Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Republican Autopsy: Metaphors of Death and Dying


blog - autopsy

Last week at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in Washington D.C., many of the top conservative politicians such as Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan discussed why the Republicans lost the 2012 election. They publicly referred to this event as an autopsy.  This was a startling use of a metaphorical expression given that an autopsy is only done when a person had died.  The implication is that the Republican Party was already dead.  Nonetheless, the conference allegedly generated new ideas for reviving the party in hopes of winning future congressional and presidential elections.

Here are a few more metaphorical expressions based on human experiences with death and dying.


When someone has a serious injury to his her arms or legs, the muscles will begin to lose their strength due to lack of use.  This process is called atrophying of the muscles.  More generally, the person’s body is sometimes thought to be wasting away before death. In politics, a process or program that is no longer successful may be described as beginning to atrophy.

Example:  Peace talks between warring nations may atrophy if the ambassadors or secretaries of state cannot make any progress.

last-gasp strategy

When a person is dying, he or she may gasp for breath.  The last breath one takes before dying is called a last gasp.  Metaphorically, when a process is not working, we may say that it needs a last-gasp strategy to come back to life.

Example:  A presidential candidate behind in the polls may have a last-gasp strategy of giving more speeches just before the election.


When someone dies, we may say that he or she has succumbed or been defeated by a serious illness or injury.  In politics, a candidate or politician who loses an election or loses a battle with other members of Congress may be described as succumbing to the problems.

Example: A good president will not succumb to the pressures of his or her adversaries in the government.  Instead he or she will follow a new path.


In an emergency room, a person with a serious injury or illness will be connected to a machine that monitors the heart function of the person.  If the heart is beating normally, the machine will beep at every heartbeat and draw a line up and down on the screen.  If the heart stops beating, the line will go flat.  This is referred to as flatlining, meaning the patient has died.  In common terms, a program or process that has ceased to function may be described as flatlining.

Example: In tough economic times, a governor may need to flatline the funding for some development projects.

blog - David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates
The Death of Socrates – Jacques-Louis David, 1787



The word fatal means causing death. For example, a fatal accident means the injuries incurred in an accident killed the person.  In common terms, any action that causes the death of a process may be called fatal as well.  A mistake in planning an important action may be referred to as a fatal error.

Example: An unpopular bill in Congress may be dealt a fatal blow if it is opposed by a majority of one political party.

Next time:  More on Metaphors of Illness

Beefing Up Security: Metaphors from Down on the Farm

A recent headline from the CNN online news website read: “U.S. to beef up missile defense against North Korea, Iran” (By Chris Lawrence, CNN,  Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed concerns over U.S. security after a series of alarming missile launches by the North Koreans and the increasing possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.  The metaphorical expression to beef up is derived from the word beef referring to the meat of a cow.  The word beef is also a slang term for strength or brawn, derived from the strength and size of a cow or bull. To beef up, therefore, literally means to increase the size or strength of an animal or person.  Metaphorically it refers to the increase in size or strength of any organization or process.

We have many metaphorical expressions derived from our experience with farm animals, some dating back hundreds of years.  Here are a few more choice examples.

Blog - beef



Cows are animals that can be easily grouped or herded into specific places.  People can be cowed if they do not stand up for what they believe in.

Example: President Obama does not seem to be cowed by the efforts of the powerful lobbyists to change policies to benefit their corporations.


A young cow that is found without a brand is said to be a maverick, named after a rancher named Maverick who often did not brand his cows.  In political terms, a maverick is someone who is very independent of political parties.

Example: John McCain is known as being a maverick for opposing policies of any party that he does not agree with.

bull, bull sessions, bully and the bully pulpit

A bull is a male cow.  The term bull or bully can have many meanings in politics.  Bulls can be very strong and aggressive.  Thus, to bully people means to act aggressively towards them and get them to do what the bully wants them to do.  The word bully is also an old expression meaning, “great! exciting!”  The phrase bully pulpit was first used to describe the speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, 1901-1909.  A pulpit is the place in a church where the priest or pastor gives his sermon to the congregation.  Politicians are sometimes described as having a bully pulpit when they tend to lecture and tell the Congress or the American people what to do.  Bull feces can be called bullshit, (a swear word in English), sometimes shortened to just bull.  This term in turn can be used to describe something that has no value, so to talk bull means to speak without telling the truth.  Conversations with lots of bull can be called bull sessions.

Example: The American people become frustrated if politicians only engage in bull sessions and do not get anything done.

Example: A good political leader does not bully his colleagues.  Rather, he needs to work with them cooperatively.

