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