Monthly Archives: February 2013

The State of the Union Address, Part 3: Metaphors of Journeys and Physical Forces

In part three of my analysis of the metaphors used in the president’s State of the Union Address last week, I would like to describe some interesting examples of journey metaphors and those of physical forces.  Starting with the latter first, I find that metaphors of physical forces are some of the most interesting of all.  These are the metaphors such as pushing, pulling, tearing apart, ripping open, etc. In addition to the fact that they support Lakoff and Johnson’s theory that metaphors are created based on physical experiences, these metaphors are some of the most common and colorful of all metaphors.

The most graphic of these metaphors in the speech occurred when the president was talking about gun violence.  Fittingly, he described the effects of gun violence on communities and the family of Hadiya Pendleton with violent metaphors, ripped open and torn apart.


“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.”

“The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

Other physical metaphors are less violent.  We often speak of making progress in a process as if we are literally pushing or driving it forward.

“Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population.”

“The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.”

“Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”

“If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we.”

We may also talk about improving something by boosting it, i.e., by pushing it up from below.  We commonly talk of booster clubs in high schools or rocket boosters.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

We also use metaphors based on pulling actions especially when we talk about troops in a war being pulled back or drawn down.

“Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

“Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together.”

“We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.”

Finally, one other example of a physical forces metaphor is the smallest of all physical movements – budging. In the following example, once again, President Obama sets up a nice dichotomy of a high energy metaphor with a low energy metaphor.

“Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.”

As mentioned in a previous post on the inaugural address, President Obama used many journey metaphors in that speech.  In the State of the Union Address, he again uses a few of these.  Every journey begins with leaving the house.  We use many metaphors of opening doors implying a new opportunity or a new chance to achieve a goal. Moving up in society may also be described as climbing a ladder.

“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”

“And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”

In a more common metaphor, the president spoke of the country moving forward  as if the entire country was on a journey.  

“For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Journeys are measured by the start, halfway point and completion dates. Metaphorically, a project or process can be described as being halfway completed.

“As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.”

Some journeys are taken on wide highways; others are taken on narrow, focused paths.  The correct way to achieve a goal may be described as a path or pathway.  We may also take very short journeys by being in a line at a grocery store or government office.  Being in back of a line means that one is patiently waiting one’s turn.

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“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

There were also two examples of sailing metaphors as if the country were on a sailing journey.  Ships need lighthouses or beacons to keep from crashing on the rocks of unknown shores; they also need to stay on course or else they will drift into trouble. People who are not fast enough to board a ship or train may be left behind.

“Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change.”

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from

“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”

“Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.”

Sailing a ship requires excellent navigation skills.  Running a government requires excellent managerial skills.  A metaphor that captures this comparison is one that refers to being guided by the North Star.

“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”

P.S. One final metaphor I must mention was probably the most powerful one in the entire speech, but I am not quite sure how to categorize it.   President Obama described the bravery of the police officer, Brian Murphy, who was the first responder at the terrible shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year.  He helped rescue the people in the temple even though being shot twelve times.

“When asked how he did that, Brian said, ‘That’s just the way we’re made.’”

The implication in the metaphor is that Americans are made a special way, as if they are created in a special forging process in a factory.  The metaphor also implies an extraordinary standard of bravery or fortitude created in this forging process.  Officer Murphy and countless other police officers, firefighters and correctional officers exhibit this extraordinary bravery every day on the job, and they deserve our thanks.


Next time: Metaphors of Literature!


State of the Union Address, Part 2: Metaphors of Buildings and Machines

In the last post, I talked about we conceive of our country as a person, sometimes become stronger.  We may also consider our country to be a building.  When the country is struggling to get back on its feet, it may be described as collapsed building.  Buildings may be reduced to rubble but they can be rebuilt.  Buildings also need a foundation on which the walls and roofs are built.

“Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.”

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“The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”

“It is also the foundation of our power and influence throughout the world.”

We may also consider the country’s economy or business opportunities as machines.  These machines must be started and maintained to run at high speeds. Economic processes may be likened to engines that can ignited or rockets that can be launched.  Centers of business activities are metaphorically compared to hubs of wheels.

“Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.”

“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.”

“So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.”

