Monthly Archives: May 2013

Grilling and other Cooking Metaphors

Congressional hearings have become very controversial and contentious.  President Obama’s nominees for cabinet positions must answer over 1000 questions by Republican lawmakers.  Governmental officials involved in scandals must answer hundreds of questions as well.   This practice of intense questioning is often referred to as grilling the officials.  This is a common metaphor based on our experiences with cooking food on a barbecue or hot grill.  Here is a little more information on grilling and other cooking metaphors.

blog - Grilled_steaks_turned_by_grill_tongs_in_Czech_Republic

grill someone

Meat can be cooked on a hot barbecue grill.  The grill must be very hot to cook the meat safely.  In metaphorical terms, to grill someone means to ask them very tough questions which make them uncomfortable as if they are on a hot grill.

Example: In every presidential debate, the moderator grills the candidates to find out their views on important issues.


When meat is cooked on hot grill, it makes a popping noise called sizzling.  In metaphorical terms, when something is exciting or eventful, we can also say that it sizzles.

Example: During the 2008 presidential election, the newspapers and television stations were sizzling with anticipation of having the first African-American being election president of the United States.


Small pieces of meat can be cooked on a barbecue grill by putting all the pieces on a long thin metal rod called a skewer.  The skewered meat can be cooked along with vegetables to make a wonderful meal.  In popular terms, a person can be skewered by someone or a group of people by very strong criticism.

Example: John McCain was skewered by some liberal critics for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate when she had very little international political experience.  Conservative critics, however, skewered Barack Obama for the same reason.

stir up, whip up

Some recipes require that one stir up or whip up a liquid batter before the food is cooked.  Metaphorically, to whip up something means to create something out of nothing or very little.  In politics there may be positive or negative meanings for either of these phrases.  In a positive sense, a candidate or politician may need to whip up a new policy or program to satisfy the public.  In a negative sense, an event or a person may stir up trouble, such as anti-American sentiments, or criticism against his or her opponent.

Example: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 whipped up fear and criticisms of people from the Middle East.


Some dishes require that one cooks the food on low heat for a long time.  This is called simmering.  In metaphorical terms, one can have a long-simmering problem meaning that the issue has been slowly getting worse for many months or years.

Example:  The wars between Israel and Palestine have been caused by long-simmering disputes over land.

boils down to

MAP - boil down

When one makes a soup from scratch, one may need to boil it so that it some of it evaporates and the soup can retain strong flavor from its meat and vegetables.  In this case, one case that the soup is boiled down to its basic ingredients.  In popular terms, we say that something complicated boils down to a few simple ideas.

Example: The differences between Democrats and Republicans often boil down to differences in the role of government in the lives of everyday people.


cook the books

In a business setting, the records for profits and losses are sometimes called the books. This idea is found in the terms bookkeeping.  However, if a company’s accountants are not honest about their financial records, we may say that they are cooking the books.

Example: Some critics of Barack Obama claimed that he was cooking the books with the good unemployment figures that came out just before the 2012 election.

recipe for a disaster

Many people follow recipes when cooking to make sure they have the correct quantities of each ingredient.  In popular terms, one might also have a recipe for a disaster, meaning a certain situation has all the characteristics necessary to cause something bad to happen.

Example: In 2003, some liberals complained that invading Iraq was a recipe for a disaster.  The long, bloody war that followed may have proved them right.

from scratch

If one makes a dinner or dessert without using a package or box from the store, we say that one is cooking from scratch, meaning starting from nothing.  In popular terms, to start something from scratch means that one is beginning a new project without using previous plans or successful projects.

Example: Politicians must sometimes start from scratch when developing economic plans for a fast-changing financial system.