Example: A strong president trying to pass new laws must sometimes use the bully pulpit to get his ideas across.


Workers on a farm or ranch who catch and control the animals are said to wrangle with them.  In politics, arguments and fights between politicians are sometimes called wrangling as well.

Example: Most Americans get tired of politicians wrangling over policies instead of getting things done and helping the people.


Rancher must put a mark or brand on the skin of their cows so that they are not stolen by other ranchers.  This same word is used to indicate the names of companies or political policies.

Example: Some Democrats say Barack Obama has introduced a new brand of politics with his emphasis on helping the poor and middle class.


A rancher with hundreds of cows must mark each one to indicate the gender and age of each animal.  Usually a tag with this information is attached to the ear of each cow, thus called an earmark.  In political terms, an earmark is money secretly put in a bill by a member of Congress to pay for a project in his or her home district, without the rest of Congress knowing that it is part of the bill.

blog - earmark


Example: In 2005, Alaskan senator Ted Stevens famously tried to use an earmark to build a bridge costing $400  million that would be used by only 50 people.




A harness is a set of strong leather straps used by the rider or driver to control strong work animals such as horses or oxen.  In popular terms, people speak of being able to harness sources of energy such as the wind or solar power or even harness the will or energy of the American people.

Example: A good president can harness the energy of all the members of Congress to pass laws to help the American people.


A yoke is similar to a harness in that it is used to control strong animals although it is usually larger and made of wood.  In political terms, sometimes people without power are said to be under the yoke of a bad government or unfair policies.

Example: For hundreds of years, African-Americans suffered under the yoke of slavery.

blog - yoke

Next time:  A Republican Autopsy and other Medical Metaphors

The Big Tent and other Circus Metaphors

Last week I heard a journalist explain that the Republicans had a big tent problem.  Given that the party seems to be fractured into two divisions of traditional Republicans and more conservative Tea Party Republicans, there does not seem to a unified party.  And after their defeat in the 2012 presidential election, some pundits complained that the Republicans were not reaching the Latino or African-American voters.  Not being able to include all Americans in their policies amounts to having a big tent problem, as if a circus cannot include all of its acts under one tent.

blog - Circus Tent

Several aspects of our American political system are often compared to circus acts or performers.  We may hear of juggling, a dog and pony show or fire-breathing politicians. More commonly, many discussions of entitlement programs for the poor such as food stamps refer to the safety nets used by trapeze artists in a circus.

tent poles

Tents are held up by the poles at the corners or perhaps the center.  In metaphorical terms, the tent poles of a political party or organization are the principle ideas of that group.

Example: Small government and fiscal responsibility are two tent poles of conservative Republicans.


Juggling is the act of one person (sometimes two) throwing and catching many balls as they travel through the air.  One can also juggle many tasks or duties at one time if one is very busy.

Example: The U.S. president must be good at juggling many different executive responsibilities at one time.

blog - circus trapeze

fire breathing

In some circuses, a person holds a flaming torch and spits out a flammable material so that it burns very high and bright.  These performers are called fire breathers.  In politics, a person is very determined to get something done may also be called a fire-breathing politician.

Example: Some fire-breathing progressives want to take all the money from the defense budget and give it to education.

dog and pony show

Animals are often used in circus performances.  One of the most common routines is to have dogs and ponies do tricks for the audience.  This is called a dog and pony show.  In politics, a dog and pony show is any event that seems to be performed for the sake of fooling someone, not representing the real truth of how something works.

Example: When members of the U.S. Congress go overseas to visit other countries, they are often treated to a dog and pony show by local officials, boasting how good their countries are, when they may actually be very corrupt.

safety net

When circus performers do tricks high in the air, such as those done by trapeze artists, a large net is stretched below them to catch them in case they fall. This is called a safety net.  In political terms, a safety net is anything that helps people out of financial or legal dangers.

Example: The U.S. welfare system, in which the government provides money to low income families, is a safety net for people who lost their jobs and cannot pay their bills.


                  Someone at a circus or carnival who tries to sell things to people for high prices which may not be worth anything, is called a huckster.  In politics, a person who conducts illegal business activities may also be called a huckster.

Example: Some people say that the banking crisis of 2008 was caused by Wall Street hucksters who made too many bad investments and lost too much money.

