A Rigged Election?

This past summer, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were tied in many national polls. More recently, however, Trump has been slipping in the polls due to the release of tapes of him making disparaging remarks about women, and many women coming forward accusing him of inappropriate behavior in years past. Donald Trump has denied all of the allegations, and has often repeated a complaint that the entire election is rigged against him, implying that the Democrats are somehow plotting to steal the election. Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has also suggested that the election is rigged. During the Democratic primary, supporters of Bernie Sanders also complained that the primary process was rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton.


The word rig has an interesting etymology. The word originally referred to the way that ropes were used to secure sails on a ship, a process dating back to the 15th century. The word also referred to a process of tricking or swindling someone, dating to 1775. Although one could argue that the more modern connotation is a completely different word, I believe that the idea of swindling is related to the original idea of using rigging ropes. Swindling someone involves an intelligent process of tying up many details that allow someone to trick other people. The idea of rigging an election requires a complex process of manipulating many details of election procedures. In any case, I would like to offer several other political metaphors derived from the specialized vocabulary of sailing ships.


The person in charge of a ship is usually called the captain. Metaphorically, and sometimes jokingly, any person in command of an organization may be called a captain.

Example: When a candidate is elected president, her or she becomes the captain of the ship of the United States.


The compartment of a ship where the pilot controls the steering wheel and navigation equipment is called the pilothouse or wheelhouse. In baseball, the area of the plate in which a certain batter can hit the ball is also called the wheelhouse. Thus, a good batter can get a hit if the ball is thrown into his wheelhouse. Metaphorically, a person’s area of expertise may be called his or her wheelhouse.

Example: Barack Obama’s supporters claim he can win a debate on foreign policy because that is his wheelhouse.

bring on board

When a ship takes on passengers or freight for a trip, we say that they are brought on board the ship. Metaphorically, when people are hired to work in an organization, we may also say that they are brought on board.

Example: A presidential candidate usually brings good advisors on board when he or she begins a long campaign.

miss the boat

Ships must keep tight schedules when traveling from port to port. If passengers are taking a ship, they must get there on time. If not, they will literally miss the boat. Metaphorically, the phrase to miss the boat means to miss an opportunity to do something.

Example: Somehow the U.S. defense department missed the boat and did not prevent Osama bin Laden from attacking New York in 2001.

embark on

When passengers do board a ship and leave port, we say that they are embarking on a journey. Metaphorically, whenever people begin a new project we may say that they are embarking on a new journey.

Example: A newly elected president embarks on a four-year journey in the White House.


learn the ropes

Before the days of steam-powered or gasoline-powered engines, ships traveled across the oceans on wind power. Complex sets of sails were controlled by men pulling on ropes to get the sails in the correct position for maximum effectiveness at catching the wind. We have many metaphors in English from this difficult work of controlling these ropes. In one of these expressions, learning how to manage the sails was referred to as learning the ropes. In modern English, the phrase learning the ropes refers to the process of learning any new task.

Example: When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2008, she had to learn the ropes of complex international diplomacy.

pick up the slack

When ropes become loose, this is called becoming slack. To tighten the rope, people must do what is called pick up the slack. In metaphorical terms, helping a group of people complete a project when they are shorthanded is called picking up the slack.

Example: When the U.S. government cuts federal spending, state governments often have to pick up the slack to fund education and other social programs.

cut some slack

When one has the opposite problem of having a rope that is too tight, one must loosen it in a process we call cutting some slack. In common slang, whenever we need people to be lenient or allow more freedom in a certain process, we may ask for them to cut them some slack.

Example: When Richard Nixon was involved in the Watergate Scandal of the early 1970s, very few people were willing to cut him some slack. Most Americans were pleased when he resigned from office.

blog-sailing-loose-endsloose ends

Ropes used to control the sails had to be tightly secured to the ship. If they ropes were not tight, they were described as having loose ends. In yet another sailing metaphor, if a situation is chaotic or unorganized, we may say that the people involved are at loose ends.

Example: A good presidential candidate must tie up all loose ends in the campaign in order to win an election.

smooth sailing

When the weather is good and the ship is traveling safely, we say that there is smooth sailing. In common terms, any process that is working well may be referred to as smooth sailing.

Example: President Obama did not have smooth sailing in his first few years as president as he had to manage many different economic crises.

blog-sailing-anchornews anchor

When a boat or ship wants to fix its position in the water, the crew drops a heavy metal hook called an anchor into the water. Metaphorically, the concept of anchor has many uses in English. In one metaphor the person who holds the prominent position in a team of TV reporters is called the anchorman, or simply the news anchor.

Example: During a presidential election, TV news anchors work overtime providing the public with the latest information.

anchor of the team

In a similar sense, a person who is the leader of a group of individuals may be called the anchor of the team.

Example: For the last several elections, Karl Rove has been the anchor of the team of strategists helping Republican candidates win their races around the country.

anchor babies

When illegal aliens have children in the United States, these children are sometimes called anchor babies since the parents are then allowed to stay in the country and become eligible for government benefits. This phrase is considered pejorative and not used in normal speech.

Example: Some Americans claim that anchor babies cost the government millions of dollars in health care and social programs.

blog-sailing-harborharbor terrorists

When a ship arrives in a port, it will seek safety in a harbor where there are shallow waters, few waves, and access to land. Metaphorically, the term harbor is also used as a verb meaning to provide safety for someone.

Example: Most allies of the U.S. government do not harbor terrorists. They are arrested and brought to trial.

harbor resentment

In a similar sense, another meaning of the verb harbor is to hold a specific feeling or attitude about something for a long time. In a common phrase, people may harbor resentment against someone who has hurt them in some way.

Example: Some Vietnam veterans still harbor resentment against the U.S. government for treating them so poorly when they returned from combat in the 1960s and 1970s.


These are just a few of the metaphors derived from sailing ships. The idea of rigging an election may be derived from the process of rigging the sails many centuries ago. It is interesting that we still use words to describe political processes that originated in other fields many years ago. As Trump and Clinton come to the end of the campaign for the presidential election with only a few weeks to go, I wonder if Mr. Trump will continue to complain that the election is rigged.

U.S. Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (NJROTC) cadets hand off batons during a 8x220-yard relay race on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 17, 2009, during the 2009 NJROTC National Academic, Athletic and Drill competition. Units from 25 high schools, in 13 states, competed in personnel inspections, academic tests, military drill, and athletic events. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom/Released)

Passing the Baton

With the 2016 Summer Olympics underway in Rio de Janeiro, I thought it was worth mentioning again a few metaphors from the exciting sport of track and field. One of the most common metaphors used during the Democratic National Convention a few weeks ago was the idea that Barack Obama was passing the baton to Hillary Clinton if she were elected to be the next president of the United States, as if they were both in a relay race during the Olympics.   Here are a few more metaphors derived from track and field sporting events.

blog - sports - Track_and_Field_ runnersthe first heat

In sprint and long-distance running competitions, runners often compete in many preliminary races called heats to determine who will be the finalists for the last race. Thus the first heat is the first race of the competition. Figuratively, the first step of a long competitive process may also be called the first heat.

Example: The Republican primaries of 2016 were the first heat to determine who was going to be the nominee to face the Democratic nominee in the November election.

blog - sports - hurdlingthe biggest hurdle

Some races require the runners to jump over wooden bars set up on the track called hurdles. Metaphorically, any obstacle or barrier to progress may be called a hurdle.

