Monthly Archives: November 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for travel in the United States.  Millions of Americans are traveling to visit families and friends for the Thanksgiving holidays.  With a nod to John Hughes’ wonderful 1987 movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I would like to share some metaphors derived from our experiences with vehicles.


blog - vehicles - plane

flying solo

When a pilot is learning to fly, one of the first major steps is to fly without a trainer.  This is known as flying solo.  In politics, when a candidate or veteran lawmaker does not agree with the general policies of his or her party, we may say that the person is flying solo.

Example: In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney proved to be more moderate than the Republican Party platform, so he had to fly solo on several issues such as abortion and healthcare.


In the early 1800s, theatrical troupes put on plays in barns for local communities.  This was known as barnstorming.  The term took on a new meaning in the early 1900s when pilots with newly invented airplanes crisscrossed the country putting on air shows for small communities. In politics, candidates who visit all parts of the country giving campaign speeches may also be described as barnstorming.

Example: Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama barnstormed the country in the summer of 2012 trying to win votes for the November election.


blog - vehicles - train

pick up steam

Early trains were powered by steam created in huge boilers in the locomotive.  When a train moved forward and starting moving faster, this was sometimes called picking up steam.  Metaphorically, any activity that increases in intensity or popularity may be described as picking up steam.

Example: Beginning in Tunisia in 2010, public protests against their governments picked up steam and led to a wide series of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East now known as the Arab Spring.

freight train

A freight train is a long series of train cars carrying heavy cargo.  A freight train can be more than a mile long and weigh several thousand tons.  It is almost impossible to stop quickly.  Figuratively, a freight train is any effort, process or project that is so successful it is difficult to stop.

Example: Although John McCain and Sarah Palin had millions of supporters in the 2008 election, no one could stop the Obama-Biden freight train because of the frustration with the previous Bush administration and the popularity of Barack Obama.


Trains can only travel on a long series of metal tracks or rails around the world.  When a train has an accident and leaves the tracks, this is known as a derailment.  Metaphorically, any process that takes a new direction or fails in some manner may be described as being derailed.

Example: Although Bill Clinton’s efforts at reforming the national health care system were derailed in 1993, Barack Obama managed to pass new laws forming the Affordable Care Act in 2011.

runaway train

In rare cases, a train will not be able to stop and continues at high speed by itself down the tracks.  This is known as a runaway train.  In figurative terms, a runaway train is any process that has great momentum and cannot be stopped easily.

Example: Critics of Barack Obama claimed that his bailouts and stimulus money distributed in the first years of his presidency amounted to a runaway train towards the bankruptcy of the United States.

Cars, Trucks and Buses

blog - vehicles - car

fire up

Large vehicles require large engines.  Internal combustion engines require spark plugs to ignite the gasoline in the cylinders to start them.  This process is sometimes called firing up the engine.  Metaphorically, to get a group of people excited about something may also be referred to as firing them up.

Example: Presidential candidates must fire up voters of all ages and ethnic groups in order to win the election.

jump start

Internal combustion engines also require strong batteries to initially get the vehicle started.  When a battery is dead, people may need to borrow the battery power from another vehicle using strong wires called jumper cables.  This process is known as jump starting the vehicle.  In figurative terms, any process that begins with a lot of energy may be described as being jump started.

Example: In 2009, President Obama argued that the federal government needed to distribute billions of dollars in stimulus money to jump start the failing economy.

road test

When car manufacturers design and build a new car, they must take it on the road to see if it drives correctly.  This is known as the road test.  Figuratively, any trial period for a new process may be called a road test.

Example: Critics of Ronald Reagan claim that the supply-side economic policies he supported failed the road test since middle and lower class incomes did improve that much during the 1980s.

green light

Every country has some sort of traffic light system for controlling the flow of traffic.  In many countries a green traffic light hanging over the road indicates that it is safe for the drivers to continue.  Metaphorically, having a green light means that a project or process is allowed to continue because adequate funding or permission has been obtained.

Example: Much to the dismay of environmental activists, oil and gas companies are often given the green light by the federal government to drill in federal parks and nature preserves.


The word drive has many meanings.  We have already discussed this term in the chapter on Animals as in a cattle drive.  In the context of vehicles, to drive means to operate a vehicle.  Figuratively, any action to move a process forward may also be known as driving.

Example: The actions of the Tea Party after the 2010 elections seemed to drive the Republican Party towards right wing politics.

drive home

To drive home means to use a vehicle to return to one’s residence.  In a figurative phrase, to drive home something means to intensely focus on a particular message or point in a conversation or public forum.

Example: Conservatives often drive home the importance of not raising taxes since they believe this action will hurt the growth of small businesses.


When an engine in a vehicle stops working suddenly, we may say that is has stalled.  The vehicle can no longer move forward in that condition.  Metaphorically, any action that is not moving forward towards its goal may said to be stalled.

