking action on the remaining appropriation bills.” 11/27/63

Example: “A great leader is dead; a great Nation must move on. Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.  I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us.  So I ask you to join me in that resolve, determined that from the midnight of this tragedy, we shall move toward a new American greatness.”  11/28/63

Body Position

Politicians use metaphors of body position to describe parts of the country or the viewpoint of the US compared to other countries.  We often say that countries or situations have faces, a country is strong, or a nation can shoulder its responsibilities. 

Source: Public domain pictures

Example: “I want us to wipe poverty off the face of the South—and off the conscience of the nation.” 10/9/64

Example: Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. 

Americans “…will be anxious to shoulder the responsibilities that are inseparably bound to freedom.” 2/23/66 

Example: “No longer are we called upon to get America moving.  No longer do we doubt our strength or resolution.  We are strong and we have proven our resolve.” 

“In Asia, communism wears a more aggressive face.  We see that in Vietnam.  Why are we there?” 1/4/65 SOTU

In an extended sequence, he described the war in Vietnam as having many faces.

Example: “The war in Viet-Nam has many faces. There is the face of armed conflict—of terror and gunfire—of bomb-heavy planes and campaign-weary soldiers.” 

“The second face of the war in Viet-Nam is the quest for a political solution, the face of diplomacy and politics, of the ambitions and the interests of other nations.” 

“The third face of war in Viet-Nam is, at once, the most tragic and most hopeful. It is the face of human need.  It is the unintended sick, the hungry family, and the illiterate child.  It is men and women, many without shelter, with rags for clothing, struggling for survival in a very rich and a very fertile land.” 5/13/65


One of his favorite types of metaphors is describing political situations as something that is being built, like a new building with a strong foundation.

Example: “We can build together a much better world.” 12/17/63

Example: “Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history.  With that foundation, let us work together to make last year’s session the best in the nation’s history.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “In establishing preferences, a nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’  But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’” 1/8/64 

Example: “And let us build something much more lasting: faith between man and man, faith between race and race.  Faith in each other and faith in the promise of beautiful America.” 7/27/67 

Example: “This battle will not be easy or it will not be swift.  It takes time to educate young minds and to shape the structure of a modern economy.” 4/20/64

Example: “We build this nation to serve its people.” 

“We want to build and create, but we want progress to be the servant and not the master of man.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Rooms, Doors, Gates

Similarly, LBJ liked to describe situations as if they were a part of building with rooms, doors or gates. He used these metaphors in his first mention of Vietnam on April 20, 1964 and in several other descriptions of foreign affairs.

Example: “Once war seems hopeless, then peace may be possible.  The door is always open to any settlement which assures the independence of South Viet-Nam, and its freedom to seek help for its protection.” 4/20/64 

Example: “Asia is no longer sitting outside the door of the 20th century.  She is here in the same world with all of us—to be either our partner or our problem.” 7/12/66 

Example: “The people of Asia now know that the door to independence is not going to be slammed shut.” 

“The doors of the billion dollar Asian Development Bank…are already open.” 1/10/67 SOTU

Example: “The struggle is not merely long.  The struggle is unending, for it is part of man’s ancient effort to master the passions of the mind, the demands of his spirit, the cruelties of nature.  Yes, we have entered a new arena.  The door has closed behind us.  And the old stage has passed into history.” 4/20/64

Source: Public domain pictures

He also used these gate metaphors to describe the beginnings of the US space program, poverty and voting rights. 

Example: “All of us are conscious that we have crossed over the threshold of man’s first tentative and experimental ventures in space.” 3/26/65 

Example: “…Negroes are trapped—as many whites are trapped—in inherited, gate-less poverty.” 6/4/65

Example: “So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.” 3/15/65 

Physical Forces

Given the turbulent times of the 1960s, it is not surprising that he used metaphors of strong physical forces such as tearingshaking and uprooting. For example, he described the assassination of JFK in this way.  And he used these metaphors to describe the complexities of the world. 

Example: “A deed that was meant to tear us apart has bound us together.” 11/28/63 

Example: “We will not, and should not, assume that it is the task of Americans alone to settle all the conflicts of a tornand troubled world.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “Ours is a time of change—rapid and fantastic change—bearing the secrets of nature, multiplying the nations, placing in uncertain hands new weapons for mastery and destruction, shaking old values and uprooting old ways.” 1/20/65 IA

War and Peace

Similarly, given that the Vietnam War was growing out of control during the 1960s, he used metaphors of war and peacein some of his speeches.  He famously created the phrase war on poverty in his first State of the Union Address as part of his plan to build what he called the Great Society.  He also described it as a battle to be waged in the economy.  And he poignantly described the forces working against a growing economy as enemies

Source: The public domain review

Example: “…the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington.  It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.” 1/8/64

Example: “This battle will not be easy or it will not be swift.  It takes time to educate young minds and to shape the structure of a modern economy.” 4/20/64

Example: “This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease.” 3/15/65


In one memorable passage of a 1968 State of the Union Address, he described the challenges of building an economy as a great ship crossing an ocean. 

He claimed that the US was in a period of great prosperity but there were still problems. 

Example: “Why, then, this restlessness?

Because when a great ship cuts through the sea, the waters are always stirred and troubled.

            And our ship is moving. It is moving through troubled and new waters; it is moving toward new and better shores.” 1/17/68 SOTU


Finally, as all politicians do, LBJ used metaphors of journeys to describe the progress made in the past or the hopes for progress in the future.  One of the main goals of a good political leader is to instill confidence in citizens that their country is getting better.  This goal is often accomplished by using journey metaphors such as taking stepsclimbing peaks, following paths or roads, and moving forward instead of being at a standstill

Source: Public domain pictures

Example: “We must be ready to defend the national interest and to negotiate the common interest. This is the path we shall continue to pursue.” 11/27/63

Example: “Our view is outward, our thrust is forward, but we remember in our hearts this brave young man who lies in honored eternal rest across the Potomac.” 11/28/63

Example: “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles, and it must be taken one step at a time.” 12/17/63

Example: “But it is not a standstill budget, for American cannot afford to stand still.” 1/8/64 SOTU

Example: “In this period we have taken more steps toward peace—including the test ban treaty—than any time since the Cold War began. 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “We worked for two centuries to climb this peak of prosperity.”  1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed.” 1/4/65 SOTU

Example: “The United Nations is already setting up new mechanisms to help carry forward the work of development.” 5/13/65

Example: “The Great Society leads us along three roads—growth and justice and liberation.” 1/22/66 SOTU


President Lyndon Baines Johnson was clearly a gifted orator.  He used specific rhetorical strategies and metaphors in his speeches to inspire his colleagues in the government, national politicians, students and ordinary citizens to create a Great Society with many innovative social, judicial and environmental programs.  It was a joy to read and analyze his speeches.  However, it was also sad to see a marked decline in his rhetoric as the years went by.  Starting off with unbridled enthusiasm for his programs and optimism for the future, a reader can almost feel his energy waning as the Vietnam War dragged on. By the end of his term in 1968, his optimism turned into frustration and he famously announced that he would not be seeking a second term.  Sadly, his great presidency was blemished by the stigma of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, we should all remember him for his great accomplishments. 

Next time in this space, I will be discussing the speeches of President Biden. Cheers! 

FDR’s New Deal

Today I am starting a new three-part series comparing the metaphor usage in the speeches of three different US presidents.  As you may have heard on the news or read in newspapers or magazines, as soon as President Biden took office this past January, commentators began comparing him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.  All three presidents faced unprecedented economic, political or medical challenges and launched pioneering social programs in efforts to help the American people recover from the calamities.  Biden’s recent efforts to get all Americans vaccinated against Covid-19, to get a massive infrastructure bill passed in Congress and to get a child tax-credit for American families have been especially noteworthy.  Pundits in the media have often compared Biden’s efforts to FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and LBJ’s Great Society in the 1950s.  The other day, I heard a TV broadcaster refer to Biden as being “Rooseveltian.” 

As a linguist, I immediately began to wonder if the similarities among the presidents in trying to solve these social problems would also correlate to similarities in rhetorical strategies and metaphor usage in their speeches.  So, I have spent the past several months doing research on the speeches of FDR and LBJ.  I have read and analyzed all of FDR’s famous fireside chats along with his four (yes, four!) inaugural addresses and his speech on the Four Freedoms.  I also studied all of LBJ’s speeches, inaugural addresses and State of the Union addresses.  Then I studied President Biden’s recent speeches. Not surprisingly, I found many similarities in metaphor usage, but I also discovered that each had their own rhetorical strategies and speaking styles.

Today I focus on the speeches of FDR.  In subsequent posts, I will analyze the speeches of Johnson and Biden. 

Before I share the metaphor analyses, I should provide a brief summary of the historical context of FDR’s presidency.  Born into a wealthy and political family in 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the fifth cousin of our 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.  After graduating from Harvard law school, he became a New York state senator, the Assistant Secretary to the Navy and later the governor of New York despite being stricken with polio in 1921 and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  He successfully ran for president in 1932 and became the 32nd president of the United States.  He was reelected three more times (before presidential term limits were established with the 22ndAmendment in 1951) and served as president from 1933 until his death in April 1945. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

Roosevelt became president in 1933 during the middle of the greatest economic crisis in US history, now known as the Great Depression.  Catastrophic bank failures in 1929 led to the total ruin of the US economy with thousands of business being closed, millions of dollars in personal savings lost, and 25% unemployment. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was unable to make progress in bringing the country out of the depression.  Roosevelt was elected to save the day.  He immediately enacted stringent policies on banking regulations, agricultural prices, labor laws and a myriad of other social programs.  He also battled with Congress to create pioneering programs which were collectively later named the New Deal, with a bewildering amount of new programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which provided money to state governments, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) which attempted to control farm prices, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which put millions of unemployed people to work on rural projects, and the Public Works Administration (PWA) which focused on infrastructure projects.  He also created government agencies which we may take for granted today, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which protects personal savings accounts from losses due to bank failures, and of course, the Social Security Act which provides a guaranteed source of income to retired Americans, previously unavailable. 

If these crises weren’t already enough for one president to handle, World War II broke out in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, and then came to our shores, of course, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Thus, while taking care of thousands of issues on the home front, he also had to turn his focus to international war efforts in both Europe and the Pacific. Ironically, the war helped end the Great Depression by putting millions of Americans to work in the war effort. 