Next time:  Leaks and other Metaphors of Liquids

Sailing Metaphors: In the Wake of the Benghazi Attack

As mentioned in my last post, there have been many Congressional hearings on the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi last September.  A common way of talking about the results of an event is to say in the wake of the incident.  This is one of those expressions that is so common most people would not even recognize it as a metaphor. Actually it is an expression from sailing as when a ship leaves a wake behind as it travels through the water.  Metaphorically, the result of an action is compared to the disturbance in the water behind a ship.  There are many metaphors based on our experiences with ships on sailing.  I mentioned a few of these in my analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union Address.  Here is some more information on in the wake of  and a few additional examples of metaphors based specifically on our experience with ships traveling through deep water.

Official Release by Commander Mark McDonald, Director, Combined Information Bureau, JTF 536.

in the wake of

A large ship pushes the water out of the way in the front and leaves a V-shaped wave in the back.  This unique wave is called the wake of the boat.  In a common metaphor, the result of any process or event may be called the wake.

Example: In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government vastly increased national defense systems and created the Homeland Security Office.


There are also metaphors in English related to our experiences of ships traveling through deep water.  One measure of water depth is called a fathom, a depth of about six feet.  Originally, this term referred to how far a person could stretch one’s arms.  Later, the term was applied to a similar measurement underwater.  Metaphorically, our experience of water depth helps us describe the depth of knowledge of a subject, or how well we understand a concept.  We even say that we cannot fathom something if we do not understand it.  In a common adjective, we also say that something that is incredibly complex is unfathomable.

Example: The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York led to unfathomable destruction when the Twin Towers both collapsed.

run deep

A large heavy ship will sit deep into the water because of its own weight.  In these cases, we may say that the ship runs deep.  The same phrase can be used to describe a submarine that travels deep under the water.  Metaphorically, the phrase to run deep indicates that an attitude or belief is strongly held by a group of people.

Example: Distrust of government runs deep among many Libertarians who argue for a smaller role of government in personal affairs.

a deeper problem

In some cases, we may speak of issues or problems that are easily understood or explained.  In other more complex cases, we may refer to the situation as having deeper problems.

Example: The economic crisis of 2008 revealed deeper problems of banking practices and regulations.

float a plan/proposal/budget, etc.

Obviously ships must be able to float on top of the water in order to move through it efficiently.  Very light objects can float in the air. In an unusual metaphor, if we suggest an idea to a group of people, we may call this floating a plan or proposal as if the idea is not attached to anything solid beneath it.

Example: A U.S. president may float a new tax plan, but it could be rejected by Congress.

Next time:  Grilling and other Cooking Metaphors


In the Crosshairs – Hunting Metaphors

On September 11, 2012, the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked by unknown terrorists.  Tragically, four Americans, including the U.S.  Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.  Congress has been investigating these attacks for many months. During the recent Congressional hearings on the attacks, some news reports have said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the crosshairs, meaning she was the subject of the investigations as to why the embassy was not properly protected.  Although most of us would not give a second thought to hearing someone being in the crosshairs, it is a rather disturbing metaphor.   The phrase is derived from the practice of a hunter seeing his animal target in a scope before shooting it.  The practice is also used by soldiers shooting people as well, an even more disturbing metaphorical use.  Hunting, however, is a tradition of killing animals for food going back millions of years, so it is not surprising that we have metaphors based on its techniques.  Here are more details on the crosshairs phrase and a few more political metaphors based on our long experience with crosshairs

in the crosshairs

Some hunters use a scope, a type of telescope attached to a rifle, to shoot an animal accurately at great distances.  Scopes usually have two lines, one vertical and one horizontal, which cross in the center of the lens to provide an accurate view of the target.  These lines are commonly called crosshairs.  In common terms, having someone in the crosshairs means that the person is being attacked by someone else through verbal or political methods.

Example: After the economic collapse in 2008, many Wall Street investment firms were in the crosshairs of people who believed these firms were partially to blame for the recession.

hunting for votes

The sport of hunting involves two steps: one is looking thoroughly for an animal in a wilderness area; the second step is killing that animal.  The sense of thoroughly looking for something is present in the metaphor of candidates hunting for votes prior to an election.

