More on the Fiscal Cliff

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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!


4 thoughts on “More on the Fiscal Cliff

  1. I always thought that “cutting a deal” referred to dividing the deck of cards after shuffling so as to insure a fair dealing of the cards…
    Good blog, Andy!

    1. Thanks for your comment Candace! I always thought that a loophole referred back to a type of loop to hold a button on clothes. It’s funny that we have these stories of word origins in our heads. Thanks for reading my blog!

  2. Ironic, isn’t it, that President Obama and the Democrats are fighting so stolidly to preserve the “Bush era” (is that a political metaphor now too?) tax cuts for the lower income and middle class? I previously only heard them referred to as the Bush “tax cuts for the wealthy”.

    At any rate, not only are politics “drenched” with metaphor, I also believe that all politicians and all media deliberately use metaphor as diversion and distraction when discussing politics.

    Anyway, I don’t want this comment to divert too much toward politics and away from metaphor. I found the blog interesting and I hope you have “hit a home run”. I’ll continue to check in. Good luck!

    1. Hi! Thanks for your perceptive comments! You are right in that politicians may use metaphors to their own advantage. I have not studied that aspect of metaphor usage in detail but I am sure it is more common than we think. That would the topic of another research project. Thanks for reading the blog!

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