If he hadn’t been busy enough doing all that, he began a series of radio broadcasts to the American people which became known as his fireside chats.  While he is most famous for his line in his first inaugural address, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” he built a great rapport with the American public through his comments in these fireside chats.  He was perhaps inspired by his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was equally progressive and was famous for her own radio broadcasts. I had always thought that FDR’s fireside chats were weekly radio programs but they actually occurred only about once every three months.  In these addresses, he patiently explained all the steps he was taking to rescue the economy and create these new social programs. I was quite awe-struck reading these speeches.  His knowledge of agriculture, industry, banking, military history, etc., was very impressive.  There seemed to be no subject on which he was not an expert.  It was also clear that he was well respected by the American people.  For example, as World War II started, he asked people to buy world maps. Then, in his fireside chats, he asked his listeners to take out their maps and follow along as he explained where “our boys” were fighting in Europe and the Pacific.  Apparently, world maps quickly sold out all over the country as his listeners followed along with his descriptions of the war efforts. Sad to say, it’s hard to imagine that kind of loyalty to a president, or knowledge of geography, among Americans today. 

Without further ado, here are a few notes on the rhetorical strategies and metaphor usage in FDR’s speeches.  As usual, the examples which follow are presented in quotation marks.  Each metaphor will be highlighted in italics, but note that the italics are mine, not in the original.  Also, in the interest of accurate citation, I have made efforts to note from which speech of which president each metaphor was used.  I was lucky enough to find a book containing all of the fireside chats.  You may find a link for it here.  For example, a metaphor from Roosevelt’s fireside chat on April 28, 1935, would be marked as R-FC-4/28/35.   A metaphor from his third inaugural address would be listed simply as R-IA#3. These inaugural addresses are short documents that can easily be found online. 

Given that FDR is famous for his fireside chats and having a close rapport with the American public, I wondered if this colloquial rhetorical style would correlate to use of proverbs, slang or analogies in a folksy manner of speaking.   I was not surprised to find many such examples.  

Analogies, Proverbs and Slang

In one brilliant section of prose, he compares the three branches of government to three horses plowing a field.  Apparently, he had been criticized in the media for trying to control Congress, when he was actually trying to get them to do their job. Thus, he offered this lengthy analogy.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “Last Thursday I described the American form of government as a three horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed.  The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government—the Congress, the Executive and the courts.  Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not.  Those who have intimated that the President of the United States is trying to drive that team, overlook the simple fact that the President, as Chief Executive, is himself one of the three horses.

            It is the American people themselves who are in the driver’s seat.

            It is the American people themselves who want the furrow plowed.

            It is the American people themselves who expect the third horse to pull in unison with the other two.” (R-FC-3/9/37) 

He also used proverbs such as killing two birds with one stone several times in his speeches. For instance,

Example: “In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone.  We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.” (R-FC-5/7/33)

Roosevelt also used a few colorful slang terms that seem very amusing in the context of the serious issues he was constantly dealing with.  For instance, he often complained about corrupt politicians or business leaders who were trying to cheat the government. He referred to these people as chiselers or black sheep

Example: “There are chiselers in every walk of life; there are those in every industry who are guilty of unfair practices; every profession has its black sheep…” (R-FC- 4/8/35)

He also had a few choice words for ignorant people who were in denial about the reality of the brutality of war.  He bluntly referred to these people as cheerful idiots.

Example: “There have always been cheerful idiots in this country who believed that there would be no more war for us, if everybody in America would only return to their homes and lock their front doors behind them.” (R-FC-12/24/43)

Beyond these unusual expressions, FDR used a wide variety of the metaphors I often describe in this blog.  In keeping with his folksy communication style, he often used terms from farming or industry to describe his government policies.


FDR often referred to the workings of government as machinery. In his very first fireside chat, he described his efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression as such. Later he used the same term to describe how the government was increasing funding for the war effort.  He later described the victories at D-Day as a hammer blow to the Nazis. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system…” (R-FC-3/12/33)

Example: “The machinery to carry out this act of the Congress was put into effect within twelve hours after the bill was signed.” (R-FC-10/12/42)

Example: “And on the west—the hammer blow which struck the coast of France last week [the D-Day invasion] last Tuesday morning, less than a week ago, was the culmination of careful planning and strenuous preparation.” (R-FC- 6/23/44)


Roosevelt liked using terms from farming techniques to describe some of his policies.  I already provided the example of three horses plowing a field.  Additionally, as I mentioned, he commonly explained complex financial or military strategies to the public in his fireside chats and he was confident that they could sift the wheat from the chaff, or that they understood what he was saying. 

Example: “The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read.” (R-FC-4/28/35-45)


Roosevelt also used a few colorful animal metaphors.  He described the Nazi U-boats as rattlesnakes and argued for preemptive strikes against them.  This was surprising to read as this was from a speech in September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor.  He also makes a clever turn on the idea of the bald eagle as an American symbol of speed and power, as compared to the slowness of a turtle.  In his final inaugural address, after being dragged into World War II, he claims that he has learned the lesson that Americans cannot live like ostriches or dogs in a manger

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “But when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.

            These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” (R-FC-9/11/41)

Example: “Now, many of those same people, afraid that we may be sticking our necks out, want our national bird to be turned into a turtle.  But we prefer to retain the eagle as it is—flying high and striking hard.

…we reject the turtle policy…” (R-FC-2/23/42)

Example: “We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.” (R-IA#4)

Nature & Natural Disasters

Roosevelt also uses several significant metaphors of nature.  He describes the Great Depression in terms of frozen assets and withered leaves of industry. One of the most powerful forces in nature is that of a flood.  In a beautifully written extended metaphorical passage, he compares the efforts of the United Nations in defeating the Nazis to countries building levees to hold off flood waters. 

Example: “…the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side…” (R-IA#1)

Example: “Today, in the same kind of community effort, only very much larger, the United Nations and their peoples have kept the levees of civilization high enough to prevent the floods of aggression and barbarism and wholesale murder from engulfing us all. The flood has been raging for four years.  At last we are beginning to gain on it; but the waters have not receded enough for us to relax our sweating work with the sand bags.  In this war bond campaign we are filling bags and placing them against the flood—bags which are essential if we are to stand off the ugly torrent which is trying to sweep us all away.” (R-FC-9/8/43)


It is very common in English for speakers to compare abstract processes to physical buildings.  Thus we have commonly used metaphors such as foundationspillars or simply to build something.  In one of his first fireside chats, FDR compares his new economic policies to a granite building.  Later he describes the Civilian Conservation Corps as a temple of recovery.  In his speech on the “Four Freedoms” he describes the foundations of a healthy democracy. In one of his discussions of the advancement of the Japanese armies during World War II, he describes them as knocking on the gatesof the Australia and New Zealand. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “We have built a granite foundation in a period of confusion.” (R-FC-7/24/33)

Example: “Our progress out of the depression is obvious. But that is not all that you and I mean by the new order of things. Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job with secondhand materials. By using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations.” (R-IA#2)

Example: “For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. 

Jobs for those who can work. 

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.” (R-Four Freedoms)

Example: The Civilian Conservation Corps is a “temple of recovery” – “We are buildingstone by stone, the columns of which will support that habitation.  Those columns are many in number and though, for a moment the progress of one column may disturb the progress on the pillar next to it, the work on all of them must proceed without let or hindrance.” (R-FC-10/23/33)

Example: “Japan was in control of the western Aleutian Islands; and in the South Pacific was knocking at the gates of Australia and New Zealand—and was also threatening India.” (R-FC-6/23/44)


Politicians often describe a country as if it is a person. In his third inaugural address, Roosevelt writes a tour de force description of the United States as a person with a body, mind and faith. 

Example: “A nation, like a person, has a body–a body that must be fed and clothed and housed, invigorated and rested, in a manner that measures up to the objectives of our time.

A nation, like a person, has a mind–a mind that must be kept informed and alert, that must know itself, that understands the hopes and the needs of its neighbors–all the other nations that live within the narrowing circle of the world.

And a nation, like a person, has something deeper, something more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts. It is that something which matters most to its future–which calls forth the most sacred guarding of its present.

It is a thing for which we find it difficult–even impossible–to hit upon a single, simple word.

And yet we all understand what it is–the spirit–the faith of America. It is the product of centuries. It was born in the multitudes of those who came from many lands–some of high degree, but mostly plain people, who sought here, early and late, to find freedom more freely.” (R-IA#3)


Another common set of metaphors used by politicians is when they compare the political progress on some issue as going down a road or crossing a bridge.  Roosevelt also uses these journey metaphors. He describes progress on controlling farm prices as taking steps and being headed in the right direction while his administration was creating all government agencies step by step and affirming that the American people did not want to go backwards.  Finally, as early as 1942, he was already confident that the Nazis and Italians would lose the war since their peoples had gone down the bitter road to defeat. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

Example: “My aim in taking this step is to establish and maintain continuous control.” 

“…we are on our way and we are headed in the right direction.” (R-FC-10/23/33).

Example: “Step by step we have created all the government agencies necessary…” (R-FC-9/30/34)

Example: “…the electorate of America wants no backward steps taken.” (R-FC-4/14/38)

Example: “With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.

Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For ‘each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.’” (R-IA#2)

Example: “In the German and Italian peoples themselves there is a growing conviction that the cause of Nazism and Fascism is hopeless—that their political and military leaders have led them down the bitter road which leads not to world conquest but to final defeat.” (R-FC-4/28/42)


There are dozens of other interesting examples of metaphors in FDR’s speeches but space does not allow me to cover them all.  Clearly, President Roosevelt was a master communicator and effectively used specific rhetorical strategies and common metaphors to get his points across to the American people while dealing with two of the greatest crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and World War II.  

Stay tuned for more fascinating figurative language in the analyses of the speeches of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The Hill We Climb

Last week, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States.  As part of the ceremonies, a 22-year-old African-American poet, Amanda Gorman, captivated the nation with a stirring poem about unity entitled, “The Hill We Climb.” Ms. Gorman is the current National Youth Poet Laureate who was handpicked by the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, to deliver the address.  She recited her poem in a powerful voice with poise and gravitas far beyond her years, using expertly choreographed hand and arm gestures, transforming the simple reading of a poem into a thrilling display of literary and artistic talent. Ms. Gorman’s performance was as bright as her yellow dress and as exciting as her red headband. In a word, she was brilliant.