A lock is a mechanical device built to enclose something or prevent someone from gaining access to a certain area.  Metaphorically to unlock something means to gain access to information or answers to questions.

“Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s…”

Before the days of machines, we used animals as beasts of burden to do work around the farm, ranch or mill.  We still use some of these farming and ranching terms as metaphors in talking about economic matters.   Draft animals must be harnessed before they can pull a plow or do other work.  Metaphorically, being able to use someone’s abilities is to harness their energy.

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Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants.

Also, horses must be saddled before they can be ridden comfortably.  The rider puts a great deal of weight onto the back of the animal.  Metaphorically, putting a heavy burden on people may be called saddling them with a problem, burden or debt.  The following quotation from the president’s speech provides an interesting juxtaposition of metaphors from rocket technology and farm animals in the same sentence.

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“But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.”

Next time:  The State of the Union Address, Part 3:  Metaphors of Journeys and Physical Forces


State of the Union Address, Part 1: Personification

President Obama’s State of the Union Address this past week was filled with a wide variety of metaphorical expressions.  Although most English speakers would consider these examples dead metaphors, or not being metaphors at all, in my opinion, they are wonderful examples of how we use metaphors in American political discourse.   I counted more than 100 uses of metaphorical expressions in the president’s speech.  I would like to break my analysis into three parts in three separate posts this week:  Part 1: Personification; Part 2: Buildings and Machines; Part 3: Journeys and Physical Forces.

In contrast to the Inaugural Address a few weeks ago, the State of the Union Address did not have an overarching metaphorical theme of the country on a journey.  However, the journey metaphor did make a few appearances, along with others from the concepts of the natural world, the military, and physical forces. Most interesting for me, there were some important examples of metaphors that were used to describe the United States as something or someone that needs help, in terms of medical assistance, physical strength or construction.  For Part 1 of my analysis, I would like to explain some interesting uses of personification in the president’s speech.

Personification is a very common way of creating metaphors.  We can think of objects, concepts, processes or even entire countries as being people.  As human beings, these concepts can be sick and need to be cured.  In two examples, President Obama said that our markets need healing.  The metaphorical expressions are highlighted in boldface type in the following examples.

“Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding…”

“Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007.”

Apparently we now even have electronic systems that can heal themselves as in “self-healing power grids.”

We also consider parts of our country as being weak and needing strength.

“Our work must begin by making some basic decisions about our budget – decisions that will have a huge impact on the strength of our recovery.”

“We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.”

“And we’ll work to strengthen families…”

Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America.”

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Even more important are the metaphors that are derived from our experience to do physical labor.  The phrase shoulder a burden dates back to the Middle Ages.  Most of us have had the experience of trying to carry a heavy object with our hands, only to learn that it is easier if we hoist it up on one of our shoulders and carry it that way.  Thus, we can relate this experience to creating an abstract metaphorical expression to shoulder a burden, meaning to struggle to complete a difficult task.

“But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.”

“And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children.”

Another common use of personification is to say that a country stands up for something.  Standing up implies strength, courage and the ability to take on aggressors or be ready for a fight. We also say that we meet people we look at them face to face.  Metaphorically we can also say that we meet obligations.

“The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”

“Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”

“In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”

“And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.”

People who fall down, or get knocked down, must get back on their feet to continue their journey or their battle against someone.  Thus the saying back on one’s feet  means someone is recovering from a crisis and continues to fight.

“And this year, my Administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.”

These examples further support the theory of Lakoff and Johnson that we create metaphors based on bodily experiences.  The theory behind these metaphorical analyses are provided on a separate page of this blog called Metaphors 101.  Comments and questions are always welcome!


Next time:  Part 2 of the SOTU analysis: Metaphors of Buildings and Machines

Whac-a-mole! Metaphors from Children’s Games

Whac-a-mole is a game that originated in the 1970s and requires a player to hit moles with a mallet as they pop up out of holes in an electronic board. The action of this game has been the origin of an odd political metaphor used recently to describe the inability of the armed forces to stop Taliban attacks in different regions of Afghanistan. Some political commentators refer to this process as a Whac-a-mole game.  The phrase, also spelled whack-a-mole, has also been used for years to describe military strategies in the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq.