Example: Many pundits agreed that high unemployment rates presented Barack Obama with the biggest hurdle to getting reelected in 2012.


In a long-distance race, runners have to run around a track many times to complete a race. Each time around the track is called a lap. In some cases, very fast runners will actually catch up and pass slow runners so that they are one full lap ahead of them. The slow runners are described as being lapped. In politics, people can be described as being lapped if one greatly outperforms the other.

Example: In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton lapped Donald Trump several times in terms of fundraising and corporate donations.

blog - sports - pole vaultvault to, vault over

In a specialized sport, an athlete runs with a long pole, plants it in the ground and uses it to lift himself or herself over a very tall bar. This sport is called the pole vault. The action of jumping in the air with the pole is called vaulting over the bar. Figuratively, when a person has great unexpected success in one area, we may say that he or she has vaulted to a new level of success. When a person faces a large problem, we may also that he or she can vault over the obstacle.

Example: In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan vaulted to the lead and beat his opponent Jimmy Carter by a wide margin.

lower the bar

When a pole vaulter is training, it may be difficult to vault over high settings of the bar. Instead, the trainer may need to lower the bar so that the athlete can succeed in making the vault. Metaphorically, lowering the bar means to lower expectations for a certain person, project or program.

Example: After many long years of war in Afghanistan, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama seemed to lower the bar to define how one would declare victory there.

jump or leap to conclusions

In another specialized track and field sport called long jumping, athletes must run as fast as they can and jump as far as they can. They must make a great leap to beat their opponents. This notion of leaping can also be used in a metaphorical phrase leap or jump to conclusions meaning that one assumes an end result of some process without knowing the facts.

Example: On election night, many television viewers can get frustrated with reporters who leap to conclusions and announce the winners before all of the voting results are in.


070422-N-5215E-003 ANNAPOLIS, Md. (April 22, 2007) - A Special Olympics athlete participates in the long jump at the Naval Academy. This was the 39th year the Academy hosted the event, which drew 175 athletes from the surrounding area for two days of aquatics and track and field competition. More than 300 Midshipmen, active duty service members, and Annapolis-area high school students volunteered as event staff and athlete escorts for the event. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Matthew A. Ebarb (RELEASED)
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (April 22, 2007) – A Special Olympics athlete participates in the long jump at the Naval Academy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Matthew A. Ebarb (RELEASED)

fall short

Some sports, such as the long jump competition in track and field, require athletes to jump long distances. When an athlete does not jump as far as his opponents have jumped in a competition, we may say that he or she has fallen short of the goal. This phrase is also used in archery when an arrow falls short of reaching the target. In a common phrase, when someone does not meet expectations or success at the proposed goals, we may say that he or she has fallen short.

Example: Many progressives feel that Barack Obama fell short in reaching liberals goals for civil rights in the first few years of his presidency.

track record

The fastest speed of a runner (or car or horse) is literally called the track record. Politicians may also have track records in the way that they vote on particular issues.

Example: Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, has had a good track record of supporting veterans after they return from foreign wars.

U.S. Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (NJROTC) cadets hand off batons during a 8x220-yard relay race on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 17, 2009, during the 2009 NJROTC National Academic, Athletic and Drill competition. Units from 25 high schools, in 13 states, competed in personnel inspections, academic tests, military drill, and athletic events. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom/Released)
U.S. Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (NJROTC) cadets hand off batons during a 8×220-yard relay race on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 17, 2009 (U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom /Released)

pass the baton

In relay races at track and field events, runners carry a short bar called a baton as they run. When each runner finishes his or her section of the race, he or she passes the baton to the next runner, who passes it to the following runner, etc., until the race is complete. In business or politics, a person who steps down from a position of authority can be said to pass the baton to his or her successor.



Example: During the Democratic National Convention in 2016, some journalists wrote that Barack Obama would be passing the baton to Hillary Clinton if she were to win the presidential election in November.

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Metaphors in French and Spanish




A thousand pardons for my short hiatus from making new blog posts. At the end of the academic year, I normally get too busy with my teaching schedule to do much work on my blog. I was behind the 8 ball trying to do all my testing (billiards anyone?), up to my knees in grading (was there a flood?), and buried in paperwork (was there an avalanche?). We have also been doing some field testing of some new standardized tests (corn or wheat?) and crunching some numbers (with a nutcracker?) from an experiment related to some new reading strategies for our students. But allow me to get back on track with my blog…

blog - French - Flag on pole

When I first began my research into political metaphors, no other languages seemed to have the great frequency of metaphors as in English. The other day, however, I came upon some interesting political metaphors in French and Spanish. I am not fluent in either language, but I have a medium-level reading ability in both. I have the apps for Le Monde (from Paris, France) and El Pais (from Madrid, Spain) on my phone. I can brush up on my French and Spanish by reading the free newspaper articles on those apps. I was a bit surprised when I noticed a few political metaphors in both newspapers worthy of mention. Many of these metaphors would be considered dead metaphors by most linguists including even Lakoff and Johnson. However, as I have explained many times on this blog, I take a broad view of metaphor. Any example of a physical action begin used to describe an abstract process can be classified as a metaphor. I will try to explain each of these metaphors in turn. Some combinations of metaphors are explained as they appear in the sentences in the article. If you are not familiar with either French or Spanish, I will mark each word as being “F” or “S.” The translations in parentheses below are my own. My apologies if there are any errors.

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You can read the entire French article here and the Spanish article here.


blog - building - Notre_Dame_buttresssupport/soutient (F)/apoyo (S)

race/course (F)

I may be wrong but I assume that the physical meaning of support, as in a wooden beam supporting a building, is a primary meaning, while the abstract meaning of helping someone through a difficult time is a secondary meaning. In either case, I believe the notion of supporting a presidential candidate is a metaphorical expression. I was interested to see that the word is used similarly in both French and Spanish. The word race, as in the race for the president, is also used in French as the word course.

Example: “Barack Obama soutient Hillary Clinton dans la course à la Maison Blanche.”

(Barack Obama supports Hillary Clinton the race for the White House.)

Example: “Barack Obama anuncia su apoyo a Hillary Clinton.”

(Barack Obama announces his support for Hillary Clinton.)

blog - nature - meadowcampaign/campagne (F)/ campaña (S)

Another common metaphor in American English is the notion of a presidential campaign. This word has a tortuous history – it originally meant a field or the countryside, but then evolved to mean a military battle that took place on an open field. Later it was used metaphorically to mean the process of winning a nomination or an election.

Example: “« Je suis à ses côtés, je suis enthousiaste, j’ai hâte de m’y mettre et de faire campagne pour Hillary », ajoute M. Obama…”

(“I’m with her. I’m fired up and I cannot wait to get out there and campaign for Hillary,” added Mr. Obama…)

Example: “El presidente se ha declarado impaciente por entrar en la campaña.”

(The president has impatiently declared his entrance into the campaign.)

Example: “En 2008 se disputaron la nominación del Partido Demócrata, y la campaña fue feroz (la que ahora termina, entre Clinton y Sanders, sin anuncios negativos entre ellos, ha sido una campaña plácida en comparación).”