In my view, brilliance is never singular; rather it is the combination of many talents and visions that create an extraordinary work of art.  The Beatles were not only incredible musicians, they were genius lyricists and were aided by a visionary producer, George Martin.  Shakespeare was not only a brilliant dramatist but was also a master of wordplay and created plays that touched on universal themes.  In her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman combines slam poetry, rap, free verse, performance art and politics in a way no one has ever done before. 

In my blog today, I would like to humbly offer an analysis of why her poem was so brilliant.  There have been many insightful commentaries online in the past few days documenting her subtle references to past political leaders and poets, as well as to the Trump presidency and the Capitol riots.  I will mention some of those references in passing, but I will try to provide an analysis from a linguist’s point of view. I believe she deftly employed seven distinct rhetorical strategies in her poem: 1) rhymes, 2) alliteration 3) repetition, 4) nature metaphors, 5) journey metaphors, 6) contrast and chiasmus, and 7) themes of unification.  I provide examples from her poem, with specific words and phrases under study in italics. You can see the performance of her inaugural poem on YouTube here, and read the transcript here

1) Rhymes: Ms. Gorman uses a wide variety of rhyme schemes in her poem.  In some cases, she uses simple monosyllabic end rhymes such as in the opening lines of her poem, rhyming shade with wade, and beast with peace

File:Golden sunrise.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Example: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry, a sea we must wade

We’ve braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”

She repeats this first rhyme later with blade and made and with grew and true.

Example: “If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.” 

Example: “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true

That even as we grieved, we grew.” 

            She also uses internal rhymes in some instances, sometimes with slant rhymes, as with tiredtried and tied.  (Slant rhymes occur when two words or phrases have similar sounds such as bat and back as compared to exact rhymes such as bat and cat.) 

Example: “That even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.”

Moreover, she uses more complex multisyllabic end rhymes and internal rhymes throughout the poem. In one example, she uses slant rhymes with redemption and inception

Example: “This is the era of just redemption

We feared it at its inception.”

She also rhymes succeeded and defeated

Example: “And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” 

In one exceptional section, she creates a long series of rhymed phrases or parts of words as with dare itAmerican, inheritrepair it, and share it

Example: “That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it

Because being American is more than a pride we inherit

it’s the past we step into and how we repair it

We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.” 

One may question the inclusion of the word American as a rhyme in this series, but if you listen to her live performance, she seems to specifically emphasize the first three syllables of the word, and destresses the first syllable. 

            At the beginning of the poem, while she is talking about the dawn, she creates a pair of multisyllabic rhymes with knew it and do it.  And then at the end of the poem, while referring back to her metaphor of the dawn, she repeats this multisyllabic pattern with greater emphasis as she rhymes free itsee it and be it

Example: “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it.”

Example: “The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light. 

If only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

One last slant rhyme deserves special mention.  At the beginning of the poem she forces a rhyme between the phrase just is with justice. I believe here she is referencing the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. that has been in the news lately following the Black Lives Matter protests: “True peace in not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Example: “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.

In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”

2) Alliteration: One way that poets call attention to a section of a poem is to begin each of a series of words with the same vowel or consonant sound.  In one section, Ms. Gorman uses seven words in a row all beginning with a hard “c” sound.  Her list of traits of the country she is hoping for is an overarching theme of the poem, at the same time referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, also alliterative, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

File:Color fabrics.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Example: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures,colorscharacters and conditions of man.”

3) Repetition: Ms. Gorman also uses repetition to emphasize certain points in her poem. The use of repetition is common in sermons and political speeches, most notably by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech and in Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”  Towards the end of her poem, Ms. Gorman repeats the phrase “we will rise” four times.  Interestingly, she also introduces this section of the poem with a variant, “we will raise” and follows the section with another variant, “we will rebuild.”  It’s brilliant poetic structure.  In this same section of the poem, she increases the intensity of the repetition by including a series of compound adjectives – bronze-poundedgold-limnedwind-sweptlake-rimmed, and sun-baked

Example: “With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. 

We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West. 

We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. 

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. 

We will rise from the sun-baked South. 

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.”

4) Nature Metaphors: There is a long tradition in poetry going back hundreds of years in which poets describe situations in terms of ordinary people in touch with nature.  As I have argued many times in this blog, we often think in terms of our common experiences with the world at large.  Thus, we immediately understand images of hills, mountains, rivers, the sun and moon, etc.  I believe that Ms. Gorman entitled her poem, “The Hill We Climb” to tap into this common experience.  She uses other nature metaphors throughout the poem, reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political speeches.  She begins the poem describing the problem as a dark night turning into a bright day, in the phrase “when day comes” and she follows that with several mentions of shade changing to light.  In one instance, she describes the challenge of Americans overcoming their divided country as crossing an ocean or sea, and she follows this with an allusion to the Biblical story of Jonah swallowed by a whale, referred to as surviving being in the belly of the beast.

Example: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

Example: “The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. 

We’ve braved the belly of the beast.” 

Later in that same section of the poem, she refers to the dawn of a new day, after having metaphorically weathered a storm. 

Example: “And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

File:Peru - Cusco Trekking 021 - climbing the hills (7114029049).jpg - Wikimedia  Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Later in the poem she repeats the metaphor of climbing a hill, and compares the challenges of our country as being lost in a forest, while anticipating moving from the forest to an open area sometimes called a glade

Example: “That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it. 

Because being American is more than a pride we inherit; 

it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. 

We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.” 

More importantly, she ends the poem with the repetitions of “we will rise” described earlier. 

5) Journey Metaphors: In addition to metaphors of nature, Ms. Gorman uses several journey metaphors. These types of metaphors describe the movement of group of people from a crisis to the resolution of the problem in a notable period of growth.  Not surprisingly in a speech about unifying the country, she weaves journey metaphors into her poem in several ways. 

Movement from night to day and dark to light.

Example: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

Example: “When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. 

The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light.” 

Movement from low to high.

Example: “And so, we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

Example: “With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”

Example: “We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West. 

Category:Sandia Mountains - Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. 

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. 

We will rise from the sun-baked South.”

Movement from backwards to forwards.

Example: “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised, but whole; benevolent, but bold; fierce and free. 

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.” 

Movement from broken to whole or injured to healthy. 

Example: “Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

Example: “With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”

Example: “We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.”

Movement from the past to the future.

Example: “In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the futurehistory has its eyes on us.”

Example: “We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.”

Example: “So, let us leave behind a country better than one we were left.” 

6) Contrast and Chiasmus: Another way of showing movement or progress in a poem is by setting up contrasts between two events or situations.  A chiasmus (pronounced kye-AS-mus) is a specific type of contrast in which two concepts are presented in reverse order in one sentence.  Perhaps the most famous example is from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In her poem, Ms. Gorman sets up several of these types of chiasmus. In one instance, she uses a clever contrast between two meanings of the words arms, one as weapons and one as human limbs. 


Example: “That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.”

Example: “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised, but whole; benevolent, but bold; fierce and free.”


Example: “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” 

Example: “In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.” 

Example: “So, while once we asked: ‘How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?’ Now we assert, ‘How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?’”

7) Themes of Unification:  As a grammar nerd, I could tell from the first three words of the poem that she was going to be talking about unification. Linguists and writers know that it is not always what one says that is important, it’s what one doesn’t say. She opens the poem with the phrase, “when day comes…”.  Note that she doesn’t say “the day” with the definite article or “a day” with an indefinite article. Indefinite and definite articles used with nouns indicate a specific concept being introduced or referenced, respectively. We can say, “a day I’ll never forget” or “the day I was late for work.”  By not including any article, Ms. Gorman indicates the concept as day as a natural phenomenon as in the idea of night follows day or summer follows spring.  In this way, she sets up the entire poem about universal themes, rather than specific issues.  She uses this idea of a new day coming at the beginning and the end of the poem to frame or bookend the entire speech. 

Example: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” 

Example: “When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid.”

Beyond this rhetorical strategy, there is another omission worth mentioning.  She never uses the first-person singular pronoun, I.  Rather she always uses the first-person plural pronoun, we.  Admittedly, most poets do not write about themselves so there is no reason to use first person pronouns, but even when Ms. Gorman is referring to herself, she uses the third person. I believe she does this deliberately to remove herself as the agent in the change she describes; rather she asks that we all work together to achieve those goals, not any one person individually. 

Example: “We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”

She adds another layer of emphasis to this sense of unity in her final line by saying that we not only have to see the light, but that we must be it, perhaps as a nod to the famous line attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Example: “If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

As a final rhetorical technique, she recognizes that it is not just the politicians in Washington DC who can make the changes.  It must come from people all across the country.  Thus, she specifically mentions different parts of the country, every nook and corner, along with the powerful compound adjectives discussed earlier. 

Example: “We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West

We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. 

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. 

File:Chicago Skyline and Lake Michigan.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We will rise from the sun-baked South

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our countryour people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.”

Summary:  Needless to say, this young poetess has crafted an incredibly powerful and uplifting poem.  By using a variety of rhetorical strategies, she outlines how we can heal our divided country and move forward. Interestingly, she never mentions any politicians or political parties by name, nor any specific national issues.  She makes allusions to the riots at the Capitol on January 6th, but does not give any specifics. I assume she is talking about reuniting Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and rich and poor Americans.  She does make several allusions to slavery so perhaps we can also assume she is hoping for racial equality, and perhaps justice for all disadvantaged groups, as she says, “all culturescolorscharacters and conditions of man.”  One can only hope her dreams of a better future for these United States can become a reality. 

Immigration Law Timeline


The fine folks at RapidVisa have contacted me to ask if I could share some of their original research.  Since I have written several blog posts about immigration, they suggested I share their compilation of U.S. Immigration Laws in a nice, easy-to-read chart format.  I will include a link to the chart here.

MAP Statue_of_Liberty

Please note that I have no affiliation with this organization and I have not been paid to offer their research here.  RapidVisa helps people obtain visas for their loved ones visiting or moving to the U.S. from other countries.  You can check out their services here. I offer their research only as additional information for my blog readers.