Example: Peace talks between Israel and Palestine often get stalled over the rights of the people in the Gaza Strip.

gain traction, lose traction

The ability for a vehicle’s tired to grip the road surface is called traction.  In rainy, snowy, or muddy conditions, a vehicle may not have enough traction to move forward.  In several figurative phrases, gaining traction means having the support of people to achieve a goal or complete a project.  We may also say that a person loses traction if the project is not successful.

Example: In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney continued to gain traction with older voters as the election neared in November.

wheels came off the bus

A vehicle cannot operate with tires or wheels.  If a wheel comes off during travel, a vehicle must stop to repair it.  In a strange metaphorical expression in politics, when a campaign or political movement fails, we may say that the wheels have come off the bus.

Example: When Barack Obama seemed to be losing support of younger voters in the 2012 election, some supporters feared that the wheels were coming off the Obama-Biden bus.

Next time:  Cold Weather Metaphors

Metaphors for the Birds?

I was raking leaves in my yard last weekend and a flock of Canadian geese flew over my head.  It was a perfect autumn moment with crisp temperatures, blue skies, golden leaves on the ground and the geese flying overhead in a V formation.  However, the V looked more like the Verizon logo since there were five geese on one side of the V and about 20 on the other side.  Come to think of it, they weren’t even flying south.  It was more like north by northwest.  Hmmm.  I wonder if they had to go back to Canada to say their goodbyes?  Did Bob forget his wallet?  Did Sally leave the iron on?  Was there a goose convention in Seattle?

Anyway, those wonderful geese reminded me of the many colorful metaphors we have from collective experiences with our feathered friends.  Not only are they a common part of everyday experience, they also possess many qualities of strength and speed that we admire.  Saying something is “for the birds” means that it has little value or importance.  Even though many metaphors are derived from the qualities of birds, metaphors are definitely not “for the birds!”

blog - birds - eagle


The wings of birds are used to describe the two extremes of political views in the United States.  The left wing is more liberal; the right wing is more conservative.  Wings can also describe sections of other political or social groups.  They can also be used to describe non-central parts of buildings; thus they may indicate a position of someone who does not yet hold an office.

Example: In 2012, Barack Obama was considered a left wing presidential candidate; Mitt Romney was the right wing candidate.

Example: The conservative wing of the church is searching for its own presidential candidate.

Example: A young candidate is waiting in the wings for his chance to run for office.

ruffle feathers

Birds must keep their feathers in neat order so they can fly well; if their feathers are ruffled or in disorder, they won’t be able to fly.  To ruffle someone’s feathers is to cause them to become upset about something.

Example: The candidates must be careful not to ruffle the feathers of the voters.


The flying ability of birds is used to describe high prices or increased activity.

Example: Consumers are worried about soaring prices for food and gasoline.


A baby bird is called a fledging.  In politics, a new project or government is also referred to as a fledgling.

Example: Pakistan is considered to have a fledgling democracy.

blog - birds - hawkblog - birds - dovehawks and doves

Hawks are fast flying predatory birds that kill small animals for food; doves are quiet, peaceful birds with white feathers.  Politicians are called hawks if they support policies leading to war, doves if they support peace.

Example: The war hawks in Congress are trying to pass bills to increase spending on military weapons.

Example: The doves in Congress are working to promote diplomacy and world peace.




blog - birds - duck divingduck

A duck is a bird that lives in the water and submerges or ducks its head under water to catch fish.  If a politician ducks an issue, this means he or she is not dealing directly with the problem.

Example: When the senator answered, “No comment,” the reporters were frustrated that he ducked the question.


lame duck

When is duck is injured, or lame, the bird can no longer fly.  A so-called lame-duck president is one who is no longer doing his duties as a president.

Example: George W. Bush was considered a lame-duck president towards the end of his second term in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected.

flock, covey, and gaggle

Groups of birds can be called flocks.  A group of geese is called a gaggle.  A small group of birds can be called a covey.  These words can also be used to describe groups of politicians.  The word flock is also used a verb to describe large groups of people doing something together.

Example: There was a gaggle of young Democrats at the latest party fundraiser.

Example: The voters flocked to the candidates’ public appearances prior to the election.

Example: The president is surrounded by a covey of close advisors.

blog - birds - flock of starlings

Next time: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Obamacare Part 3: “Rollout,” “Bugs” and other Metaphors in the Media

Hello again!  In the last of my three-part series on the language of Obamacare, I will analyze several metaphors used by the national media to describe the Affordable Care Act.


A rollout is a term used to describe the process of bringing an aircraft out of a hanger for a flight or launch.   Metaphorically, the delivery of a new product or government program may also be called a rollout.

Example:  Many Americans were frustrated that the rollout of Obamacare was filled with glitches.


When a rocket takes off towards space, this is known as a launch.  Metaphorically, starting a new program may also be called a launch.

Example:  Critics of Obamacare claim that the website should not have been launched before all the software problems were resolved.

blog - ACA - rocket


Rockets shoot towards space at incredible speeds.  In a compound word metaphor, to say that something skyrockets indicates that it is increasing at a great rate of speed.  In politics and economics, skyrocketing usually refers to quickly increasing prices of some commodity.