(In 2008, the Democratic nomination was disputed, and the campaign was fierce (that which just ended, between Clinton and Sanders, without negative attack ads between them, was a peaceful campaign in comparison)).

blog - weight - Bathroom_Scalebehind/ derrière (F)

weight/poids (F)

battle/bataille (F)

Another way to indicate support is to say that one is behind a certain candidate as if one is pushing the person up a hill. We can also say that a person puts his or her weight behind someone. In French, we can find the words derriere for “behind” and poids for “weight.” Another common military metaphor is the concept of a battle. We find the same word bataille in French with a similar meaning. In one long passage from the Le Monde article, we find all three of these metaphors used together.

Example: “Il [Obama] a attendu de recevoir à la Maison Blanche le rival malheureux de l’ancienne secrétaire d’Etat, Bernie Sanders, jeudi 9 juin, pour annoncer officiellement, en tout début d’après-midi, qu’il mettra tout son poids dans la bataille à venir, derrière Mme Clinton…”

(He has waited to receive at the White House the long-time rival of his Secretary of State, Bernie Sanders, on Thursday, June 9, to officially announce in the early afternoon, that he will put all of his weight in the battle to come behind Mrs. Clinton…)

have an influence/mesure de peser (F)

A slightly different way of indicating support is to have an influence on someone, but it French this is translated as a mesure de peser, literally “a measure of weight.”

Example: “M. Obama est en mesure de peser sur la campagne cet automne.”

(Mr. Obama will have an influence on the campaign this autumn.)

blog - body position - at her sideside/ côté (F)

Yet another way of indicating support is to say that a person is on the side of the candidate. In French, we can say that a person is a ses côtés. Interestingly, Obama’s phrase of “I’m with her” is translated in the French newspaper as “I am at her side.”

Example: “ Je suis à ses côtés…”

(I am at her side.)



blog - family - Family_Portrait

family/famille (F)

In English we speak of political parties. In Spanish, this word is usually translated as partidos, but in French, at least in one case, a party is referred to as a famille.  Here is a long quotation from the French article.

Example: “Les principaux responsables démocrates, qu’il s’agisse de la représentante Nancy Pelosi (Californie), du sénateur Harry Reid (Nevada), ou encore du vice-président Joe Biden, ne cessent d’insister sur le respect avec lequel doit être traité M. Sanders, ne serait-ce que pour faciliter la réunification de la famille démocrate après une course à l’investiture aussi disputée que huit ans plus tôt.”

(The principal responsible Democrats, who are under the guidance of Representative Nancy Pelosi (California), of Senator Harry Reid (Nevada) or again of Vice President Joe Biden, do not cease insisting on the respect that must be given to Mr. Sanders, who would not be able to facilitate the reunification of the Democratic family after a race for the nomination also disputed eight years earlier.)

blog - French - porte-parole luggagespokesperson/porte-parole (F)

This term is an example of a word being literal in one language and a metaphor in another. The meaning of the term spokesperson is fairly indicating a person who speaks on behalf of a large organization. In French, the term is porteparole. The term parole means “speech,” while the term porte is a noun form of the word porter which means “to carry,” as in our English words, portable or porter. Thus, in French, a spokesperson is one who “carries the words” to someone else.

Example: “Dans ce message enregistré mardi, selon le porte-parole de la Maison Blanche, Josh Earnest, M. Obama loue avec insistance les qualités de l’ancienne secrétaire d’Etat.”

(In the message delivered on Tuesday, according to the White House spokesperson, Josh Ernest, Mr. Obama insisted on the qualities of the former Secretary of State.)

blog - nature - earth-orbitorbit/ órbita (S)

team/equipo (S)

Two other examples from the article in Spanish are orbit and team. In Spanish, these terms are órbita and equipo. Both of these metaphors illustrate the need for an expression that relates who people work together in a group, saying they are either on the same team or in the same orbit.

Example: “Obama y Clinton pertenecen a la misma órbita ideológica: el centroizquierda pragmático. Y parte del equipo de Clinton trabajó con Obama.”

(Obama and Clinton belong to the same ideological orbit: the pragmatic center left. And a part of the team of Clinton worked with Obama.)

weapon/arma (S)

In a final example from Spanish, we find the usage of the metaphor of a weapon as a something that helps someone achieve one’s goals. In this case, President Obama is described as an effective weapon or arma to be used by Mrs. Clinton to defeat Trump.

Example: “Obama, además de uno de los presidentes más populares en las últimas décadas, es un político con un talento extraordinario en campaña. Puede ser una de las mejores armas de Clinton ante Trump.”

(Obama, in addition to being one of the most popular presidents of the last few decades, is a politician with an extraordinary talent for campaigning. He can be one of the best weapons of Clinton against Trump.)


As you can see, some of the most common political metaphors used in English can also be found in French and Spanish. I do not know enough about these languages to know how extensive the usage of metaphors really is. If any of my readers can add more clarity to this issue, please let me know. Comments and questions are always welcome. Thanks!


blog - military - uphill battle

Bernie Sanders’ Uphill Battle

Many newspaper and television reports have recently described Bernie Sanders’ quest for the Democratic nominee as an uphill battle. It seems that Hillary Clinton has an insurmountable lead in the votes and delegates to win the nomination. The phrase uphill battle is an interesting metaphor in this usage for several reasons. At first glance, it seems that it is a mixed metaphor, mixing journeys and military concepts. Technically, there is such a thing as an uphill battle, one in which an army must fight an enemy while moving up a hill or mountain. However, it is more likely that we think of this as a sort of compound metaphor combining the physical struggle of walking uphill with the danger of fighting a battle in a war. This compound metaphor makes us think of obstacles to journeys and military campaigns. I have described some of these metaphors in past blogs, but it is interesting to see how they are combined into one conceptual metaphor. Here is a review of metaphors of obstacles on a journey and military battles.

blog - military - uphill battle

Obstacles on a Journey


On some journeys, there may be obstacles or things that prevent continuous progress, such as animals crossing the road, snow or rocks falling on the road, or bad weather conditions. Metaphorically, there may also be obstacles to continuous progress for the success of a program or any process.

Example: Barack Obama had to overcome many obstacles in his path to becoming the first African-American president including growing up poor, not having a father, and succeeding in an environment dominated by white politicians.


A block is a large log, brick or any compacted mass. A block can literally prevent the passage along a journey or prevent progress in an endeavor.

Example: Unfortunately, when a Republican president is in office, the Democrats often block the passage of the Republican bills, while Republicans often block the passage of Democratic bills when a Democrat is in office.

blog - journey - barrierroadblocks

Similar to the idea of obstacles, roadblocks can literally block the continuous progress on a journey or metaphorically block the progress of a program.

Example: In the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Republicans seemed determined to prevent any success of the Democrats so they put up many roadblocks in Congress.

stumble, stumbling block

A person can also trip or stumble on a branch or a brick in the path along a journey. Metaphorically, one can also stumble or have to overcome a stumbling block in the middle of a process.

Example: President Obama encountered many stumbling blocks from the Republicans and insurance companies when trying to pass health care reform in 2010.

blog - journey - Rockslide_at_Oddicombeimpasse

When one cannot continue on a journey because of a road being completely blocked by a natural disaster, we say that we have met an impasse, literally something that blocks the passage of a person.