I have checked other sources on the Internet and no one else has compiled these laws in such a compact format. They list all of the immigration laws between 1790 and 2006 including interesting maps, photos and political cartoons.  They explain that they do not include more recent executive orders such as DACA or other immigration policies because they are not laws that were enacted by the U.S. Congress.  Nonetheless, their chart is still a very useful summary of U.S. immigration laws.  Enjoy!


Invasions and Infestations: Words and Metaphors Do Matter

Hello! I feel obliged to write a post today concerning the recent statements in the news that “Words Matter.”  Following the two horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, many people blamed President Trump for inciting the shooter in Texas since his screed published online shortly before the attacks used language quite similar to Trump’s recent rhetoric about a so-called invasion of Mexicans into the United States.  Trump also recently argued that Baltimore, Maryland was a “rodent-infested” city, and seemed to target Elijah Cummings, an African-American Congressman who lives in Baltimore.  Moreover, he also told four female minority members of Congress to “go back where you came from,” a well-known racist trope.  Trump’s apologists claim that the El Paso shooter was mentally ill and acted alone. 

As a linguist, I must remain neutral in these political arguments.  I will leave the assignation of blame to pundits and politicians.  Today I would like to talk about how and why these metaphors are so powerful in shaping the beliefs and actions of certain Americans.  Linguists have been talking for decades about the importance of language in influencing people’s beliefs.  I have discussed this many times in the past few years in this blog space.  Back in 2013 I wrote a post called “Do Metaphors Matter?” examining this very topic.  I would like to revisit the topic with an expanded analysis including three increasingly large social circles of 1) the body, 2) the family, and 3) the home.  I will argue that defending these three areas of our lives can be traced back to our early Homo sapiens ancestors, and can explain the power of many of our current political metaphors. 

Readers of this blog are well aware that my approach to understanding metaphors has been inspired by the ground-breaking work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.  They were the first to describe how metaphors usage is part of our everyday thinking.  Johnson’s book The Body in the Mind describes how many of our metaphors are derived from our experiences of using our own bodies.  In my research, I discovered more than 100 separate metaphors based on our body position, using our heads, arms, legs, hands and feet.  Thus, we have examples such as facing the problem, standing up for one’s rights, backing a candidates, reaching across the aisle, or getting a stronghold in another country.

A self-defense class. Source: Wikipedia commons

Sadly, many of these body metaphors are based on ideas of defending oneself against attackers.  We don’t even think about this, but most of the ways we talk about arguments use metaphors such as taking a stand on the issue, confronting your opponent or arguing from a position of strength.  In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. We are all familiar with the stories of our ancient ancestors fighting off cave bears or saber-tooth cats to survive.  We would not have survived as a species if we were not good at defending our bodies.

Source: Wikimedia commons

At a higher level of awareness and social grouping, we can also talk about the importance of our families in our lives.  The idea of belonging to a family is another rich source of metaphor creation on several different generational levels.  We talk about the founding fathers of our country, our soldiers in World War I and World War II as brothers in arms, or your latest pet project at work as your baby.  We also have the metaphorical expressions of “necessity is the mother of invention” and Uncle Sam referring to the U.S. government.  While there are not any metaphorical expressions referring directly to defending one’s family, we can understand that there is a natural instinct among all parents and grandparents to protect their loved ones in case of attack.  This is common in the natural world as well.  I am not a hunter but I have heard the saying that the only thing more dangerous than a grizzly bear is a momma grizzly bear defending her cubs. It is not surprising that two of our most powerful civil rights groups founded by women have the word mother in the name of the organization, e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving which not coincidentally spells out the acronym MADD indicating their anger at all the lives lost to drunk drivers.  There is also a group fighting for more gun regulations called Moms Demand Action.  

Source: Wikimedia commons

At the next higher level of social group is the sense of home.  The notion of home has several meanings.  Literally it means the house that people live in with their families.  But metaphorically it has other more powerful meanings.  A home is much more that a building, it represents the sense of love, family and belonging to a place.  In my much younger days I served two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa.  The other volunteers and I spoke often of going back home after our service was complete, as do thousands of military service men and women today.  Of course, we were not simply speaking of returning back to the houses that we grew up in, but to our family, friends, community and country.  We have many metaphors derived from our experience of living in a home, e.g., we call the founding fathers the framers of the constitution as if they were building a house, we talk about opportunity knocking (on the door) and the window of opportunity closing, and some politicians want to make a clean sweep of corruption in Washington D.C.  In terms of defending our homes, we also talk about having gatekeepers who maintain order in society, avoiding backdoor activities of corrupt politicians, and more to the point, having our national defense system literally called Homeland Security.  The Stand Your Ground laws in some states allow a homeowner to shoot someone who invades their property.  It is loosely based on the old British idea that “a man’s home is his castle.” This phrase is loaded with metaphorical power.  It involves the sense of standing to protect oneself (the body), or your loved ones (the family) on your ground or property (the home).  It’s a triple play for 2nd Amendment proponents who instinctively desire to defend themselves. 

In a larger sense, we also extend the meaning of home to include our streets, neighborhoods and communities.  And we protect our communities against outside interference.  Thus we have the acronym NIMBY, meaning Not In My Backyard, a phrase used by homeowners threatened by the possibility of a landfill, nuclear waste disposal site, a new airport or any other dangerous or noisy development.  

Source: Wikimedia commons

What does this have to do with mass shootings?  It is pretty clear that it is part of human nature to defend one’s body, family and home for danger.  When someone refers to a city being infested by rodents, most of us would shudder in disgust.  Anyone who has gone camping has most likely experienced insects crawling over our bodies during the middle of the night.  Harmless insects such as ants are annoying, but animals such as spiders or rodents that carry diseases is definitely a dangerous situation.  No one would like to think of their homes being infested by creepy, dangerous animals.  Also, it is normally the poor urban areas that are infected by rats, poor urban areas which are usually populated by poor people and minorities who have been forgotten by society.  Saying that a certain area is infested by rodents is clearly sending a message that the area is in bad condition because of the fault of the minorities to keep the area clean, even though it is almost always the case because the government has not provided the resources to maintain that area.  It is rarely the fault of the local people. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

When politicians talk about an invasion of immigrants, they too are sending a clear message that immigrants coming into this country is a dangerous thing.  The term invasion reminds people of military takeovers, such as Viking attacks in Europe during the Middle Ages, or German invasions of parts of Europe during World War II.  What could be more dangerous than an invasion?  People are well aware that their homes may be taken or destroyed or their family members could be killed during an invasion.  (We also talk about a flood of immigrants as if a tidal wave is coming to wipe out everyone and everything in its path.)

This discussion begs the question of why white people in America are so afraid of African-American, Hispanic, Asian or other minority people in the first place. To most Americans this fear is absurd.  Anyone who has lived or worked with people of color knows that they are just like anyone else in the world.  They are hardworking, law-abiding, family-loving people.  But to bigoted or racist people, minorities represent “the other” — people not like themselves, and thus they cannot be respected or trusted. Where does this idea come from?  Sadly it seems to have been part of human evolution for thousands of years.  No one knows exactly why Neanderthal Man disappeared.  Neanderthals lived in Europe for 400,000 years before disappearing shortly after the arrival of the rival species, Homo sapiens.  It is possible that the Neanderthals died off from disease, food shortages or climate change, but they may have also been killed by tribes of Homo sapiens.  In human prehistory, most hunter gatherer tribes coexisted peacefully for thousands of years.  However, when agriculture was discovered about 4000 BC, towns and cities quickly developed since people could, for the first time, stay in one place to live.  Sadly, the development of agriculture led to imbalances of food, money and power.  It is not long after that the first records of slavery occurred.  It seems to be part of human nature that a group in power will try to subjugate another, less powerful, group of people.  

Source: Wikimedia commons

Americans tend to think of slavery as a problem of American history, but of course, anyone who has seen the movie Gladiator, will remember that slavery existed in Ancient Greece and Rome.  Also, anyone who has seen the mini series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, will remember that the African slave trade, although promoted by Europeans and Americans, was also facilitated by some African tribes capturing and selling members of other African tribes.  I happened to live in the West African country of Benin during my Peace Corps service.  I have been to the museums in the coastal cities such as Ouidah, where the African slaves were sold off to the American traders. I saw the actual shackles and chains used by some African tribes to capture other Africans.  To most people, the idea of selling a person is appalling, as if they were simply property.  However, even our revered founding fathers counted slaves as only 3/5 of a person. 

This idea of subjugating people also has its origins in something called the Great Chain of Being.  This notion also goes back to the Ancient Greeks.  The idea was that people lived in the middle of a specific ranked order of beings, animals and plants.  In its most famous iteration Medieval Christians assigned the basic order, from highest to lowest, God, angels, humans, animals, plants and minerals, depicted in this drawing from 1579.  European kings used this idea to establish that they were closer to God thus higher in rank than ordinary people.  Colonial European powers used this idea to justify the horrible treatment they gave to African, Asian and Pacific Island nations as they plundered their natural resources for their own benefits.  And of course, 17th century Europeans and colonial American states used this idea to justify slavery as a means of obtaining a free source of labor.  Needless to say, our own treatment of Native Americans for the past several centuries has been just as bad. 

The Great Chain of Being, 1579 Drawing. Source: Wikimedia commons

Although these ideas sound horribly outdated, we find similar ideas in the Bible: 

Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  

While this passage is only speaking of humans having dominion over animals, it too has provided justification for hunters to kill animals for no reason.  While most modern hunters kill animals only for the meat, or to protect themselves from animals from attacking their families or their livestock, there are still so-called trophy hunters who kill only for the pleasure of killing a rare or dangerous animal.  You may remember the public outrage when a beloved lion named Cecil was killed by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe in 2015. 