Here are a few other metaphors derived from strategies of popular children’s games.

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child’s play

There are many games designed for children.  Although they are exciting for children to play, they are more simple than games for adults.  To say that something is child’s play means that the problem is easily solved.

Example:  Solving the economic crisis that began in 2008 was definitely not child’s play.  Many top economists and political strategists tried their best to help the president get the economy going again.

kick the can down the road

One popular children’s game is called kick the can.  One child must stand in a central area such as a large yard or more commonly a neighborhood street with his foot on a tin can that serves as a home base.  The other children run and hide behind trees and buildings.  The child with the can must try to find where the other children are hiding, but to do this, he or she must leave the can unprotected while looking around.  If the other children can get to the can before the first child returns to home base, they must kick the can so that the child cannot get it.  This is called kicking the can down the road. In metaphorical terms, kicking the can down the road means ending the game or temporarily giving up on a certain situation.

Example:  In the summer of 2010, President Obama claimed when it came to immigration reform, he did not want to kick the can down the road.  He wanted to get the House and the Senate to pass legislation to solve the immigration problems.

knock your block off

In the 1960s, there was a popular children’s game called Rock’em Sock’em Robots.  It was a toy boxing ring in which the players could pull levers and cause the plastic robots to box each other.  The head of each boxer was not permanently attached to the body.  With the correct type of punch, one player could knock off the head of the opposing robot.  This was called knocking the block off.  In common terms, completely defeating an opponent came to be called knocking someone’s block off. 

Example:  In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by almost 10 percentage points.  It was such as decisive victory, Reagan practically knocked Carter’s block off.

put back together

In many children’s games, toys can be taken apart and put back together.  Most famously, the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty told how he fell off a wall, fell apart, and could not be put back together again.  In metaphorical terms, if a person has been through a crisis, he or she must get organized again, or put themselves back together again.  Similarly, an organization, program or part of American life that has been upset may also need to be put back together.

Example:  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, destroying much of the American naval fleet, the U.S. government had to put the Navy back together to win World War II.

pop up

Some children’s books contain pages in which characters pop up out from the folds of the book.  There are also some mechanical or electronic games where characters or animals pop up out of the base of the toy.  In common terms, problems or issues may pop up out of a situation where one is not expecting it.

Example:  In 2009 and 2010, many new so-called Tea Party political groups popped up all over the country in response to President Obama’s government programs which were seen by conservatives as being too progressive.

connect the dots

Another children’s game is called connect the dots in which a drawing is left incomplete and the child must use a pencil to connect the dots in a numbered sequence to complete the drawing.  In metaphorical terms, to understand a complex problem is sometimes called connecting the dots.

Example:  No one is exactly sure what caused the economic crisis that started in 2008.  It may be years before the experts can connect all the dots and figure out what happened.


Next time:  An analysis of this week’s State of the Union address.

Metaphorical Floors, Walls and Ceilings

We are all familiar with the floors and ceilings inside a house.  The concept of a ceiling is often used metaphorically as the upper limit of a process, while the floor is considered the lower limit of something.  The process of cleaning floors also lends itself to additional metaphors such as sweeping elections.

wall to wall

Some homes and offices have carpeting that covers the entire floor.  This is sometimes called wall-to-wall carpeting.  Metaphorically, anything that is wall to wall is considered to be very thorough of complete.  In politics, this phrase is sometimes used to describe television coverage of elections.

Example: Most cable news shows on TV have wall-to-wall coverage of presidential elections.


Wallpaper is a type of patterned wall covering used in many homes.  These wall coverings must cover an entire section of wall.  Metaphorically, the term wallpaper has two meanings.  One meaning of wallpaper is a photograph used as a background on a computer or a cellphone.  The other meaning is to completely cover something as in when many TV journalists are hired to report on a political event.

Example: In 2008, many types of Obama wallpapers were popular for home computers.

Example: During the Democratic and Republican conventions prior to a presidential election, these events are wallpapered with reporters from all over the world.


debt ceiling

The ceiling is the top of a room.  Metaphorically, a ceiling is an abstract limit to progress in a certain situation such as for taxes, the national debt, or success of minorities in business and government.