Example: In the final days before a presidential election, candidates will travel far and wide hunting for more votes from undecided voters.

hunt down

The process of looking for an animal and eventually killing it is sometimes called hunting down an animal.   In a literal sense, we may say that the U.S. government is always hunting down terrorists.  In a metaphorical sense, we can say we are hunting down anything that is difficult to find.

Example:  Some critics of loose immigration policies believe the government should hunt down and deport all the illegal aliens in the United States.

Cave painting of a woolly rhinoceros - Chauvet Cave, France, 30,000 BC
Cave painting of a woolly rhinoceros – Chauvet Cave, France, 30,000 BC


In the process of searching for an animal, some hunters look for the footprints or tracks of the animal as it travels throughout the area.  This is called tracking the animal.  In common terms, any abstract information can be tracked.

Example: Conservatives usually track the amount of money spent on social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

on track/back on track

If a hunter is able to follow an animal’s tracks for a considerable distance, we say that he is on the track of the animal.  In common terms, any effort that is consistent and productive to reach a certain goal may be described as being on track.  If a hunter loses the tracks for a short while and then finds them again, or if a person is not productive and then is able to focus on the project again, we may say that the person is back on track.

Example: In a bad economy, unemployed people may feel that their lives are on hold. When they get a new job after being unemployed for many years, they are back on track to having a productive life.

Deer tracks in snow
Deer tracks in snow

wrong track

If a hunter accidentally follows the tracks of a different animal than the one he or she is hunting, we may say that he or she is on the wrong track.  Metaphorically, if a person is following a course of action that is not appropriate for achieving the desired goal, we may say that he or she is also on the wrong track.

Example:  During a presidential election, a common polling question is asking if the country is on the wrong track because of the policies of the current administration.


A snipe is a type of bird that lives in wet, marshy areas.  It is difficult for a hunter to shoot. The hunter must hide and shoot from a secluded location.  The term sniping developed out of this hunting practice.  In common terms, sniping refers to the practice of criticizing people or groups from a distance.

Example: Many Americans dislike the sniping that goes on in presidential campaigns when the candidates create many attack ads against each other.


Originally a potshot meant a hunter’s attempt to kill an animal for food, or to put food into a pot for dinner. Later it came to mean any shot that was wild and uncontrolled.  Metaphorically, a potshot is a wild, sometimes unwarranted criticism towards a person or group.

Example: During intense political campaigns, some candidates take potshots at their opponents to gain political favor from the voting public.


Next time:  Sailing Metaphors:  In the Wake of the Benghazi Attack

Redline, Backfire and Breakdown

The word redline is a metaphor with two different origins.  In some cases, a person can be redlined, meaning to be denied what is deserved or eliminated from consideration for an opportunity.  In the military during World War II, soldiers guilty of some crime would be denied their pay.  Their names would be crossed out with a red pencil which would indicate their loss of pay.  In the 1970s, some prospective homeowners would be denied a home loan because they lived in areas of certain ethnicities marked in red lines on a map.  They were also described as being redlined.

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The recent conflict in Syria has led to the usage of the word redline with a different origin.  President Obama and others have said that the use of biological weapons has crossed the redline, meaning the line that causes the United States to consider military action against the Syrian government if it can be proved that they indeed used those weapons.  This use of the metaphor redline in this case is based on the use of a red area on a gauge on water boilers or engines that would indicate when the machine had reached its maximum pressure or power.   The needle passing the red line informs the operator that the machine must be shut down at that point to avoid destroying it.

We have many metaphors based on the running of machines.  Here are a few based solely on our experience with machines having problems or breaking down.

fits and starts

One such expression is fits and starts used to describe when a machine starts running but then stops suddenly and then starts again suddenly.  In common terms, something that runs with fits and starts does not run smoothly and has many setbacks to progress.

Example:  Although Barack Obama’s health care reform bill had many fits and starts, it was finally passed in late 2010.

stalled attempt

Another indicator of a machine not working well is when it loses power or suddenly stalls.  Metaphorically, something that does not work at first may be described as a stalled attempt to accomplish the task.