Sadly, people in many cultures around the world have treated other people as animals, lower in value than humans.  You may have read the remarkable book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, in which he describes the men who hunted escaped slaves as if they were wild animals. Scientists used African-American men as guinea pigs in studies of syphilis at the Tuskegee University in Alabama between 1932 and 1972.  Even sadder still is the fact that human trafficking and other forms of slavery still exist in almost every corner of the world. It is perhaps no surprise then that in the United States and other parts of the world, immigrants are seen as less than human, somehow a lower form of life that must be stopped from coming into the home country.  These immigrants are a threat to the status quo of the privileged white social class who want to maintain their superiority over less powerful groups.  The ultimate irony, of course, is that in the United States, everyone except Native Americans are immigrants.  Our ancestors came from other parts of the world at different times in American history.  However, immigrants with darker skin, people of color, are judged to be the other, and thus become targets of discrimination and bigotry.  The reasons for this bigotry are complex.  In addition to the personal reasons of defending oneself or one’s family, there are also economic reasons — the fear of immigrants taking the jobs of Americans, political reasons — the fear that our government will be controlled by minorities, or social reasons — the fear of miscegenation, i.e., that the “pure” white race will be diluted by intermarriage with people of color.  

Now, to come full circle to the question of the importance of metaphors, I remind my readers of the work of George Lakoff on the idea of understanding governments in terms of what he calls the metaphorical “Nurturant Parent family” or the “Strict Father family.” 

In Lakoff’s model, liberals tend to think of government as nurturing parents who take care of their children.  Therefore they expect Congress to ensure a healthy economy, provide health care to the sick, food stamps to the poor and other safety nets to help those in need.  In contrast, conservatives tend to think of government as a strict father.  In a blog post a few years ago, Lakoff explains this idea further.

“The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.”

Needless to say, this metaphorical family structure follows the same logic as the Great Chain of Being dating back to the days of the Ancient Greeks.  There are two important points to be made here.  First, some conservatives may believe in this sort of hierarchy and act on it thinking they are justified in doing so based on their belief in maintaining the “well-ordered world.”  Secondly, people who blindly believe in this moral hierarchy may not think on their own; instead they will just believe what someone else tells them, if that person is in a position of higher authority.  For example, years ago a colleague of mine confessed that he did not know who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election, but he wasn’t worried because the pastor at this church was going to tell him who to vote for.  

Of course, I am in no way justifying this type of behavior.  I am only trying to explain how language and metaphors fit into the schema or world views of some people who try to justify their racist behavior.  Words do indeed matter, especially when they incite people to turn their beliefs into actions of killing innocent people for the tragically misguided purposes of maintaining their power in society. 

Trump’s Cabinet – Shakeup and Turnover

This week we learned in the news that Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, may be leaving by the end of the year.  His departure would be one in a long series of Trump advisors resigning or being forced out of office in the past two years, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, EPA director Scott Pruitt, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and many more.  I have noticed that there is a wide variety of metaphors used to describe the process of removing advisors from a presidential cabinet.

An antique cabinet at the Palace of Versailles in Paris

Before we get to the metaphors, first a word about the word cabinet itself.  At first glance it may appear to be a metaphor as well.  However, it is an example of polysemy (puh-LISS-uh-me), i.e., a word having different meanings that change over time.  The original meaning of cabinet was what we normally think of as a kitchen cabinet, a small box for containing valuables. Later the meaning changed to a small private room.  Then the people who met in that room became known as a cabinet council.  Later the phrase was shortened to simply cabinet. Thus we now refer to the president’s trusted group of advisors as the cabinet.

Sound strange? A more familiar example of this is the room board. We know the word as referring to a plank of wood.  We all know the expression as living in a house and paying room and board.  The board refers to the table on which the renters ate their meals.  This is an example of synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) in which a part of something refers to the whole.  Moreover, the word board was stretched even further to refer to a group of experts in a company, university or non-profit organization, as in a board of trustees.   The table where the experts met came to refer to the group of people who met there.

Back to the metaphors, we find that the process of people being hired and then fired in Donald Trump’s cabinet are described in terms a colorful variety of metaphors.  Of course, changes in a president’s cabinet are not unusual. All presidents have had advisors come and go.  However, President Trump has had an unusually large number of cabinet members resign or be fired.  The metaphors listed below are all “ripped from the headlines.”  The source of each quotation is provided, linked to the word “example” at the beginning of each quotation.  Italics are mine.

First of all, there are several metaphors used to describe the confusion that occurs when cabinet members are fired.  One way to describe the confusion is the say that is in flux, a word originally from Latin indicating the flow of water, as in an influx of tourists in a seaside community during the summer.  More commonly, the word flux refers to the rapid changes in a process.  The abstract concept of movement in a process is often compared to the physical movement of objects. The confusing process may also be described as if it is a deck of cards being shuffled, or mixed back and forth. Similarly, we may describe the process as being a shakeup, as if we are shaking small objects in a container, or a drink in a cocktail shaker. This hiring and firing process is also commonly described as a turnover, as if people are turning objects upside down and then right side up again, or baking an apple turnover.  Finally, we may also find examples of this process referred to as a revolving door, as if people are going in and out of a doorway into a large building.

Example:  “President Donald Trump’s Cabinet is in flux again.”

Example:  “On March 13, Trump fired his first secretary of state Rex Tillerson, shuffling the Cabinet again.”

Example:  “The president has been discussing multiple Cabinet shakeup options with his advisers.”



Example:  “In the president’s first two years in office, his Cabinet has seen far greater turnover than those of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama over the same time period, according to a Cabinet tracker by the Brookings Institution.”

Example:  “The Trump Administration’s Revolving Door

We also find many examples of metaphors being used for the actual process of leaving.  In some instances, we see neutral metaphors such as stepping down or exiting, as if a person is simply stepping down off a platform or exiting from a room.  However, we also find other more active metaphors being used, suggesting the use of physical force to move the person.  For example, perhaps the most common metaphor to describe a person leaving a position is that he or she is out. The word out is a common container metaphor, as if a person had been inside a box, and then he or she was forced to move out of the container.  More forceful metaphors include examples such as being pushed out or ousted, the latter being derived from an old French word meaning to forcibly remove someone from a location. Less politely, we find that a cabinet member can be dumped, as if he or she is an unwanted item going into the trash. In another sense of removal, we also find the word purge, which is also derived from a French word meaning to “clean” or “purify.”  Finally, we find an interesting box metaphor of someone being on the ropes before being fired, as if the person is a boxer about to lose an important fight in the ring.  In the example of mixed metaphors listed below, a person is being pushed out after being on the ropes while the administration is going through a shuffle of cabinet members.


Example:  “CNN reported Friday morning that Kelly could be stepping down in a matter of days, but Trump did not pause long enough to take questions from reporters, though he teased he would make another big personnel announcement Saturday at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia.”

Example:  “Behind the scenes: Trump announces John Kelly’s exit

Example:  “Jeff Sessions out as attorney general”

Example:  “John Kelly, hired to restore order for President Donald Trump, is out as chief of staff.”

Example:  “After two years of already high turnover, the president is expected to push out or accept the resignations of several more department chiefs by January.”

Example:  “The larger GOP margin in the Senate is especially important because Trump might now have the votes to confirm a new attorney general. Before the election, Republicans had warned Trump not to replace Sessions when they did not have the votes—a deficit that was due to the political blowback that would come if the president tried to oust Sessions in a transparent bid to curtail the Mueller investigation.”

Example:  “After Sessions, who will Trump dump next?”


Example:  “Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have been the first Trump Cabinet-level member purged in the wake of the midterm elections — but he is unlikely to be the last.”

Example:  “Several Trump Cabinet officials and senior aides are on the ropes and could be pushed out by the end of the year in a dramatic shuffle that could reshape the character of his administration — but create new political headaches for the president.”



As readers of this blog already know, almost any political process can be described in terms of metaphors. The examples listed here offer more evidence that we think in metaphors and that we commonly describe abstract process in terms of metaphors based on ordinary physical actions such as shaking, turning or moving something in and out of containers.  I am always amazed how many examples of these types of metaphors I can find.  Let me know if you have any comments or questions.  Thanks for reading!

A Tsunami of Immigrants?

The contentious topic of immigration has been in the news the past few weeks.  The Trump administration allegedly directed two government agencies – DSH, the Department of Homeland Security, and ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to separate children from their parents at several different border checkpoints in Texas.  Public outcry has led to policy changes and the reunification of most of these families.  However, the crisis highlighted years of discrimination against immigrants going back to the founding of this country.  This sort of discrimination against immigrants has been alive and well in Europe for hundreds of years as well.

Clues of this type of discrimination can be found in the metaphors used to describe immigrants.  While many are neutral terms, others are clearly negative in their connotations. A few years ago, the blogger David Shariatmadari wrote a nice article entitled “Swarms, floods and marauders: the toxic metaphors of the migration debate” on how negative metaphors in England are used against immigrants using such terms as swarms or floods of migrants or describing them as marauders.  Also, a recent article in the Atlantic by Franklin Foer describes “How ICE Went Rogue,” detailing how ICE agents have become increasingly aggressive in arresting and deporting immigrants regardless of their legal or illegal immigration status. Formerly, ICE agents were restricted by government policies as to whom they could arrest.  After Donald Trump became president, ICE officials claimed that their handcuffs were removed.

I have discussed metaphors of immigration in past blog posts but I thought it was time to take a fresh look.  I originally thought that most immigration metaphors were negative, such as those listed above, but recently I have found examples of neutral metaphors, i.e., those that simply describe immigrants or immigration issues without negative connotations. What follows is a short list of metaphors from several different concepts including war, insects, animals, nature, rivers and oceans.  For clarity, I indicate whether each type of metaphor is neutral or negative.  I include examples from recent news articles with links to each source.  Some examples are excerpts from articles; others are merely headlines.  Italics are mine.


War/Military Operations – Negative

I found a few examples of metaphors from wars or military operations to describe immigrants. In addition to the marauder example mentioned earlier, I found evidence of politicians describing their countries as being under siege, under attack or being on the front lines of the battle with immigrants.

under siege

Example:  “British towns are being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, and their residents are ‘under siege’, Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, said on Sunday.” (source: The Financial Times)

under attack

Example:  “Trump Uses Language of Exterminators in Attack on ‘Illegal Immigrants’” (source: New Yorker Magazine)

front lines

Example:  “A town at the front lines of the migrant crisis: ‘We can’t let them die’” (source: the Los Angeles Times)


Insects and Animals – Negative

Sadly, large groups of immigrants coming into a country are often compared to bothersome insects or animals.  Donald Trump recently compared immigrants to animals that were infestingour country.  I include his tweet below along with a stunning criticism of this language usage by blogger Josh Marshall.  I also include examples of swarminginsects and stampeding cattle as suggested by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  Finally, I include the controversial example of Donald Trump calling some immigrants animals.  In his defense, he was referring to the violent MS-13 gang members, not all immigrants. 