Example: When Bill Clinton tried to pass health care reform in 1994, he ran into an impasse with insurance companies and other politicians and failed to pass any new legislation.

break down barriers

Another word for a roadblock is a barrier. To continue on a journey, one may have to break down the barriers. Metaphorically, one may also need to break down barriers to make progress in a process.

Example: Barack Obama had to break down many race barriers on his way to become the first African-American president of the United States.

blog - width - Trinity_Bridge_-_span_of_a_bridgebridge, bridge builder, bridge the divide, bridge the gulf

If one needs to cross a river or a valley during a journey, one may need to build a bridge to be able to continue the journey. Literally, this is called bridging the divide or bridging the gulf.

Metaphorically, when two people or groups cannot agree on something, someone may offer a compromise to solve the problem. This may also be called bridging the divide. The person who does this may be called a bridge or a bridge builder.

Example: Sometimes a U.S. president may need to bridge the divide between the Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

clear the way

Sometimes, if a road is blocked, one must clear the branches, wood or rocks away before one can continue. This process is referred to as clearing the way. In common terms, we can also clear the way for a process to continue after it had been delayed.

Example: In the 1960s, the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. cleared the way for the civil rights laws that were passed later that decade.


Paved roads in cities often develop holes after many years of traffic and bad weather. Some of these holes are so big people say that they are as big as a cooking pot. City crews must fill the so-called potholes so that people can continue to drive on these roads without hurting their vehicles. Metaphorically, any process that has many difficulties or delays may be described as having many potholes to fill especially when used with another road metaphor.

Example: After the economic crisis of 2008, President Obama had many potholes to fill on the road to recovery considering problems with the banks, corporations and high unemployment.


Some obstacles in the road are very small and can simply be avoided by walking around them. We can call this action sidestepping the obstacle. In common terms, we also say that one can sidestep a problem or an issue by not dealing with it directly.

Example: Many candidates running for office sidestep controversial issues such as abortion and gay marriage.


A course is a route that one follows on a journey. The route to return to the starting point of a journey may be called a recourse. Metaphorically, a recourse is something that one must consider when the first plan does not work.

Example: After years of fighting a war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had little recourse when their military could not defeat the Taliban there.

blog - journey - uphill elephantlong, uphill task/struggle/battle

Walking on a level road is easy; walking uphill is more difficult. Metaphorically, a difficult task may be called an uphill struggle or an uphill battle.

Example: When John McCain returned to the United States after being a prisoner of war in Vietnam for several years, he had an uphill struggle to regain his health and his military career.

look beyond/move beyond

On a long journey with many hills, one must try to look over or look beyond the hills to see the rest of the road. In common terms, one must look or move beyond an obstacle to solve a problem.

Example: After many lost seats in the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats had to look beyond their losses and plan for the 2016 presidential election.



The Battle of New Orleans - Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)
The Battle of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)

primary battles

Battles are the names of the primary engagements between armies in a war. Metaphorically, battles can also be fought verbally between people or groups. The notion of battle is commonly used in politics.

Example: In every presidential primary, there are many battles among the candidates to gain the nomination of the party.


battle cry

At the start of every battle, there is a call or cry from the commanding officer to alert the troops to begin fighting. The phrase battle cry can also be used to indicate the beginning of a political process.

Example: In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protestors used the slogan “We are the 99%! as their battle cry to gain support against the richest 1% of the nation controlling the government.

battleground states

The land where battles are fought are called battlegrounds. In politics, states in which voters may vote for either Democrats or Republicans are called battleground states when candidates fight for the votes for their party.

Example: Ohio and Florida are often considered battleground states in presidential elections.

The Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, August 9, 1862 - Currier and Ives, 1862
The Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, August 9, 1862 – Currier and Ives, 1862

battle lines are drawn

The exact line separating the land controlled by two fighting armies is called the battle line. Metaphorically, a battle line is the ideological separation between two people or groups. In a public political argument, we may say that battle lines are drawn based on a certain view of a controversial topic.

Example: In the 2016 election, Democrats drew many battles lines with Republicans over the tax breaks given to millionaires and billionaires.


Combat is another word for battles fought between armies in a war. Metaphorically, any verbal argument can be described as combat as well. As a verb the word combat can be used to describe efforts to fight against something.

Example: George W. Bush worked hard to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa during his presidency.

Members of Co. C, 1st Bn, 8th Inf, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, descend the side of Hill 742, located five miles northwest of Dak To. 14–17 November 1967.
Members of Co. C, 1st Bn, 8th Inf, 1st Bde, 4th Inf Div, descend the side of Hill 742, located five miles northwest of Dak To. 14–17 November 1967.


A firefight is an intense battle between two armies in which a great deal of gunfire is exchanged. In politics, a heated argument may also be called a firefight.

Example: Sometimes a peaceful presidential debate turns into a firefight among the top candidates.





The word clash is an onomatopoetic word meaning that it represents the sound made by two metallic objects hitting together. A physical confrontation between people or battle between armies may be called a clash. However, metaphorically, a disagreement in words or ideas between two people or groups may also be called a clash. Often we speak of a clash of personalities between two people.

Example: During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed over positions on the economy.


As I have mentioned many times, political campaigns are thought of as military operations, judging by the amount of war metaphors we used to describe them. The process of winning a nomination or becoming elected is also thought of as a long journey filled with obstacles. When a candidate struggles to win a nomination for his or her party, it is logical that the process be called an uphill battle.

blog - games - cards and chips

Playing the Woman’s Card

This past week, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton was “playing the woman’s card” and would not even get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Critics quickly pounced on this sexist comment. Hillary Clinton may have the last laugh, however, since her campaign claims to have raised $2.4 million dollars as a backlash to the comment. For me, the idea of “playing the woman’s card” reminds me of the popular use of the metaphors of games in American politics. I have mentioned some of these metaphors previously, but they are worth mentioning again.

Also, this past weekend on the television news show Meet the Press (May 1, 2016) the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described the problems in the Middle East as follows: “This is like three-dimensional chess. And most of us are playing checkers at understanding foreign policy right now.” These types of metaphors are derived from our experiences with board games. Let’s have another look at some metaphors derived from games.

Card Games

follow suit

A normal deck of playing cards has 52 cards in four suits: clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds. In some games, a player must put down a card on his or her turn that matches the suit of the previous card. This is called following suit. Metaphorically, one can follow suit by doing the same thing that a previous person has done. In politics, a president may follow suit with a certain program or policy that was already in place when he or she became president.

Example: When Barack Obama became president in 2008, he followed suit with George Bush’s policy in Afghanistan, increasing the number of troops there and stepping up efforts to find Osama bin Laden.

blog - cards - Royal_Flushstrong suit

As with the idea of following suit, we would say that a person with many good cards in any suit would have a strong suit, e.g., an ace, king and queen in spades would mean a strong suit of spades. In metaphorical terms, a person’s strong suit is his or her special talent that is superior to the competitor’s abilities.

Example: When George W. Bush was president, he had a talent of appearing to be a regular guy, with rolled up shirtsleeves and speaking plainly. It was such a strong suit for him, he used it many times when giving speeches or press conferences to earn confidence from American citizens.

trump, trump card

In some card games, a certain card may have more value than all the others. This is often called the trump card. In politics, one can trump an opponent or play the trump card to beat an opponent in an election, debate or discussion.

