Monthly Archives: December 2012

Loopholes and Frames

blog - loophole   You may have heard the term loophole being used in the news recently related to taxes or gun control.  A loophole is an error in a policy or law in which someone can gain advantage for himself or herself, as in tax loopholes which allow people to avoid paying taxes.   In gun control discussions, apparently gun buyers do not need a background check if they buy a firearm at a gun show instead of from a dealer.  This is also considered a loophole. The word loophole is actually derived from a phrase from the 15th century meaning to look through a hole in a wall as if it were a window. Later the term came to indicate a hole in a wall used to escape from the building. The word loop in this case has nothing to do with a loop in a rope or string. Historically it is related to the French word loupe meaning “magnifying glass.”

Example:  Some American corporations take advantage of a business law loophole which allows them to have their headquarters in other countries so that they do not have to pay business taxes.

blog - picture frameThe idea of a frame  is also derived from our experiences with buildings or houses.  A frame is a wooden structure used in the construction of a house.  However, we also use the word to indicate something that supports a picture, as in a picture frame.  The word frame has been used metaphorically for many years as in frame of mind or frame of reference.  In politics, to talk about something in a way that supports your opinions or agenda may also be called framing.

Example:  A skilled politician will frame the argument of raising taxes as a way of providing more services to American citizens.

Next time:  What is the name of a popular TV news show named after a sports metaphor? What is one named after a preposition?


More on the Fiscal Cliff

blog - cliffs of Moher

A recent Time magazine article illustrates many of the points I was making in a previous blog.  Here are the first two paragraphs from an article, “How to Avoid the Fiscal Cliff” by Michael Grunwald (Time, 12/10/12, pp. 40 – 43).

“The problem of the so-called fiscal cliff is a self-inflicted one: it was designed to be problematic. Republicans and Democrats intended its automatic tax hikes and spending cuts to be so unpalatable that they’d be forced to make a long-term deficit-reduction deal before January 2013 in order to avoid them. But they have not yet cut a deal, so they’re dragging all of us toward the cliff they built for themselves.

“The debate over the cliff has been drenched in apocalyptic rhetoric about America’s becoming Greece, so most of the public assumes going over it would explode our trillion-dollar budget deficit. In fact, the opposite is true. Going over the cliff would dramatically shrink the deficit–but through a mix of middle-class tax increases and across-the-board military and nonmilitary spending cuts that no one really wants. The cliff metaphor is also misleading, fueling a Beltway narrative that the economy might plunge to its death on Jan. 1. It’s really a slope. Trouble looms without a bipartisan deal, especially if markets get jittery, but there’s no reason that a deal needs to happen in 2012–and there are several reasons it might be easier to cut in early 2013.”

Read more:,9171,2130412,00.html#ixzz2EUUnmbHB


These two paragraphs illustrate just how common political metaphors are in everyday reporting in the United States.  Notice how the quotation marks are missing from the title of the article, but the text still includes the phrase so-called fiscal cliff.  This is clearly a transitional stage in the birth of a metaphor as it goes from a new phrase to common usage.  The authors are also aware that the term is a metaphor in the second paragraph. Note too that alternate forms of the metaphor are used as in the phrases going over the cliff and the economy might plunge to its death. Incidentally, this is also a use of personification at the same time since the economy is considered a person that might be killed. Lastly, note the comparison of the cliff to a slope in the second paragraph indicating that the idea of a cliff may be too extreme for the political reality and that perhaps a different metaphor is required.


Here are a few notes on the other metaphors used in this brief excerpt.


1)   The author says that the “so-called fiscal cliff is a self-inflicted one.”  The phrase self-inflicted refers to a wound that a person gives to oneself, e.g., by shooting oneself in the foot to avoid military duty.  This is a strange mixed metaphor of medicine and nature metaphors.  

2)   When the author says that the spending cuts may be unpalatable, he is using a food metaphor.  Often we describe events in terms of their taste as if we are eating them, such as a sweet deal or a bitter result.  In this case, the spending cuts are some food that we would not even want to eat, so they are considered unpalatable.

3)   Saying that the politicians may want to cut a deal refers to one of the many metaphors based on physical forces.  The act of cutting something with a knife or axe is used metaphorically to describe many abstract processes.  The word deal originally meant a share of some physical object, such as a meal, so to cut a deal meant to share a common object or meal.

4)   To say that the politicians are dragging us toward the cliff indicates that we as a country are collectively a heavy object being pulled along the ground.  This is another example of a metaphor based on physical forces we experience in our everyday lives.

5)   When the author says that the cliff is something the politicians built  for themselves, this is another odd mixed metaphor.  One cannot physically build a cliff, but the word build is often used metaphorically to indicate the process of creating something abstract.