Example:  “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!” (source: New Yorker Magazine)

“Josh Marshall makes the unavoidable historical connection:

‘The use of the word ‘infest’ to talk about people is literally out of the Nazi/anti-Semites’ playbook for talking about the Jewish threat. It was also a standard for talking about Chinese in the western United States and it remains part of the vocabulary for talking about Romani (Gypsies) in parts of Europe. This is the most hard-boiled kind of racist demagogic language, the kind that in other parts of the world has often preceded and signaled the onset of exterminationist violence. The verb ‘to infest’ is one generally used to describe insects or vermin (rats), creatures which are literally exterminated when they become present in a house or building or neighborhood.'”


Example:  “David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language” (source:  BBC)


Example:  “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” (source: New York Times)


Example:  “We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed,” Sessions told the press at a Wednesday news conference. “People are not going [to] caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. People should wait their turn, ask to apply lawfully before they enter our country. So we’re sending a message worldwide.” (Source: Newsweek)


Nature – Neutral

It is very common to use our experiences with nature to describe abstract processes. With immigration issues, I found many examples of metaphors based on trees and erosion of hills to describe these issues, including problems that have a root cause or are deep rooted, grassroots opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, the erosion of national security or the danger of going down a slippery slope to beginning to take away civil rights of Americans.

deep rooted

Example:  “There are an estimated 11m-12m immigrants living in the United States illegally, most of them Latino. Many have families, jobs and property, and far deeper roots in America than in their countries of origin.” (source: The Economist)


Example:  “From ‘angry grandmas’ to lemonade stands: How grass-roots groups stepped in to help separated families” (source: CNN)

root cause

Example:  “Letter: To curb illegal immigration, find the root cause” (source: The Chicago Tribune)


Example:  “President Donald Trump’s recent tweets against open borders come as no surprise. Indeed, even fervent immigration advocates worry that open borders would lower the wages of low-skilled natives, erode national security, and overburden the social safety net.” (source: USA Today)

slippery slope

Example:  “The slippery slope of the Trump administration’s political embrace of calling MS-13 ‘animals’” (source:  The Washington Post)


Nature – Negative

There are also a few examples of metaphors of nature with negative connotations.  Since some immigrants come into countries illegally, they often hide from authorities and can be described as living in the shadows. The difficult social and economic problems of immigration are sometimes called thorny issues while these immigration issues can be compared to a swamp or quagmire.   Sadly, movements of immigrants into a country may be compared to a natural disaster such as an avalanche.


Example:  “Illustrations tell story of family ‘living in the shadows’ because of illegal immigration” (source:  West Palm Beach TV)


Example:  “The Thorny Economics of Illegal Immigration” (source: The Wall Street Journal)


Example:  “Republicans caught in immigration quagmire” (source:


Example:  “Spain set for ‘avalanche’ of African immigrants” (source: The Local)




Rivers and Oceans – Neutral

Movement of people is often compared to the movement of water in rivers or oceans.  These metaphors can be both neutral or negative in their connotations.  A few neutral metaphors include having a wave, tide or steady stream of immigrants.  The word influx is of Latin origin meaning “flowing in.”  Thus we also find an influx of immigrants in news articles. We can also see a ripple effect of one event influencing another.  In this case, we see the ripple effect of immigration policies on the lives of immigrants.


Example:  “The United States experienced major waves of immigration during the colonial era, the first part of the 19th century and from the 1880s to 1920.” (source:


Example:  “The Deadly Cost of Turning Back the Immigration Tide” (source: the Daily Beast)

steady stream

Example:  “Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas economists estimate that immigrants and their children comprised more than half of the US workforce growth in the last 20 years and expect this group to make up an even larger percentage over the next 20 years. And, according to Pew Research Center, without a steady stream of a total of 18 million immigrants between now and 2035, the share of the US working-age population could decrease to 166 million.” (source: CNN)


Example:  “Illegal Immigration Influx Continues — 50,000 Attempt Border Crossing for Second Straight Month” (source:

ripple effect

Example:  “The deadly ripple effect of harsh immigration policies” (source: open

Rivers and Oceans – Negative

We can also find examples of water movement metaphors with a negative connotation.  As we saw with an avalanche of immigrants, some metaphors compare immigrant movements to natural disasters, this time caused by rivers or oceans.   Thus, we can find examples of politicians trying to stem the flow of immigrants, being swamped or flooded by immigrants.  In an extreme example, we can also talk about a tsunami of immigrants as if they are causing great damage and destruction.

stem the flow



Example:  “British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants, and their residents are “under siege”, Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, said on Sunday.” (source: The Financial Times)


Example:  “Myth No. 1: Undocumented immigrants are flooding into the United States”  (source: The Washington Post)


Example:  “Immigration crisis: Official: ‘A tsunami of people crossing the border’” (source: Fox News)


The obvious question is why people have such negative attitudes towards immigrants. In the United States, everyone except Native Americans is an immigrant.  And yet some politicians, themselves with immigrant backgrounds, set policies restricting movement of immigrants into the country.  The usual explanation is that these immigrants are coming into the country illegally whereas their ancestors came legally. However, most immigrants would come legally if the laws were not so restrictive.  Almost all migrants go to another country to escape persecution, economic crisis or to create a better life for themselves and their children. My own Irish ancestors came to the United States after the potato famine in Ireland during which thousands of people died from starvation.  Many modern immigrants coming into the United States are escaping wars in Central America while those going into Europe and the United Kingdom are escaping brutal conflicts in the Middle East.  Who can blame them for trying to survive? I would hope that modern governments accept immigrants into their countries with the same compassion and understanding that was extended to our ancestors.


Moats around the Protected

Hello folks!

Sorry it has been so long since my last post.  I have been busy with work projects, home repairs and family events.  I have also had several technical problems with the blog. I almost had it shut down twice because of bugs and “exceeding my inode usage.” WTH!? But, I am back on track, at least for now.

I am writing to share a brilliant article by Steven Brill in a recent Time magazine called “How My Generation Broke America,” an excerpt from his new book, Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall, and Those Fighting to Reverse It.

You can read the article in print by Steven Brill, “How My Generation Broke America” inTime, May 28, 2018, pp. 32 – 39. You can also find it online  here under the slightly different title, “How Baby Boomers Broke America.”

Not only is it a very insightful article about the rise of inequality in the United States in the last few decades, it is also chock-full of colorful metaphors.  For example, in one section, he is describing how the most affluent people in the country were trying to become even more wealthy, “…they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and coopt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladderso more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.” “By continuing to get better at what they do, knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineeringchanges in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moatsthat protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community” [italics added].

Wow!  My head is spinning from the wild combination of metaphors. Of course, as readers of this blog well know, we speak in this fashion all the time without even thinking about it.

Allow me to unpack these metaphors and a few others to try to make send of it all. As usual, the quotations are all directly from the article.  I have added italics to highlight the metaphors.

animals and insects

We commonly create metaphors based on our experiences with insects and animals. Two metaphors of horses are represented here, that of a gallopinghorse or using reinsto stop a horse.  Metaphorically, something that is gallopingis moving at a fast pace, usually with the sense that the horse or the situation is a bit out of control.  Having to rein something inalso indicates that the problem is dangerous and needs to be controlled.  A final example from the insect world compares the hundreds of lobbyists in Washington DC to a swarmof bees.


Example:  “How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, gallopingincome inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?”

rein them in

Example:  “Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reinedthem in, and pull up the ladders so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”

swarming lobbyists

Example:  “Indeed, money has come to dominate everything so completely that the people we send to D.C. to represent us have been reduced to begging on the phone for campaign cash up to five hours a day and spending their evenings taking checks at fundraisers organized by those swarminglobbyists.”



            Metaphors based on machines are commonly created because of our experiences with automobiles, household appliances or power tools. Here we find examples of the engineof a vehicle being compared to the processes that stimulate the economy.  Similarly, when the engineis not working well, it may sputteras it struggles to find the right gas and air mixture. Metaphorically, a sputtering engineindicates a process that is not working correctly.  Also, machines must be designed or engineeredby someone.  Thus, we can speak metaphorically about a process or economic system that is engineeredby politicians.


Example:  “Ingenious financial and legal engineeringturned our economy from an engineof long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.”

A Rolls Royce aircraft engine

engine is sputtering

Example:  “Meanwhile, the celebrated American economic-mobility engine is sputtering.”


Example:  “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineeringchanges in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community.”

physical forces

            We often create metaphors based on our experiences with using the strength of our own bodies to move objects. Here we find examples of bringing down,undercutting, squeezing, blocking, pushing aside, pushing back, breakingorcrashingsomething. In each case we see that an abstract process is compared to a physical action.  In another common metaphor, we talk about riggingsomething.  The original meaning is derived from the process of tying ropes to sails on a ship. A subsequent meaning implied that the riggingwas some sort of trick that could be played on someone.  The metaphor of riggingis commonly used in politics to indicate an unfair system or process.

bring America down

Example:  “About five decades ago, the core values that make America great began to bring America down.”

undercutting democracy

Example:  “Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercuttingdemocracy.”

squeezing out every penny

Example:  “Most Americans with average incomes have been left to fend for themselves, often at jobs where automation, outsourcing, the decline of union protection and the boss’s obsession with squeezing out every pennyof short-term profit have eroded any sense of security.”


Example:  “America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to blockgovernment from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected.”

broken America

Example:  “For them, the new, brokenAmerica works fine, at least in the short term.”

crashed the economy

Example:  “There may be no more flagrant example of the achievers’ triumph than how they were able to avoid accountability when the banks they ran crashedthe economy.”

push aside, pushback

Example:  “Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push asideany effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shielded them from pushback, at least initially.”