Example: In the 2008, John McCain thought he had the trump card to win the presidential election when he asked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, but they were not able to win a trip to the White House.

blog - games - 2 cardwild card

Some card games also have a card that is designated as a wild card, i.e., one that can take on the value of a higher ranked card if it is to the advantage of the player who holds it. For example, in the game of deuces wild, a 2 card can have the value of an ace, king or queen if it helps the player win the hand. The difficult part of this type of game is that no one knows when the wild card will appear or how the player will use it, so it could be a surprise to everyone when it happens. In politics, a wild card is a person, program or policy that has unexpected power in a certain situation.

Example: In the 2010 midterm elections, the tea party candidates were often considered wild cards since they were not experienced politicians and no one was sure if they could win elections or not.

race card

In card games, one usually plays a card that will help him or her win the hand or the game. Thus to play a card means to do something to your advantage. In politics, the idea of playing a race card arose when people talked about African-American candidates winning elections because of their race, not their qualifications.

Example: In the 2008 election, some supporters of Barack Obama were accused of playing the race card when they urged people to help him become the first African-American president.

age card

In a similar sense, someone may be accused of playing the so-called age card if they urge people to vote for a candidate because of his or her age and experience and not the qualifications.

Example: Some supporters of John McCain who pointed out the young age and political inexperience of Barack Obama were thought to be playing the age card.

woman’s card

Also, female candidates may be accused of playing the woman’s card.

Example: In the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the woman’s card.

blog - games - Card_shufflereshuffle the cards

When people play cards, the deck must be shuffled before each new deal. This ensures that the same cards are not dealt out in the same way more than once. When we speak of politics of being a card game, we may say that we need to reshuffle the cards when there has been an unexpected turn of events. Reshuffling the cards means one of two things: 1) there has been a change in the policies or personnel of a certain government agency, or 2) someone must reorganize a current situation to bring a new balance and order to the problem.

Example: When a U.S. president is elected to two consecutive terms, he or she might reshuffle the cards of the cabinet or other key positions at the beginning of the second term.

overplay the hand

In some card games, it is sometimes better not to reveal if you have a very good hand of cards. One must be prudent and not try to win the game all at one time. One must be patient and use strategy to win the game in several steps. In politics, we might say that people overplay their hand if they try to push an issue too hard all at once instead of waiting for the diplomatic process to work.

Example: In 2009, some Middle East experts said that Iran might be overplaying its hand by claiming it was going to build a nuclear bomb. Many other countries began to take a stronger stance against Iran instead of trying to work with them on diplomatic issues.



In a chess game, a player may sacrifice a small-value piece such as a pawn in hopes of winning a large-value piece such as a knight or bishop. This strategy is called a gambit.

Example: President Obama’s gambit of working with Pakistan to end the war in Afghanistan may take years to see any results.

blog - games - chessstalemate

When two chess players are tied and neither player can win, this is called a stalemate. In politics, when two political parties, two candidates or any two persons cannot find a solution to a problem, this may also be called a stalemate.

Example: For the past several decades, many U.S. presidents have tried to end the stalemate between Israel and Palestine with limited success.

the endgame

When a game of chess is completed, this is simply called the end of the game or the endgame. In common terms, an endgame has come to mean the objective or primary goal of a policy or approach to solving a problem.

Example: When the war in Afghanistan dragged on for more than ten years, many Americans wondered what the endgame really was for our troops there.

Board Games and Puzzles

blog - games - jigsaw puzzlepuzzle/puzzling over

There are many types of board games and puzzles that people enjoy all over the world. Crossword and jigsaw puzzles are popular games that require a great deal of patience and intelligence to complete. The word puzzle formerly referred only to the game itself. Now it can also signify the action of being confused. In politics, many difficult situations can be puzzling to politicians and citizens alike.

Example: After the 9/11 terrorist acts in New York city, many Americans puzzled over why they were the target of such a vicious attack.

turn the tables

Board games are often played on tables. In some cases, the board can only be read in one direction. Thus a player may have to turn the board around to read all parts of the game when it is his or her turn. This is sometimes referred to as turning the tables. In common terms, when someone has changed a situation to his or her advantage, this is also called turning the tables.

Example: In the 2010 health reform bill, President Obama tried to turn the tables on the health insurance industry and give back some power and choice to consumers.


It is interesting that our everyday experiences with games translates into many creative metaphors.  However, it is not merely the aspect of a fun game that we are thinking about when we create metaphors.  Rather it is more in the competitive nature of games that is easily compared to politics and elections.  Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors in the news! blog - games - cards and chips


blog - physical - latch

Latch on!

In the past few weeks, I have heard the expression of people latching on to different presidential candidates and supporting their campaigns. It is very common for us to use expressions of physical forces to describe abstract processes. In previous posts I have described metaphors of pushing, pulling, bending, shaking, throwing, etc. Today I would like to share a few examples of metaphorical expressions describing one object being attached to another.


blog - physical - shoe lacesties

To tie something means to use a piece of string, rope or shoe laces to attach something to something else. We must use our hands with a certain amount of physical force to make sure the two objects are tied together tightly. Commonly we can tie our shoelaces or tie up a package with string. Metaphorically, a tie is any strong connection between two or more people or groups of people.

Example: The United States has close political ties to European and Asian countries.


When two objects are tied closely together, they are of equal distance apart. This concept gives rise to the idea in sports of two competitors or teams being tied in the final score of the game, as in soccer or tennis. In politics, we may also say that two candidates are tied in an election if they have the same percentage of supporting voters in polls, or if they receive the same number of votes.

Example: In 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain were virtually tied until the final days of the presidential election.

blog - physical - rope knotstie up in knots

Sometimes, in order to make sure that an object is securely tied, we may use a large number of strong knots to hold the string or rope in place. Metaphorically, anything that is very confusing or tightly controlled may be described as being tied up in knots.

Example: The financial crisis of 2008 left many banking regulations tied up in knots preventing people and small businesses from getting loans quickly.

in a bind

Another word for tie is to bind something together, usually with a stronger sense of force and attachment. In a common metaphorical expression, someone in the middle of a complex problem with difficult decisions to make may be described as being in a bind.

Example: Confusing immigration policies put many legal and illegal immigrants in a bind and make it difficult for them to stay in the country.

bound together

The past form of to bind is bound. An object can be bound with string or rope. Metaphorically people or groups can also be bound together by similar values, experiences or goals.

Example: Many Republican voters are bound together by values of fiscal conservatism.

bonds, bonded

The noun form of to bind is to have a bond. As with the word bound, the term bond can represent either a physical or metaphorical attachment.

Example: A good presidential candidate will bond with many different types of voters with a good campaign speech which will help him or her win the election.

blog - physical - strap car seatstrapped

A strap is a long piece of leather or cloth that is used to tie two objects together. In a strange expression of unknown origins, a person without money can be described as being strapped for cash. Apparently there was an old expression of getting financial credit from a bank as if one were strapped to that bank until the money was paid back, indicating that one was short of cash until the load was paid off. In any case, we have the common expressions strapped for cash meaning to be without money.

Example: After the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans lost their jobs and their families were strapped for cash.

blog - physical - latchlatch on

A latch is a small mechanical device that works to hold a door closed. Metaphorically, an animal such as a crab or turtle can also latch on to a person’s finger. More abstractly, we can speak of latching on to an idea or program.

