Monthly Archives: April 2013

Do Metaphors Matter? Part 1 – Politicians

As part of my presentation at the ILA conference, I provided a short section on whether or not the way we use metaphors affects the American political process.  For this post, I would like to ask my readers a question:  Do you think politicians deliberately use metaphors to their political advantage?  Please read the excerpt from my paper below and let me know what you think.  You can add your views to the comment section.  Thanks!


As for the question of whether or not metaphor usage has an impact on the political process, logically, there are three possible effects – they may be harmful, beneficial or have no effect at all.  Strangely enough, I found evidence for all three positions in my research.

Based on the huge quantities of metaphors in current usage, I would argue that the vast majority of metaphors are politically neutral, i.e., most metaphors are part of every day language and are thus a normal way of talking about politics.  Moreover, Mio (1997) cites research that suggests most Americans are not that interested in national news and that metaphors are only successful when targeted at those who are politically sophisticated.  Luntz (2007, p. 198) documents how woefully ignorant American voters are about the issues and claims that Americans elect leaders based on personality rather than issues.

Some uses of metaphors may be seen as beneficial. Mio (1997, p. 118) again notes how metaphors are used in politics to make complex issues understandable, and are especially effective in difficult times when the public needs to believe that the government is taking care of national crises.  For example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal helped lift the country out of the Great Depression.

The use of metaphors for political gain is the third logical possibility.  From my data and research, it seems clear that, in some cases, politicians use metaphors to gain support for a particular policy or government action. In the 1990s, George Lakoff argued that the U.S. government used metaphorical language to justify our involvement in the Gulf War.  For example, in a fairy tale metaphor, there are clear victims, villains and heroes. The use of this metaphor allowed the government to describe the Gulf War as a means of rescuing the victim Kuwait from the evil villain Iraq.  Some years later, Lakoff explained the political power of framing arguments.  He argued that our so-called War on Terror can lead to the public acceptance of perpetual war.  One could argue that the constant use of these metaphors may have helped garner public and Congressional support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, Ringmar (2008, p. 57) writes that political metaphors are often “tools employed by elites to stifle critique and to keep people in their places.” Stenvoll (2008, p. 36) argues that metaphors are used to  “communicate, legitimate and/or mask political interests.”

In my own data, I also found examples of metaphors that seemed to be used for political purposes.  I found that metaphors of natural disasters are often used to describe problems of immigration.  We use phrases such as a wave of immigrants or a flood of immigration.   Such usage leads one to wonder if certain politicians use these metaphors to rally opposition against increasing civil rights for immigrants from other countries.

In speaking about the economy, I also found that we often use metaphors involving danger.  In one common conceptual metaphor, we consider the economy as a patient in a hospital with mental or physical illnesses.  We may speak of a jittery stock market, an economy in a panic, or one that needs a shot of adrenaline.  We may also say we have a crippled economy, an anemic recovery or an economy in need of a cure.

In another conceptual metaphor, we talk about the economy as an old building.  We may say that the housing market is shaky, the banking system crumbled, the economy collapsed or it needs to be shored up.  These metaphors may persuade some lawmakers or voters to vote on legislation that is a reaction to the exaggerated dangers of an economy in crisis.


References cited in this excerpt are available on my bibliography page in this blog. Please leave a comment to let me know what you think!

Next time:  Do Metaphors Matter? Part 2 – Immigrants

ILA Conference report

Hello!  Just a quick note to let you know that our trip to New York was a great success! The International Linguistics Association conference was smaller than I expected – about 100 attendees – but had linguistics professors from all over the world: Lithuania, Serbia, Austria, England, etc.  I was the only community college instructor.

The organizers and attendees were very nice and supportive of all the presenters.  It was held at Kingsborough Community College situated right on the ocean/Jamaica Bay in southeastern Brooklyn.  The college administrators were very supportive of the conference and provided a delicious lunch on Saturday prepared by their own culinary arts students.

Everyone seemed to like my presentation. They were impressed with my research, liked the way I categorized all the metaphors and were very supportive of me in trying to get the book published. I went beyond merely listing the categories of metaphors and talked about how important metaphors can be to the American political process.  The conference was very inspirational! It made me think of the importance of this kind of research for native speakers of English but also naturalized citizens still learning English who want to be more involved in local or national politics. I will add a new post soon about some of these issues.

As always, thanks for reading!

ILA Conference!

Hello!  Just a quick note to let everyone know that I will be taking a brief hiatus from the blog.  I am off to present the research from my book at the International Linguistics Association conference in New York this coming weekend.  I will be making a 20 minute presentation of my research on Saturday afternoon.  I will let everyone know how it goes.

Sorry I have not been posting too many blogs lately.  I have been busy getting my presentation ready for the conference.  I hope to have more time for blogging when I get back.

Thanks for reading!  — Andy

More on Metaphors of Illness

Illness and Disease

MAP - pills for anxiety?


In my last post, I discussed how the Republicans referred to the analysis of the loss of the 2012 presidential election as an autopsy.  It is quite common to discuss politics using metaphors of illness and disease.

the health of the state or economy

Although we think of our bodies as being healthy or not, we can also think of governments or economies as being in good or bad health as well.  Thus we may hear journalists talk about the health of the state or the health of the economy.

Example:  After the economic crisis of 2008, everyone wondered about the health of the national economy.


Similar to the idea of having a healthy or sound body, we may also speak of the soundness of a government, system, policy or plan.

Example:  Many years after beginning a war in Afghanistan, some Americans wondered about the soundness of the plan to win a war in an area that has been embroiled in battles for centuries.


A disease is a very serious illness that can debilitate or kill a person.  Metaphorically, any unusual behavior disliked by a certain political group may be labeled a disease as well.

Example:  Some conservatives complain that being liberal is a disease that should be wiped out.


An affliction is another name for an illness or disease.  Although a person may suffer from a real affliction such as chronic fatigue syndrome, one may also suffer from a metaphorical affliction such as a distrust of government or a concern for the poor as perceived by a particular social group.

Example:  Some liberals believe that conservatives suffer from the affliction of not trusting the government.

cripple the economy

When a person is seriously injured and can no longer walk or function normally, we may say that this person is crippled.  Metaphorically, the economy can also be considered as a body.  Thus, when the economy is in a depression or recession, we may say that it is crippled.

Example:  The bank failures in 1929 crippled the economy and led to the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

social contagion

Some diseases are spread through human contact through the air or by personal contact.  These illnesses are called contagious diseases. We may often speak metaphorically of social behaviors as being contagious diseases as well.  One such concept is that of a social contagion in which people copy each other’s attitudes or behaviors.

Example:  When it was discovered that Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya, a social contagion broke out among some conservative citizens who believed that Obama was not born in the United States and demanded to see his birth certificate.


When there is a contagious disease in a community, anyone can catch it through contact with other people.  We can also say that one can be infected or have an infection transmitted by someone else.  Metaphorically we can also say that someone is infected with an attitude or belief learned from other people.

Example:  When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many people became infected with enthusiasm for the new Democratic president.


When a contagious disease spreads to many people very quickly, we call this an outbreak.  In common terms, any behavior that spreads to a large group of people very quickly may also be called an outbreak.

Example:  After a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane, there is often an outbreak of looting as people take advantage of unguarded stores.

blog - virus



Another way of describing a disease that spreads to many people quickly is to say that has gone viral, based on the word virus which may cause the disease.  Metaphorically, social or political behaviors may also go viral if many people adopt these behaviors in a very short time.

Example:  In politics, a candidate hopes that a positive message or speech will go viral on the internet so millions of people can see it.

 Next time:  Rattling Sabers and Other Metaphors of War