Example: There have been many stalled attempts at peace talks between Israel and Palestine for the past several decades.


Friction is the physical force that results when two surfaces rub against each other and prevents smooth motion.  Most machines must be lubricated with oil or water to prevent them from overheating due to the friction.  In common terms, friction can indicate problems or arguments between people in a large group.

Example: Large political parties strive to have consistent policies and programs in every state to reduce the friction between members of their own parties.


A backlash occurs in a machine when the gears or mechanism stop working suddenly and force the machine backwards in its motion.  Metaphorically, a backlash occurs when one event causes a sudden negative reaction towards the creators of the first event.

Example: The growth of the fiscally conservative Tea Party in 2009 was caused in part by a backlash to Barack Obama’s large spending stimulus packages for Wall Street banks and large auto makers,


A backfire is caused when an engine does not function properly and the gas/fuel mixture explodes before the correct time.  This causes a loud explosion and a burst of fire or smoke from the exhaust system moving backwards from the engine to the rear of the vehicle.  In common terms, when an attempt to complete a task not only does not succeed but has a negative effect on the people involved, this is called backfiring.Backfire

Example: Some presidential candidates are very aggressive and use harsh language against their opponents to gain favor with voters.  However, this strategy will often backfire if the voters think the candidate is being too critical and they may vote for the other candidate instead.

seize up

When an engine does not have enough lubrication for its pistons and gears, it may stop working or seize up due to the friction between the parts.  Processes in economics and politics may also seize up if they suddenly stop functioning properly.

Example: Some economists say that the economy may seize up if people and companies stop the flow of credit in the United States.


When a machine completely stops working, we may say that it has had a breakdown.  Metaphorically, any process that stops functioning completely may also be described as a breakdown.  In a related sense, a broken engine must be taken apart to see what is wrong.  This is also called breaking down the engine into its parts.

Example: One reason for the tremendous violence in Iraq during the war there was the complete breakdown of local security forces.

Example: After a presidential election, TV news commentators will provide a breakdown on how the winner was elected in every state in the nation.

in need of repair

When a machine is beginning to show signs of breaking down, we may say that it needs to be fixed or in need of repair.  Any policy or program in politics that is not be working properly may be described as being in need of repair.

Example: Most Americans do not seem to like the tax system; they feel that is in definite need of repair to make it more fair to the middle class.

major overhaul

When a machine or an engine is very old and completely broken down, it may need to be thoroughly cleaned and repaired.  This process is called a major overhaul.  In common terms, and program or process that is completely broken down may be in need of a major overhaul.

Example: Some fiscal conservatives would like to see a major overhaul of the so-called entitlement programs such as Medicare and social security to save government money and reduce the deficit.

Next time:  In the Crosshairs – Hunting Metaphors


Rattling Sabers and other Metaphors of Swords, Knives and Spears

A few weeks ago, North Korean president Kim Jong-un was described as rattling sabers as he was threatening to attack South Korea.  More recently, the phrase has come up again as some conservatives in the U.S. Congress are calling for military action in Syria.   Pundits are also talking about putting boots on the ground, a topic covered in an earlier post.

blog - saber 2


The metaphor of rattling sabers is an interesting one.  A saber is a type of sword with a rounded blade.  To rattle a saber metaphorically means to prepare for war, as if one is drawing out one’s sword for a fight.  Technically the metaphor of saber rattling is a type of synecdoche, i.e., when the part represents the whole, since the saber represents the fighting.

Here are some additional metaphors based on the use of spears and knives.

tip of the spear

A spear is one of the most basic weapons.  The tip of the spear is the most sharp and dangerous part.  Metaphorically the tip of the spear is the first part of a military invasion or a new process.

Example: Writing new tax laws is the easy part.  The tip of the spear is getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on the bill in Congress.