Example: In 2016, many liberals latched on to the Bernie Sander’s campaign for president because of his progressive policies.

blog - shapes - Spool_of_stringno strings attached

If two or more objects are tied together with string, we may say that the objects are attached with strings. In a common metaphorical expression, an agreement or deal that has a series of conditions attached to it may be described as having strings attached. Ideally a political deal has no strings attached so that it can implemented as quickly and easily as possible.

Example: Unfortunately, most bills being voted on in Congress do not come with no strings attached. Most bills have sections attached that provide money or services to the constituents in the districts of the members of Congress who wrote the bills.

flapped, unflappable

Something that is not tied down securely to a vehicle may flap in the wind during the journey. Metaphorically, a person who does not change his or her opinion or is swayed by public opinion on important issues may be described as being unflappable.

Example: Barack Obama was described as being unflappable as he dealt with the huge financial crises in the first two years of his presidency. Nevit Dilmen Nevit Dilmen

stick to

An object can be attached to another object simply through the adhesive properties of a glue or other substance. We can say that a piece of paper, for example, sticks to a cardboard backing with glue. In metaphorical terms, when a person does not change his or her mind about a decision, then we may that he or she is sticking to their position.

Example: When Barack Obama was elected president, he promised to end the war in Iraq and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He stuck to his decision to get the troops out of Iraq, but he was not able to stick to his plan of closing Guantanamo Bay.

stuck, stuck in the middle of something

An object or person can also be stuck in a certain position depending on the force of the adhesive material. Metaphorically, we can be stuck in a bad situation.

Example: An American president often gets stuck in the middle of controversial issues debated by members of Congress.


Clearly we can find many examples of the concept of two objects being tied together to express the idea of abstract connections between people and organizations. Once again, we see how everyday experiences contribute to our creation of political metaphors. If you find any other examples, please let me know!


Metaphors of Spring!

Although some parts of the United States are still thawing out from recent snowstorms, most of the country is enjoying warm, spring weather. Today I would like to share metaphors based on changes of seasons and spring growth. While spring may bring new flowers and green grass, spring rains may also bring flooding and erosion to areas near rivers. I have touched on these topics in previous posts on plants and trees or rivers.  Here are a few more examples of springtime metaphors.

blog - nature - ice meltingmelt away

Most people in northern climates have experienced ice and snow. When temperatures rise, the ice and snow melts. In common terms, problems can also melt away.

Example:   In 2011, the fall of the dictators Hosni Mubarek in Egypt and Moamer Kadhafi in Libya proved that their supporters will melt away once it seems they can no longer stay in power. 

blog - nature - sproutspring

The season of spring is often symbolic of natural changes and new growth.

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

family tree

Plants and trees are commonly used in English metaphors. One of the most common is the familiar term of the family tree, comparing the relatives in a family to the branches of a tree.

Example:   Michelle Obama’s family tree indicates that she is the first person descended from a slave to be a first lady of the United States.



Trees have branches that spread out far from the trunk of the tree. In a very common metaphor, the term branch is used to indicate a part of a larger organization.

Example:   The United States has three branches of government – the executive, the legislative and the judicial.

the root of the problem

Trees have roots that not only hold the tree into the ground but symbolize the beginnings of the tree’s growth. The concept of roots is commonly used metaphorically to mean the origin of something.

Example:    The root of the economic recession of 2008 can be found in the failures of Wall Street investment firms to manage their money properly.


A tree with deep roots is one that is very old and solidly anchored into the ground. Metaphorically, a problem or attitude that is deep-rooted indicates that it is something that goes back many years and is not likely to change any time soon.

Example:   Due to the lack of positive changes for the average person made by Congress, many Americans have a deep-rooted cynicism of politicians.


All plants have some sort of root structure. Grass is one of the most common plants in the world and its roots are spread evenly under the ground. In politics, a grassroots organization is one that originated by ordinary people, not developed by a larger political party or organization.

Example:    Although millions of Americans created support networks for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, many of those grassroots organizations were dying off and looking for new members for the 2012 election.


Trees have thousands of leaves. The idea of a leaf is used commonly to describe pages in a book. Small pieces of paper are also called leaflets and are often used to distribute information in an election.

Example:    If you go to a candidate’s campaign rally in a presidential election, you may receive a leaflet describing the candidate’s best qualities and political experience.

blog - nature - stem of flowerstem from

Plants are attached to the ground through the roots. They grow and produce blossoms or fruit from the stem. Metaphorically, the origin of something may be described as stemming from an event, process or project.

Example:    In late 2011, the approval rating for Congress dropped to only 9%. The frustration with Congress stems from the fact that Republicans and Democrats can never seem to agree on anything and do not pass any laws to help the American people.


Some plants have small branches or shoots that grow out of the main stem or trunk. These can also be called offshoots. In common terms, an offshoot is anything that develops out of something else.

Example:    In the war on terror, American presidents must monitor not only the main terrorist organizations but their offshoots around the world as well.


When the water in a river overflows its banks, we call this a flood. Metaphorically, a flood is any extraordinary amount of objects, events, or information.

Example:   After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, there was a flood of reports of other possible terrorist activities.

Results of the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee in 2008
Results of the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee in 2008

flood the airwaves

Radio and television transmissions are sometimes called airwaves. In a special metaphorical phrase, to flood the airwaves means to produce a large quantity of a certain kind of report or political ad on radio and TV channels.


Example:   During a presidential campaign, most candidates flood the airwaves with negative attack ads against their opponents.

high water mark

When a river floods, the water rises high above the usual water level. In cities prone to flooding, the people there install a type of measurement system to see how high the water rises in each flood. The highest level the water reaches is called the high water mark. Metaphorically, the phrase high water mark can also mean the highest level of any recorded information.

Example:   During the Great Depression, unemployment hit a high water mark of 25%.

stem the flow

When a river is beginning to flood, the local residents may try to stop the water from rising too high. In other words, they may try to stem the flow of the water. In metaphorical terms, any effort to stop the movement of people, objects or a process may be called stemming the flow.

Example:   Many Americans would like to stem the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States.

blog - nature - slippery slopeslippery slope

Mountains and hills have steep inclines that are difficult to climb up or down. When it rains, these slopes can become impossible to ascend or descend. In fact, a person trying to climb up a wet hill will most likely lose his or her footing and slide all the way down to the bottom. In common terms, a slippery slope is any situation in which a specific action or decision may result in the failure of the entire process or project.

Example:    Critics of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision to allow corporations to contribute money to election campaigns complain that it was the beginning of a slippery slope to corporations taking over our entire democracy.


Landforms can be worn down because of wind or water pressures over many years. This process is called erosion. In common terms, support for a person or process can also be eroded by pressures from other people or groups.

Example:    American support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded after many soldiers were killed and there seemed to be no end in sight.

soil something

Soil is another word for the dirt that we use for farming, gardening and landscaping. The term soil, however, has a negative connotation in that it indicates something that is metaphorically dirty or unclean.

Example:   The impeachment of Bill Clinton soiled his reputation has a good president.

blog - nature - mud 2mudslinging

Mud is a mixture of dirt and water and is especially hard to clean up. In one of the oldest political metaphors, criticizing someone, often unfairly, is called mudslinging.


Example:   Abraham Lincoln had to endure a great deal of mudslinging from his opponents in his reelection campaign of 1864. 