6)   The author also says that the debate is drenched in apocalyptic rhetoric.  The word drenched literally means covered with water.  However, we use the term metaphorically to indicate any object or process that is covered with an overwhelming amount of anything.

7)   The deficit might explode?  This is  another example of a metaphor based on physical forces.  Any object with a flexible container may burst if the pressure inside is too great for the strength of the walls.  Here the deficit is metaphorically considered to be a sort of bomb or perhaps a water balloon that may explode because of too much pressure from within.

8)   The phrase across-the-board was originally a horse racing term used to describe all the horses in a particular race.  Now the phrase can be applied metaphorically to any broad context of a situation.

9)   The author writes that the cliff metaphor is misleading. This is a journey metaphor.  We often consider processes metaphorically as journeys, sometimes led or guided by other people.  While some consider the term misleading to be a dead metaphor, it is a great example of a metaphor about a journey that may be going the wrong direction.

10)   The sentence including the phrase fueling a beltway narrative is packed with three different metaphors.  We often consider a process as if it is a machine.  In this case the process is like a car engine that needs fueling.  We also have many clothing metaphors in English.  The beltway refers to the circular highway system that goes around Washington D.C., based on the shape of the belts we use to hold up our pants.  Finally, the term narrative is derived from our experience with literature.  Although no one is reading us a story, we understand political processes as narratives.

11)    Lastly, the author notes that the stock market might get jittery. This is an example of personification based on emotional experiences.  Just as we get nervous when we are in stressful situations, the stock market, acting as a person metaphorically, becomes jittery when the political processes are uncertain.

Phew!   As you can see, there are at least 12 examples of political metaphors packed into two short paragraphs that just happened to be in a recent Time magazine.  More examples to follow!


Fiscal Cliff – A Metaphor is Born

I am sure you have heard the term fiscal cliff in the news the past few weeks.  This term refers to the alleged crisis that may occur at the end of the year when the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire, and when additional cuts are made to many federal programs.  Democrats and Republicans are currently in negotiations to avoid going over the fiscal cliff.  Just as parents are excited when a child is born, animal lovers are thrilled when a new tiger is born in a zoo, astronomers go nuts when they discover a new star, linguists may be excited when a new metaphor is born.  Please pass the cigars….

blog - grand-canyon cliffThis term fiscal cliff is a great example of a political metaphor for many reasons.

1)   It is an example of a nature metaphor.  We have many metaphors that are derived from our experiences with our natural world such as a flood of problems, a wave of immigration, a rift between the parties, etc.  Anyone who has been to the Grand Canyon or who has stood at the edge of any cliff knows that is a dangerous position to be in.  A misstep or a loss of footing could result in the person falling over the edge to certain injury or death.  Thus the metaphor fiscal cliff has a connotation of a dangerous situation.

2)   While most metaphors are politically neutral, there seems to be some disagreement between Republicans and Democrats whether this is really a cliff, or a dangerous situation at all.  One wonders if Republicans are deliberately using this metaphor to make the situation sound more dangerous than it really is to force to Democrats to agree to their terms in the negotiations.

3)   Although the term fiscal cliff has been around for many years, it has never held such a prominent position in the national media and is considered to be a new use of figurative language.  The proof of this is in both written and spoken forms of the term.  In writing, most newspapers and Internet reports print it in quotation marks, i.e., the “fiscal cliff.”  The use of quotations indicates that the phrase is new and not yet commonly accepted as standard usage. In spoken reports, you may hear broadcasters refer to it as “the so-called fiscal cliff” or “what some are calling the fiscal cliff.”  Once again, these qualifying statements indicate that the term is not yet in standard usage.  However, just in the past few weeks these qualifying terms and the quotation marks have been disappearing in the media.  I would bet that by the end of the year, they will be completely gone.

4)   Popular metaphors sometimes give birth to additional terms related to the original metaphor. Thus, you may hear a person who is willing to let the tax cuts expire as a cliff jumper.  Moreover, you may hear the situation described as a cliffhanger, a term originally used to describe serial movies in the 1930s such as the Perils of Pauline in which the main character was literally left hanging off the edge of a cliff at the end of one episode.  Viewers had to “tune in next time” to find out what happened.

Let me know if you see more examples of the use of the fiscal cliff.  Comments and questions are welcome!

Hello! Thanks for stopping by!

This is a brand new blog designed to help people understand how metaphors are used in American newspapers, magazines, radio shows and TV news broadcasts.  A few years ago, I started collecting these metaphors as a project for my ESL (English as a Second Language) students.  Four years later I have written a book with more than 2000 metaphors in 54 different categories!

I am hoping to be able to publish the book as soon as possible.  In the meantime, I have started this blog to share examples and explanations of a few metaphors each week as they appear in the media.  If you love politics and linguistics, this blog is for you!

Click on the tabs to learn more about my research and the purposes of this blog.  Comments and questions are welcome!