Example:) As the national debt has increased in the last few decades, members of Congress often debate whether they should raise the ceiling on the debt and borrow more money to pay for government programs.

glass ceiling

A glass ceiling is a term specifically used to describe the limits of minorities achieving important positions in business or government.

Example: When Hillary Clinton decided to run for president, many American women hoped she would break the glass ceiling and become the first female president.

call on the carpet

In a strange metaphor of unknown origin, to call someone on the carpet means to reprimand or punish someone for some action.  The original meaning probably arose from the fact that the boss of a company had the nicest office in the building, and to be on the carpet meant to be in the presence of the rich and powerful.

Example: During a high-tension presidential campaign, a candidate’s spokesperson must say the right words every day or else he or she may be called on the carpet by the candidate.

floor price/price floor

Being the opposite of a ceiling, the floor is the lowest part of a room.  Metaphorically, it can mean the lowest limit of a price or process.  It can used as floor price or price floor with the same meaning.

Example: Oil companies must adjust their profits if the floor price of gasoline drops more than they expect.



Everyone is familiar with using a broom to sweep a floor clean of dirt.  The action of sweeping is commonly used metaphorically to describe something that is done completely in one direction, as in a sports team winning all the games in a series called sweeping their opponent.  In politics, if a candidate gains the most votes in many areas, we might say that he or she has swept the areas.

Example: Republican candidates are popular in the American Midwest and in the South.  In fact, Republicans usually sweep many of the states in these areas.

sweeping bill/victory/changes

In another sense of sweep, one can use the term as an adjective to describe a complete action such as a sweeping victory, sweeping changes or a sweeping bill passed in Congress.

Example: The health care reform bill in 2010 did not bring sweeping changes but it did provide benefits for many Americans with limited health insurance.


Next time:  Whac-a-Mole!? Really?

Cabinets, Chairs and other Furniture Metaphors

As Barack Obama begins his second term, he is saying goodbye to many important cabinet members, especially Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Now he is in the process of hiring many new cabinet members. Did you ever wonder why we called these jobs cabinet positions? We are all familiar with the furniture commonly found in homes and offices.  Through human experience of using pieces of furniture we have developed many different types of metaphorical expressions.

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Hundreds of years ago, professors and important figures in the church such as bishops sat in tall, well-decorated chairs as they gave their lectures.  Through these experiences, the chair became the symbol for the authority of the person using the chair.  In modern times, one can be the chair of an academic department, a board of directors, an important committee, or many other groups.  A man may be called a chairman; a woman may be called a chairwoman.  One can also use chairperson or simply chair as a neutral term.  One can also use chair as a verb meaning to lead the group.

Example:  Some senators are chairs of important committees such as the Foreign Relations Committee or the Homeland Security Committee.

on the table, off the table
Tables are essential pieces of furniture in any business or government office.  Important meetings and negotiations are held sitting around a table.  To say a topic is on the table is to indicate that it is an important issue being discussed or bargained by the parties involved.  When something is removed from discussion, we say that it is off the table. 

Example:  When the U.S. Secretary of State discusses giving aid with leaders of developing countries, many issues are on the table including health, hunger, safety and economic development.


A cabinet is a very useful piece of furniture in a kitchen or office in which to hold important items such as dishes, books, or files.  In the American government, many important positions surrounding the president are metaphorically called cabinet positions.  These people collectively are sometimes simply referred to as the cabinet.

Example:  Abraham Lincoln selected politicians from many different political parties to be in his cabinet.


Shellac is a type of furniture varnish or protective coating.  It is famous for being long lasting because it is thick and requires many coats to apply it to the furniture.  Treating furniture in this way is called giving it a shellacking.  Metaphorically, to give a person a shellacking means that they are treated very roughly by someone else.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin was given a shellacking by many TV and radio commentators who thought she was not qualified to be vice-president.


A piece of furniture, light, plumbing device or electrical appliance that is permanently installed in a home or office is called a fixture.  Metaphorically a person, group, or topic regularly discussed in a certain context is also called a fixture.

Example:  When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2009, he became a fixture on the evening news for many years.


Next time:  The debt ceiling and other metaphors about houses.