A spring is a channel of water coming up from the ground.   A spring that continuously provides fresh water may be called a wellspring. Metaphorically, a wellspring is something that continuously provides information, money, or other commodity.

Example:    Conservative organizations are usually a wellspring of money for Republican candidates in national elections.

blog - nature - natural springhope springs eternal

In a common use of the idea of a spring, the idea of hope providing inspiration to people in hard times is captured in the phrase hope springs eternal.

Example:   In the darkest days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps created jobs for Americans and gave people the notion that hope springs eternal.


Metaphors from nature are very common in politics and everyday speech. These examples listed above illustrate how our experience with plants, trees, rivers and springs help create metaphors to explain growth and change in American politics.

blog - war - gladiator

Donald Trump: Battle Metaphors

Two recent articles on Donald Trump in Time magazine illustrate the ubiquity of metaphors of fighting, battles, and war in American politics. Sadly, just as I was working on this blog post about violent metaphors, violence erupted at a Trump rally in Chicago on Friday, March 11. It never ceases to amaze me that politicians treat their profession as a boxing match.   These two articles include a long piece by David Von Drehle entitled “Destination Unknown: As Donald Trump piles up GOP delegates, the nations braces for a very difficult 2016” (March 14, 2016, pp. 34-39), and a shorter piece by Alex Altman entitled “Donald Trump: Tribal Warrior” (March 14, 2016, pp. 40-43). The examples below are taken from the print articles and are labeled as being written by David Von Drehle [DVD] or from Alex Altman [AA]. Italics are mine.

Here in no particular order are a dizzying array of battle metaphors in these two articles.

Boxing and Fighting

Boxing metaphors are some of the most commonly used types of figurative language in politics. In this case, we see examples of lightweight versus heavyweight boxing weight classes.  We also talk about throwing punches, beating an opponent, or stopping the bleeding after a fight. An opponent beaten badly may be fighting for his or her life.

Judo is one of many different types of martial arts. One way of defeating an opponent in this sport is to do a judo-flip and pin the other person to the ground. In ancient Rome, fighters called gladiators fought each other and wild animals to the death.

blog - boxing - Boxing_Tournament_in_Aid_of_King_George's_Fund_For_Sailors_at_the_Royal_Naval_Air_Station,_Henstridge,_Somerset,_July_1945_A29806lightweight

Example:  “Judging the baby-faced junior Senator from Florida to be short of gravitas, Trump dubbed him ‘little Marco Rubio, the lightweight.’ Sensing shiftiness in Texas Senator Cruz, he coined the name Lying Ted.” [DVD, p. 38]

throwing punches

Example:  “You can be sure, as well, he’ll be throwing punches of his own.” [DVD, p. 39]

Example:  “’The reason their punches don’t land is they’re being thrown in a world that’s dying,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says Trump may ultimately prove to be ‘the most effective anti-left candidate of our times.’” [AA, p. 43]

fighting for life

Example:  “A new Justice Department team might reopen the matter, he implies, “so she is literally fighting for her life” in her effort to beat Trump.” [DVD, p. 39] 


Example:  “CAN HE BEAT HER [Hillary Clinton]?” [DVD, p. 38]


Example:  “Their jobs, their futures, are bleeding away to ‘Mexico, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand’–Trump ticks through the list at his rallies.” [DVD, p. 39] 


Example:  “He is, they acknowledge, a force like no other: an utterly unpredictable candidate who has judo-flipped the entire political apparatus.” [DVD, p. 39] 

blog - war - gladiatorgladiatorial mojo

Example:  “The same gladiatorial mojo that powers football, war movies, professional wrestling and Judge Judy Trump transposes into a political key.” [DVD, p. 36]


War and Battles

Military metaphors are also very common in politics.  We can talk about sharpening a weapon, and having a military strategy of dividing and conquering smaller nations. Armies can go on the offense when starting a war while local people may rise up and fight by bringing torches and homemade weapons to a battle.

In occupied countries during a war, local people who fight back against the occupiers are called resistance fighters, while all soldiers and fighters fight against the invaders, and may have to fight in hand-to-hand combat, referred to in Spanish as fighting mano a mano. One of the most famous resistance fighters in history was the Scottish warrior William Wallace who fought against the British in the 13th century.  He was referred to as Braveheart in a popular 1995 Mel Gibson film of the same name. Invading armies can also harm or kill civilians in what as known as dragooning, based on the name of 17th century French soldiers.

During a war, armies decide how to defeat their enemies by assigning targets for their guns and bombs, and they attack their enemies. They may also burn the buildings and property of their enemies or putting them into flames. Metaphorically a word meaning to cause widespread disruption and damage to a process is called being inflammatory . At the end of a battle or a long war there is often vast destruction of lives and property. This is known as carnage. Finally, smaller wars between tribes instead of countries leads to the metaphors of tribal warriors who fight for their side in a war. These types of wars may be described as an us-against-them problem. Wars always have hidden threats and dangers for local citizens which may create fearful tribes.

blog - war - spear pointsharpening

Example:  “Even Hillary Clinton is sharpening her smooth-edged coalition politics, telling voters they’re ‘right to be angry.’” [AA, p. 41] 



divide and conquer

Example:  “How does he win? Divide and conquer” [AA, subtitle of article, p. 41] 

on the offense

Example:  “’He is totally on offense, 24/7.’ This gives Trump ‘the potential to scramble the electoral map.’” [DVD, p. 39]


Example:  “The party bosses didn’t spot the torches on the horizon because they live comfortably cushioned from the concerns of Trump’s tribe.” [AA, p. 43] 


resistance fighter, Braveheart, fight to stop, fighting mano a mano [hand to hand combat]

Example:  “What about those stop-Trump schemes? Tim Miller, a Bush spokesman turned resistance fighter, made like Braveheart on Super Tuesday. ‘The fight to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination is intensifying regardless of tonight’s outcome,’ he declared. Cruz suggested it was time for Trump’s other rivals to drop out and let him go mano a mano.” [DVD, p. 38]

blog - war - dragoondragoon

Example:  “He hasn’t dragooned supporters into believing he’s a conservative; he’s leading a willing rebellion against modern conservatism itself.” [AA, p. 43] 


Example:  “Close allies of Clinton believe that Trump’s big mouth makes him a deliciously vulnerable target.” [DVD, p. 38]


Berlin, Germany at the end of World War II
Berlin, Germany at the end of World War II

attacks, attack ads, inflammatory, carnage

Example:  “Democrats have been stockpiling research and conducting polls on Trump since last summer, according to sources, and they are studying Cruz and Rubio as the Republican rivals test-drive attacks ranging from the size of Trump’s hands to the mysteries of his unreleased tax returns. They promise a long barrage of attack ads and negative messages in summer and fall, bristling with Trump’s most inflammatory moments, in hopes of motivating Democrats to go to the polls. Meanwhile, Clinton will float above the carnage, they predict, inviting independent women and even Republicans to join her bid for history.” [DVD, p. 39]

Example:  “Trump’s eagerness to be inflammatory on issues like deporting Mexicans and creating a registry for Muslims will drive that number higher, she predicts.” [DVD, p. 39]