Next time:  Beefing Up Security:  Metaphors from Down on the Farm

Drones and other Insect Metaphors

There has been a great deal of discussion in the media lately about the use of drones by the American government.  A drone is an unmanned aircraft that can be sent miles away to kill terrorists without risking the lives of American service personnel.  The word drone is borrowed from the name of a male bee that mates with the queen bee but has no other duties in the hive.  It is not uncommon for weapons such as drones or missiles to be named after birds or insects.  For example, we have the falcon, hawk or stinger surface to air missiles.   There was also a drone in the Vietnam War known as the firefly.  Clearly, the speed or flying capabilities of birds and insects are used metaphorically to name these weapons.

Here are a few more political metaphors derived from behavior of insects.

blog - bees-flowers-pollen_w725_h543


The word bug is another word for insect.  It has many meanings in English.  As a verb, it means to annoy people in the same way that an insect annoys someone at an outdoor gathering.  As a noun, it can refer to an electronic device used to record conversations without people knowing that they are being recorded.  It can also mean a great desire to do something as in someone having a travel bug and wanting to take a vacation.

Example:  Most Americans would say that it really bugs them when the Congress is gridlocked and nothing gets done.

Example:  President Richard Nixon had to resign from the presidency partially because of the bugs he put in the Watergate Hotel to record conversations of his Democratic opponents.

Example:  Some presidents have a travel bug and visit many foreign countries during their terms in office.


A gadfly is a type of fly that bites or annoys animals.  In common terms, a gadfly is a person who irritates or annoys other people with persistent questions or comments.

Example:  Television reporters can be gadflies for political candidates if they do not answer the reporters’ questions.

blog - Fly


Some insects, especially bees, wasps, and hornets, make a buzzing sound as they fly through the air.  Metaphorically, a topic of conversation that everyone is talking about is called the buzz.  We might also say that a group of people is abuzz with that topic.

Example:  When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2007, there was a great buzz in the media about who she was and how she could help him win the election.


The new words used in the buzz about exciting new items are sometimes called buzzwords.

Example:  Climate change and global warming have been buzzwords in discussions about the environment for more than a decade.


Some insects can inflict a very painful sting on a person who is unlucky enough to get them angry.  In metaphorical terms, any event or comment that hurts a person may also be described as a sting.  In police jargon, a plan to catch a criminal in the process of committing a crime is also called a sting operation.  In politics, the former metaphor is more common.

Example:  After the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama felt the sting of Republicans winning many House and Senate seats in Congress.

Next time:  The big tent and other circus metaphors.

Stories and Authors: Metaphors from Literature

President Obama ended his State of the Union Address a few weeks ago with a nice example of a series of metaphors from literature.

“… well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

blog - Old_book_bindings

We often speak of the events in a family, business or country as a story.  These stories have authors, plots, chapters, and narrators.

Here are a few more examples.

the story

A story is an account of important events.  A story can be fiction or nonfiction but is commonly used to describe a description of fictional events.  The word story can also be used in politics to describe what has happened in current events as if one is telling a story.

Example:  The story of the economic crisis of 2008 will be told for generations to come.


A plot is the main story in a piece of literature.  It can also mean a plan for doing something, usually something harmful, such as an assassination plot.  In politics, both meanings can be found to describe the events surrounding a politician.

Example:  During the 2010 midterm elections, some conservative groups accused President Obama of plotting to turn the United States into a socialist state.


A subplot is a smaller plot inside of the larger story in a piece of literature. In politics, a subplot is a smaller story inside of a bigger sequence of events.

Example:  Trying to find weapons of mass destruction was an important subplot of the first months of the War in Iraq.

story line

A story line (sometimes written as storyline or story-line) is the main plot of a piece of literature.  In common terms, a story line is one which describes what has been happening in the development of certain events.

Example:  The story line of the War in Iraq was a long and complicated one involving a dictator, weapons of mass destruction, and a lack of quality media coverage.


A narrative is the name of story as described by the author or narrator in a piece of literature.  In common terms, the term narrative is used similarly to a story of plot to describe what has happened to an individual or group.

Example:  The narrative of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency is a long story of growing up in poverty, getting scholarships to prestigious universities, and becoming the first African-American president of the United States.

new chapter

Books are normally organized into chapters.  The chapter one is just beginning to read may be called the new chapter.  In common terms, the next part of a life or group’s existence may be described as a new chapter.

Example:  When John McCain returned from Vietnam as a war hero in 1973 and then retired from the Navy in 1981, he began a new chapter in his life that led to a long career as a U.S. Senator.

last/final chapter

As with the metaphor of a new chapter, the final phase of a life may be called the last or final chapter.

Example:  The final chapter of combat operations in Iraq closed in 2010.

Next time:  Drones and other insect metaphors