The tip of a spear may also be called the spearhead.  Metaphorically, someone who takes the first actions in a new process may be said to be spearheading the project.

Example: Barack Obama hired David Axelrod to spearhead his campaign for the 2008 election.


A lance is a type of lightweight spear.  In the middle ages, a knight who could be hired to fight in different battles was referred to as a free lance.  Later the term came to mean anyone who did work for hire.

Example: During an election, many freelance journalists try to get the top story on the candidates.

knife-wielding journalist

A knife is a dangerous weapon that can be used in fights.  An attacker who carries a knife may be called a knife-wielding attacker.  Metaphorically, a journalist who makes strong criticisms against a person or group may be called a knife-wielding journalist.

Example: Sarah Palin considered running for president in 2012 but changed her mind after a series of articles against her by knife-wielding journalists.

blog - Bowie_Knife_by_Tim_Lively_2

take a stab

When a knife is used to break the flesh in a person, this is called a stabbing.  This action requires a quick forward movement of the knife to be successful.  This action is also called taking a stab at someone but it is not always successful if the stabber does not reach far enough to injure the person.  In common terms, a person trying something new when he or she is not sure if they will be successful may also be called taking a stab at something.

Example: Some people are persuaded to run for office even if they are not sure if they can win.  They may consider taking a stab at becoming elected for an important office.


To stab someone in the back is called a backstabbing.  However, metaphorically, someone can also stab a person in the back if he or she is revengeful and unfair in a verbal criticism.

Example: When some Democrats in Congress did not vote for President Obama’s bills, some people wondered why they were backstabbing him like that.


Brandish is an old word meaning to bring out one’s sword with a flourish as if ready for a fight.  In modern terms, one can brandish documents or signs that indicate one is about to start an argument.

Example: During the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, protestors brandished homemade signs complaining about the richest 1% of the country controlling the other 99%.

Next time:  The Red Line and other Machine Metaphors

Do Metaphors Matter? Part 2 – Immigrants

For the second part of my investigation into the importance of metaphors, I did some research on whether or not immigrants or naturalized citizens understand metaphors.  If not, I then wondered if this lack of English proficiency would prevent them from participating in American politics.  Please let me know what you think!  Do you know any immigrants who like to read or watch TV about politics but do not understand the conversation because of the metaphors?


As for my second question, I wondered if non-native speakers of English can understand these metaphors. A considerable amount of research has shown that native speakers can understand metaphors as quickly and easily as literal statements (Gibbs, 1993; Gibbs, 1994; Glucksberg and Keysar, 1993; and Ortony, 1993b).  However, in my own experience teaching ESL for almost 30 years, idioms and metaphors are the most difficult English expressions for ESL students to learn.  Even immigrants who have lived in the United States for years have trouble understanding figurative language in everyday English.

For the final question, we consider how immigrants or naturalized citizens participate in the American political process.  According to the 2010 census 12.8% of the U.S. population is foreign-born ( qfd/states/00000.html) amounting to approximately 40 million people.  Moreover, 20.3% of the population has a language other than English spoken at home.  These statistics beg the question if these immigrants are registered voters, if they vote, or even if they watch television news broadcasts about local or national elections in English or their native languages.

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan completed a thorough study of these issues in his book, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (2005).  He found that immigrants who became naturalized citizens had higher levels of participation in politics because of their commitment to living in the United States and the education needed to pass the citizenship exam (p. 78). He found that the strongest predictors of participation are age, education, marital status, residential stability and English proficiency (p. 81).

Ramakrishnan found that language barriers prevented access to the political process in many different ways.  For example, only those with English proficiency would participate in “writing to elected officials, signing ballot petitions and contributing money to political causes” (p. 159).  Ramakrishnan (p. 8) concluded that political participation was “integral to the mission of securing an economic foothold in the United States” and “to secure a better life…for themselves and their children.”


Do you agree that the lack of understanding of metaphors can hinder immigrants from participating in politics in their local communities or at the national level?

Next time:  Back on track with metaphor analyses.