Example:  “On the campaign trail, he leans on stereotypes to explain the world, in ways both inflammatory and complimentary.” [AA, p. 41]

blog - war - tribal warriortribal warrior

Example:  “Donald Trump: Tribal Warrior” [AA, title of article, p. 41]

tribal warfare, us against them, enemies 

Example:  “But nobody does tribal warfare like Trump. ‘It’s us-against-them politics,’ says Roger Stone, a Republican consultant and former Trump adviser. ‘You define yourself by who your enemies are.’” [AA, p. 41]

Example:  “Trump warns of enemies lurking everywhere.” [AA, p. 43]

new tribe

Example:  “Now the same knack for divisive rhetoric could tear the Republican Party in two, leaving Trump as the commander of a new tribe, a coalition of the disaffected.” [AA, p. 41]

Example:  “But there is no tribe Trump condemns more than the political elites, both Democratic and Republican.” [AA, p. 43]

hidden threats, fearful tribes

Example:  “This theme, of the hidden threat lurking in our midst, is part of what makes Trump a fitting prophet for a fearful tribe.” [AA, p. 43]


As I said, it is always amazing to see how we speak of American politics with such violent metaphors. It is not surprising that real violence sometimes erupts in the political process. I hope that the recent rise in hateful rhetoric is short-lived and politicians and their supporters can revert to more civil and respectful discourse.

Next Time:  More metaphors in the news

blog - George_Lakoff

George Lakoff: “Why Trump?”

blog - George_LakoffToday I would like to share the link to an important blog post by George Lakoff on Donald Trump, simply entitled, “Why Trump?”  As my faithful readers may remember, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote the groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By, in 1980 which inspired my research into metaphors. After decades of brilliant research in linguistics and cognition, Lakoff turned his attention to the language of politics. He wrote another landmark book called Don’t Think of an Elephant in 2004 (rev. in 2014) in which he described the differences in the thinking of liberal and conservative politicians. In his recent blog post, he builds on his previous work to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The key tenet of his Elephant book is that most people think about government in conceptual metaphors. To quote a section of his recent blog post this week,

“…we tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).”

Lakoff extends his theory to explain the views of the conservatives.

“The strict father logic extends 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.”

blog - Donald_Trump_August_2015

I can’t summarize the rest of the blog post to do it justice. You will have to read the rest of the article to see Lakoff’s brilliant analysis of Donald Trump. It is a bit long but well worth the effort. It is the most insightful analysis of conservative politics you will ever read. You can access the blog post here.

If you are interested, I have a list of books by Lakoff and Johnson, together and separately, in my Bibliography page on this blog. Lakoff, of course, has links to his other books and blog posts on his website. Please check them out if you have time.  Comments are welcome!


Next time: More on Trump

Golden Gate Bridge

Flashback: Obama’s Speech in Cairo, 2009

Following last week’s post, I continue today to add another analysis of the metaphors of Barack Obama’s speeches in response to requests from my readers. On June 4, 2009, President Obama gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt to discuss the challenges of controlling the unrest in the Middle East. The speech may seem a bit dated now, but still reveals many important views of the newly elected president with regard to the Middle East. It also contains a wide variety of metaphors. The examples included today range from metaphors from nature, farming and ranching, music and theater, buildings, personification, physical forces and journeys. The metaphors of physical forces are especially interesting in that Obama uses terms of physical stress and tension to describe the troubles in the Middle East.

All examples are taken directly from the transcript of the speech. Some quotations are repeated if they contain metaphors in several different categories. Italics are mine.



Many political speeches include metaphors from nature due to our close relationship with our environment. In this speech, President Obama uses the metaphors of political movements being born, political tension being rooted in historical forces, while describing separation between religious groups as being in flames, and learning as being a light carried through the centuries.

blog - nature - New_born_poodleExample: “We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words — within our borders, and around the world.”

Example: “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.”

Example: “That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

blog - fire - fireExample: I know there are many — Muslim and non-Muslim — who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress.”

Example: “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment.”


Farming and Ranching

Humans have long controlled their environments by raising crops and animals. President Obama describes hatred as something that can be sown like seeds on a farm, while extremist violence breeds fear and mistrust like ranchers breed animals, and tension is fed by colonialism like ranchers feed their animals.

Example: “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.”

Example: “The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.”

blog - nature - feeding cowsExample: “More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”


Music and Theater

Comparisons are often made between politics and theater or music. In this case, politicians and countries can play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations while there is musical harmony between traditions and progress.

blog - music - harmony BeatlesExample: “I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions.   And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress.”

Example: “To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.”



Politicians often compare government programs to buildings. Thus we can take concrete actions and build new programs and countries.

blog - building - concrete blockExample: “We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” (Applause.)

Example: “Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build.”

Example: “Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.” (Applause.)



Countries are often seen as people in the type of metaphors known as personification. In this case, President Obama speaks of countries expanding their reach while Americans will not turn their backs on the Palestinians.

Example: “They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.”

Example: “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” (Applause.)


Physical Forces

It is quite striking that the most common type of metaphor used by President Obama to describe the problems in the Middle East are those metaphors of physical forces. He describes countries being shaped by culture, elevated by a good world order or bonded with other countries. The solidity of physical objects are described in various ways such as bonds which are unbreakable while freedoms are indivisible and beliefs that are unyielding as if they are all made of steel. Governments can also take hold of and maintain power as if they are physical objects. However, the most common metaphor in the entire speech is by far that of tension, used to describe the unrest in the Middle East, as if the countries are objects under tremendous pressure. President Obama used the metaphor of tension a total of nine times.

Example: “We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum — “’Out of many, one.’”

Example: “Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

blog - physical forces - unbreakable glassExample: “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

Example: “Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion.”

Example: “But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

Example: “So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”

blog - physical forces - tension bridgeExample: “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world — tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.”



Not surprisingly, President Obama also uses a wide variety of journey metaphors to explain how the Middle East needs to progress from chaos to peace. Some long journeys require studying a road map, and then people need to take steps to start the journey or launch their vehicles as if they are rockets. People who take the journeys need to make sure they are not going down a dead end, or trapped in a certain place; rather they must move forward. They need to go down the correct path, although it may be dangerous. They may also need to understand what brought them to a certain point of the journey before they can continue forward, or find a bridge to a new route.   They may need to look for a beacon in the distance to achieve their goal as if they are on a ship in stormy seas looking for a lighthouse.

blog - journey - road mapExample: “The obligations — the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them — and all of us — to live up to our responsibilities.”

Example: “Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.”

Example: “On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs.”

blog - journey - dead end signExample: “This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.”

Example: “Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.”

Example: “This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”

Example: “It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.”

Example: “I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. I know there’s been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.”

Golden Gate BridgeExample: “Around the world, we can turn dialogue into interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action — whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster.”

Example: “For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement.”


This speech is interesting for several reasons. Historically, it is the only speech I know of given by a sitting U.S. president from Cairo, Egypt. Metaphorically, it contains a wide variety of rich metaphors. While the journey metaphors were not surprising, it is telling that there were many metaphors of physical forces to describe the unrest in the Middle East while the most frequent metaphor of all was that of tension. Sadly, there has not been much progress in the Middle East since this speech in 2009. Even more tension has arisen since the growth of ISIS and the more recent terrorist attacks. I will continue to monitor how metaphors are used to describe the continued acts of terrorism around the world.


Next time:  Back to the campaign trail