Example:  “A gerrymandering process has riggedeasy wins for most of them, as long as they fend off primary challengers…”


            There is a single, extraordinary example of a journey metaphor that I have never heard before. Metaphors of traveling are very common in political speeches but less common in articles and books.  In this case, Brill describes the process of the wealthy making decisions as a comparison to driving along a dangerous road without guardrails.

knocking away the guardrails

Example:  “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats…”


Metaphors of cars, ships and airplanes are also very common in descriptions of American politics.  In this article, Brill uses several colorful examples. The title of his new book, Tailspin, is an example from aviation in which an out-of-control plane spins downward to a horrible crash. Metaphorically, to say something is in a tailspinindicates that it is about to crash. In some cases, the crew of a crashing plane can eject or bail outfrom the plane before it crashes. The phrase bail outcan be used to describe the process when people get out of situation before it totally falls apart. Finally, a phrase from the early days of jet airplanes is used here as well. Test pilots who flew planes at maximum speeds to test new jets in the 1950s were said to be pushing the envelope.  Metaphorically, to push the envelopemeans that people are trying new and dangerous ways of doing something.


Example:  “The story of America’s tailspinis not about villains, though there are some.”

bail out

Example:  “The recovery from the crash of 2008 – which saw banks and bankers bailed outwhile millions lost their homes, savings and jobs – was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest.”

push the envelope

Example:  “As the financial engineers continued to push the envelopewith ever-riskier versions of the original invention, they crashed the economy.”


Military metaphors are very common in political campaigns as candidates battle against each other to win an elected office. They also appear occasionally in other writings about politics.  There are a few choice examples here including the usual metaphors of battlesand battalions.  There is also an example of a shieldmetaphor.  Of course, shieldswere wooden or metal objects used to ward off weapon attacks during battles.  Metaphorically, we use the term shieldto indicate any process of warding off verbal or procedural attacks in modern politics.  Another interesting metaphor commonly used by Brill to describe the protected wealthy class is being entrenched.  The word trenchoriginally meant a ditch built in a battlefield to protect the soldiers from bullets or bombs from enemies across from them, as in the famous trenchesof World War I.  Being entrenchedmeant that you were in a trenchand safe from harm.  Metaphorically, people being entrenchedare safe in their political or social positions.  Here, Brill implies that the privileged few are safe from attacks from the public or politicians; in fact he refers to them as the entrenched meritocracyor the entrenched aristocracy.


Example:  “In a battlethat began a half-century ago, the achievers won.”

battalions, weaponize

Example:  “Regulatory agencies were overwhelmed by battalionsof lawyers who brilliantly weaponizedthe bedrock American value of due process so that, for example, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule protecting workers from a deadly chemical could be challenged and delayed for more than a decade and end up being hundreds of pages long.”


Example:  “Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push aside any effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shieldedthem from pushback, at least initially.”


Example:  “Daniel Markovits, who specializes in the intersection of law and behavioral economics, told the class of 2015 that their success getting accepted into, and getting a degree from, the country’s most selective law school actually marked their entry into a newly entrenchedaristocracy that had been snuffing out the American Dream for almost everyone else.”


            There are also a few metaphors from the business world.  Brill likens the financial gains of the privileged class as winningsfrom a lottery or a casino.  He directly refers to their gaming of the economic system as a casino.  More pointedly, he also refers to the process of the wealthy people as putting their thumb on the scales.  This phrase refers to the old trick of a store clerk secretly pressing down on a scale while measuring the weight of meat, flour, sugar or other items, thus increasing its weight and price. Here Brill claims that the protected class is putting their thumbs on the scale of democracy.


Example:  “It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings.”


Example:  “Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casinowith only a few big winners.”

put a thumb on the scales

Example:  “The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scalesof democracy.”


Eating food is always a rich source of metaphors. Here we find two interesting examples. Brill compares the protected class grabbing the vast majority of the wealth in this country for the past several decades to gluttonsas if they are eating vast quantities of food.  In a rather unusual metaphor that I have not seen before, Brill also compares the immediate profit-gaining Wall Street trades to getting a sugar high.  As we know, eating a large amount of sugar may feel good for a while, but then when the sugar wears off, the person will feel very sick.  Similarly, a short-term profit may be good for some investors but may have serious consequences later.


Example:  “It may be understandable for those on the losing side of this triumph of the achievers to condemn the winners as gluttons.”

sugar highs

Example:  “They created exotic, and risky, financial instruments, including derivatives and credit default swaps, that produced sugar highsof immediate profits but separated those taking the risk from those who would bear the consequences.”


            The English language contains many metaphors based on our experiences with buildings and the lands surrounding them.  In another extraordinary metaphor, Brill compares the wealthy protecting their earnings to medieval kings who built moatsaround their castles to protect them from attack. He also uses a more modern sense of changing the political landscapein the same way that people change the landscapingaround their homes.

In yet another unusual metaphor, he talks about the wealthy pulling up the ladder.  This action has several different origins.  I first heard this expression many years ago in my anthropology classes. Native American peoples of the American Southwest often built homes into the sides of cliffs.  Some of the entrances were so high, they could only be reached by ladder.  In cases of attacks by other tribes, they could pull up the ladderso that no one could reach their homes.  There are also uses of this phrase from ships and planes. In the case where large ships could not anchor close to shore, sailors (or pirates?) had to paddle out to the ship on small boats.  When they reached the ship they had to climb a ladder to get on board.  The last person to get on the ship pulled up the laddersince it was no longer needed. During World War II, some of the large bombers also had doorways into the planes that could only be reached by climbing up a ladder.  Similarly, the last person to board the planepulled up the ladderbehind him.  Metaphorically, the phrase has a sinister sense, perhaps from the ship situation, in which pulling up the laddermeant that no one else could come aboard, thereby stranding other people or leaving them behind. Thus, pulling up the ladderindeed means leaving people behind who are not able to enjoy what other people have achieved.

Finally, another phrase of laying the groundworkhas its origins in planning a building excavation.  Metaphorically, it indicates the start of a new process or procedure. Here Brill suggests that there is some hope in the country getting back on track and ending the mass inequality that exists in the United States today.


Example:  “…they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community.”


Example:  “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape.”

pulled up the ladder

Example:  “Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”



laying the groundwork

Example:  “They are laying the groundworkfor the feeling of disgust to be channeled into a restoration.”


This article by Steven Brill illustrates how many colorful metaphors can help describe and explain complex political situations.  Although the state of the union is pretty scary given the vast amount of income inequality in the United States today, I share the hope of the author that perhaps the American people can fight back and take the thumb off the scales of democracy.



gallop, rein, swarm, engine, sputtering engine, engineer, bring America down, undercut democracy, squeeze, block, broken America, crashed economy, push aside, pushback, rigged, knock away guardrails, tailspin, bail out, push the envelope, battle, battalions, weaponize, shield, entrenched, winnings, casino, put a thumb on the scales, glutton, sugar high, moat, landscape, pull up the ladder, lay the groundwork



MLK Day 2018 – Resistance!

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, I would like to note a couple milestones. For the blog, I recently passed the mark of writing this blog for five years. Gulp! Seems like only yesterday that I started writing these blog posts. There have been more than 550,000 views from 198 countries. Not too shabby for an academic blog, eh? I have to thank Martin Luther King, Jr. for a great deal of interest in the blog. Apparently, every high school and college student in the world must do research on the metaphors of MLK’s speeches, especially his “I Have a Dream Speech” which remains, by far, my most popular post.

More importantly, last year marked an incredible resurgence in popular uprisings by ordinary people. And this year will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated in April 1968. Anyone who has studied the life and work of MLK knows that he always hoped that ordinary people would rise up and fight for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Although there were a few protests by ultra conservatives such as the alt-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, most of the protests were for liberal causes including women’s rights, racial equality, better treatment of minorities by police, gender equality, income equality, the right to affordable health insurance, and fair immigration policies just to name a few.

Although we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. for his historic speeches and his work for the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, let us not forget that he was leading nonviolent protests for all sorts of discrimination and injustice. The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, he had been helping sanitation workers organize a strike for safer working conditions and higher wages. At that time he said, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.  Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”   A few weeks earlier, he was quoted as saying, “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.”  (See the excellent encyclopedia on Dr. King at Stanford for more information.)

Kente cloth from Ghana – a single garment?

Here again we have another beautiful example of an MLK metaphor – “tied in a single garment of destiny.” I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. would be proud of all the protesters around the world fighting for justice for everyone.

So, what does all of this have to do with metaphors? I have noticed that many of the terms and phrases used to describe these protests are indeed metaphors. In fact, most of these metaphors are from the category of what I call body position or physical forces such as stand, stand up, resist, push, pull, strike back, etc.

For example, an online article by CNN reported that people in St. Louis last September protesting police brutality shouted that they were going to “stand up” and “fight back.”

Last January, the USA today reported that a man supporting his wife and daughters at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. stated the following:

Example: “It feels really important to stand up for civil society when powerful voices are lined up against it.”

The Washington Post published a headline last January on how the Democrats were going to push back against President Trump’s ban on Muslims:

Example: Democrats launch a full-scale opposition push against Trump’s executive order

Many papers reported on how corporations were going to pull ads from NFL games after many players were taking a knee to protests police treatment of African Americans. The Business Insider published the following headline this past November:

Example: Brands are threatening to pull ads from NFL coverage if NBC keeps covering players’ national-anthem protests

Another common metaphor used to describe the protests is to resist or create resistance. Some protest organizations label themselves as “the Resistance.” The Washington Post again had the headline:

Example: Women’s marches: More than one million protesters vow to resist President Trump

On occasion, protesters are described as striking back against those who are oppressing them. Last August, fast food workers, airport employees and others fighting for higher wages planned protests in Chicago on Labor Day:

Example: Massive Protests Planned for Labor Day as ‘Workers Strike Back

Not surprisingly, the people perceived as the oppressors were also described as using physical forces to gain back their power. Breitbart News reported in September:

Example: NFL Sponsors Starting to Push Back Over Anthem Protests


The news was filled with such metaphors last year as protests erupted over Donald Trump winning the presidency and his subsequent policy decisions. Here are a few more examples of the metaphors of body position and physical forces are used to describe politics in recent years.

Body Position – Standing

                  When people stand up, they have their maximum height and are in the best position for taking action or doing something. Thus, we have many metaphors about standing.

stand up

                  When we stand up, metaphorically we indicate strength for or against a certain position.

Example: During World War II, England, France and the United States stood up against the armies of Hitler.

take a stand

To take a stand means that one is firm in one’s beliefs.

Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. took a stand against the discrimination of African-Americans in the 1960s.

where one stands

To have an opinion or position on an important issue may be called where one stands on that issue.

Example: During a presidential campaign, a candidate must make clear where he or she stands on the important issues such as the economy and national defense.


                  In a standoff, two people, groups or countries do not fight but silently oppose each other hoping for a resolution of their problems.

Example: During the Cold War, there was a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. 


                  When one takes a stand for or against something, one is also taking a stance.

Example: The Bush administration took the stance that the War in Iraq was necessary to remove the dictator Saddam Hussein.


                  If something is longstanding, it is something that has been happening for a long time.

Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. was a powerful leader who took a stand against the longstanding civil rights abuses in the South and elsewhere in the United States.


                  To have a posture is similar to taking a stance for or against something.

Example: The United Nations has always had the posture of protecting civil rights around the world.

Physical Forces


The motion of pushing an object away from a person’s body is the source of many metaphors in politics, war and economics.

Example: Critics of the War in Iraq accused President Bush of pushing America into war without valid reasons for national security.

push back

                  When someone pushes against another person, the second person may push back to avoid being knocked down. Metaphorically, pushing back means to resist being pushed over by an outside force.

Example: To his credit, when Iraqi forces challenged American troops, President Bush pushed back and helped win the war.

push the issue

Focusing on a particular issue in government may be referred to as pushing it.

Example: President Obama pushed for health care reform in the first few years of his presidency.

push polls

A specific use of the push motion is in the phrase push poll. Normally in election years polling is done with neutral questions to determine opinions about issues or candidates. If the questions are misleading or designed to favor one candidate over another, we call these push polls, since the pollsters are pushing their opinions on to the those they are interviewing.

Example: Although no one approves of push polls, sometimes they can be used to persuade voters to change their minds about a candidate in a presidential election.



Another word for push is propel. People or machines can propel objects or individuals with physical force. In politics, scandals, economic problems, military events or voters groups can propel a politician to win an election. Usually there is a positive upward connotation to the meaning of propel.

Example: Latino voters helped propel Barack Obama to victory in both 2008 and 2012.


The opposite of push is to pull, to move an object closer to the person instead of farther away. In metaphors, the pulling motion is used to describe many abstract activities.

pull out

One of the most common pull metaphors is the phrase to pull out, used to describe when people remove something or someone from a certain geographical area or situation.

Example: Barack Obama successfully pulled American troops out of Iraq by 2012.

pull back

Similar to pull out, pull back indicates retreating from a situation or lessening focus on a certain issue.

Example: Many American voters wanted the U.S. government to pull back their troops from Afghanistan instead of adding more troops.


yank their support

The word yank means to pull with great force or speed. In politics, donors or voters may yank their support for a candidate if he or she disappoints them with words or actions.

Example: Some conservative voters yanked their support for Rick Perry after disappointing debate performances in the 2011 Republican primaries.


Another word with a similar meaning of pull is to draw. A politician can draw support or draw crowds because of his or her speaking abilities.

Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. was always able to draw huge crowds because of his amazing rhetorical skills.


Hitting an object with one’s fist or with a weapon is a very common physical motion. Metaphors based on this motion are covered in the chapters on Boxing and Military. Here are a few more examples.

Example: In 2012, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign was hit hard by low job growth.

strike back

Another word for hit is to strike. Metaphorically we often hear this term used in the phrase to strike back when someone is verbally arguing with someone.

Example: Mitt Romney struck back against charges that he does not pay his fair share of taxes.

strike down

To strike down means to revoke a law or current policy.

Example: Everyone expected the Supreme Court to strike down Obama’s health care program in 2012. Surprisingly they supported it.

crack down

To crack means to break something with a violent force. To crack down means to hit something with a downward motion. In terms of governments, to crack down means to severely limit the actions of a group of people.

Example: In 2012, President Obama tried to crack down on oil speculators, investors who were trying to make a profit from rising gas prices.

Press and Tighten


To press something means to push downwards or outwards on an object. Metaphorically, to press can also mean to verbally push a group of people towards a certain action.

Example: American presidents may have to press Congress to pass laws that his or her party has submitted.


The noun form of press is pressure, meaning an amount of force pushing down on an object. In common terms pressure can mean any type of force applied to a person or group by circumstance or another group of people. The most common phrases used are to be under pressure or keep pressure on something. Pressure may also be used as a verb with a similar meaning to press.

Example: During a recession, a U.S. president is constantly under pressure from the American people to create more jobs and revive the economy.

tamp down

To tamp or tamp down means to put slight pressure on something to make it more compact, as in tamping down dirt in a hole or coffee grounds in a coffee maker. Metaphorically, to tamp down means to reduce the quantity of something as in tamping down a controversy, rising fuel prices or negative campaigning.

Example: During a presidential election, candidates often try to tamp down criticisms that might make them look like they are not the best person for the job.


As I have said many times in this space, it is surprising how many metaphors of violence are used to describe our politics. Reading these examples, it reminds me of how confrontational we are as a people, both figuratively in the halls of Congress and in the media, as well as literally in the streets when protestors face off against the police. It happens not just in America, but all over the world. Ironically, Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted on nonviolent protests but the very words we use to describe peaceful protests are derived from physical actions. We can only hope that Dr. King’s desire of equality for all people in the United States and around the world – tied in single garment of destiny – is some day realized without further protest or bloodshed.

Seasons and Light

With the change back to normal time from daylights savings time today, I thought it might be “time” to look back at a few metaphors about the changing of seasons and the amount of sunlight we enjoy in the summer and miss in the fall and winter. I was also remiss in not noting metaphors of the word eclipse as we experienced the amazing solar eclipse this past summer. Here are a few metaphors of seasons, sunlight, moonlight and eclipses.


Most temperate climates have four seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. Each of these seasons has its own set of metaphorical qualities. Spring is associated with life and new growth; summer is related to nice weather and easy living; fall or autumn is associated with life becoming more difficult or the end of one’s life; winter is connected to death and decay. Someone who is described as being seasoned is someone who has lived for many years and has gained a great deal of knowledge in his or her lifetime.

Example:   In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was fairly new to politics, but Hillary Clinton was a seasoned political veteran.


Example: In 2011, many countries in North Africa and the Middle East experienced revolutions. These changes in government are known as the Arab Spring.



nuclear winter

Example: During the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, a nuclear war would have killed everyone at the site of the war. This would have created a nuclear winter.


Example: President Ronald Reagan spent his autumn years on his ranch in California before passing away in 2004.

election season

Example: In many countries, elections only take a few weeks or months. In the United States, the election season for presidential elections lasts almost two years.


The concept of the light provided by the sun is involved in many English metaphors. Literally, a day is sunny if the sun is shining brightly. Metaphorically, a person or a situation can be sunny if the person is happy or the situation seems to be going well.

Example: After the 2008 financial crisis, most Americans hoped for sunny predictions for a quick economic recovery but the recession lasted for years after that.

sunlight, sunshine

The ideas of sunlight or sunshine can be used metaphorically to indicate that a situation is good or that a dark situation is made more clear. It is well known that bright sunlight can kill germs or disinfect a surface that might have germs. Thus we have an unusual phrase that sunlight is the best disinfectant which carries a metaphorical meaning that uncovering and discussing a problem is the best way to solve it.

Example: When it came to the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, sunlight was the best disinfectant on President Nixon’s questionable practices at the Watergate Hotel.


The word shine as an intransitive verb indicates the action of an object that gives off light such as the sun, moon or stars. However, people can also shine metaphorically if they do something to the best of their abilities.

Example: Although not many people knew Sarah Palin before 2007, John McCain choosing her as his running mate allowed her to shine on a national stage.

dawn of a new day

Dawn is the time that the sun first rises in the morning and shines light on a person’s part of the world. The phrase dawn of a new day indicates that a new time period is beginning usually with a positive connotation.

Example: When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many Americans thought it was the dawn of a new day for progressive reforms in government. However, the lack of progress in Congress in his first term left the country with many of the same problems as the previous decades.

dawn on

Metaphorically, the phrase to dawn on means to realize something as if it is the first time that an idea comes into a person’s head.

Example: For most Americans, the idea that the United States could be attacked by terrorists seemed impossible until September 11, 2001 when it dawned on them that it was indeed possible.

on the horizon

The horizon is the line between the sky and the land from the perspective of wherever one is looking at a distance. Metaphorically, a horizon indicates anything that is possible in the future.

Example: During the start of an economic downturn, most Americans realize that are probably going to be many budget cuts and job losses on the horizon.

rainbow coalition

A rainbow is a pattern of all colors of light in an arc across the sky after a rainstorm. The concept of many colors together is used metaphorically to indicate many different races of people working together. A coalition is a group of people who work together for a common cause. Many countries have such groups called rainbow coalitions.

Example: The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s social activism group of many races working together is called the Rainbow Coalition.


In contrast to the positive connotations of sunlight, darkness has many negative connotations such as evil, illegal activity or unethical behavior.

Example: During the Great Depression of the 1930s, there were many dark days for Americans who could not find work or afford to feed their families.


When sunlight hits an object, a dark shadow is cast behind it. Metaphorically, a shadow indicates the dark part of a person or situation, often meaning secretive or illegal activities.

Example: Americans do not like it when their elected officials make deals in the shadows. Government work should be done in the light of day when everyone can see what is going on.

shadowy figures

People whose identities or behavior is unknown may be called shadowy figures especially if they are suspected of illegal or unethical behavior.

Example: Osama bin Laden was known for years as a shadowy figure before he began his terrorist attacks on the United States.


The moon is the subject of many stories and myths in every culture around the world. Doing something in the moonlight indicates that it is not completely clear what is happening. However, moonlight is used most often as a verbal metaphor indicating that someone is working at night, usually doing a second or third job in addition to one’s day job.

Example: People who have jobs with low wages often moonlight in other occupations in order to earn enough money to pay their bills.


An eclipse is a rare phenomenon when the earth passes directly between the sun and the moon (a lunar eclipse) or when the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth (a solar eclipse) temporarily blocking out the light of the sun. In metaphorical terms, a person, group or action that becomes more important that the previous one may be called an eclipse.

Example: Voter turnout by minorities in the 2008 presidential election eclipsed all other elections up to that point.


Stay tuned for more metaphors of the fall!  Thanks for reading!