Example:  Some experts believe that Obamacare will result in skyrocketing prices for insurance policies.


Prices of items in a store are often indicated on a sticker attached to the item.  More expensive items such as cars and trucks also have stickers on the windows of the vehicles indicating the prices.  When one is surprised at a high price of an item, we may say that the person is suffering from sticker shock, such as when gas prices go up at your local gas station.  In politics, government programs with unexpectedly high costs may be described as causing sticker shock among politicians or consumers.

Example:  Although many critics of Obamacare claim that consumers will have sticker shock when they see the prices of their new policies, other experts maintain that the cost of policies will actually go down.

cap costs

The word cap has its origins in the same word as cape, meaning a covering, especially for the head.  Later the term was used to indicate any item that is used to cover the top of something.  Thus we have caps for pens, or caps for oil wells.  Metaphorically we can also have salary caps for professional sports teams or efforts to cap rising costs of some government program.

Example:  Supporters of Obamacare contend that it will work to cap out-of-pocket health care costs.


Government programs are often compared to machines.  When they work well, no one complains; however, when something goes wrong, we may say that the program is broken.

Example:  President Obama maintains that he created the Affordable Care Act because the previous health care system with millions of uninsured Americans was completely broken.


In keeping with the idea of a program as a machine, we may also that the system needs to be fixed or repaired.

Example: It was clear from the early days of Obamacare that the website needed to be fixed although the necessary repairs would take several weeks.

blog - ACA - bugsbugs

            The word bug is another word for insect. 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 mean problems in a system that are also very annoying or difficult to fix.

Example:  When the Obamacare website did not work very well, software experts scrambled to fix all of the bugs as soon as possible.

shut down the website

When a machine is working properly, mechanics may need to turn it off or shut it down to make the necessary repairs.  Metaphorically, we may also say we need to shut down a government program.

Example:  When the Affordable Care Act website was first launched with many bugs, the government decided to shut it down every night to make the necessary repairs.  Hopefully, it will be running smoothly soon.

Next time: Metaphors are for the Birds!

Obamacare Part 2: “Donut Holes” and “Navigators”

In my last post, I explained several of the most confusing literal terms and phrases in the health care debate.  In today’s post, I will describe some of the common metaphors used in the policy descriptions of the Affordable Care Act.

blog - ACA - spider webwebsite

I am sure no one considers the word website to be a metaphor, but it is actually a metaphor from the world of insects.  When the Internet was first invented, it was called the World Wide Web, comparing the computer connections around the world to the many strands of a spider’s web.  Now we don’t even talk about a “place” on the World Wide Web as anything other than a website.

Example:  Critics of Obamacare complained that the website was not working properly when they started the enrollment procedures on November 1, 2013.


Another word we probably don’t think of as a metaphor is coverage.  We can physically cover one object with another, such as covering a person with a blanket or covering a pot with its lid.  Metaphorically, we talk about geographic areas being covered by cellphone service, a debt being covered by a payment, or illnesses being covered by an insurance policy.

Example:  Some people with Medicare will have expanded health care coverage under Obamacare.

blog - ACA - sextantnavigator

A person on a ship or aircraft who controls its direction is known as a navigator.  Metaphorically, in the new Obamacare program, the people who help the public choose and enroll in a new health care plan are also called navigators.

Example:  At the website, a navigator is defined as a “An individual or organization that’s trained and able to help consumers, small businesses, and their employees as they look for health coverage options through the Marketplace, including completing eligibility and enrollment forms.”


blog - ACA - riderrider

            A person who controls a horse or who operates a motorcycle or bicycle is called a rider.  In the world of insurance, a rider is a clause added to a current policy to provide additional coverage for a specific set of circumstances.  So-called exclusionary riders can be written to exclude people from having health care because of previous health problems.

Example: One of the main benefits of Obamacare is that insurance companies can no longer write exclusionary riders to policies denying people health care because of preexisting conditions.


Metaphors based on family members are common in politics and history, such as George Washington being referred to as the father of our country, or the sisterhood of female Senators in Congress.  The concept of grandfathering is common in many company and government policies.  It dates back more than 100 years to the time when black voters were exempt from voting restrictions (later ruled unconstitutional) if their ancestors had voted before the civil war.  In modern times, a grandfather clause exempts employees or other persons from being subject to new rules that are taking place.

Example:  According to the glossary of, grandfathered is defined as follows:  “As used in connection with the Affordable Care Act: Exempt from certain provisions of this law.”

blog - ACA - poolpool

A pool is a small body of water.  Originally it referred to small, enclosed inlets or bays near a larger body of water.  More commonly today we think of the term referring to a swimming pool in a backyard or community center.  Metaphorically, the term pool refers to a collection of money in a betting game or poker match.  It can also refer to the amount of genetic material available in a certain population, a phenomenon known as a gene pool.  In insurance, a pool is a group of people who share the same health care policies.  Consumers can save money by belonging to a large pool of people whose premiums keep the costs low for everyone who has the same policy.

Example:  The Affordable Care Act provides an opportunity for people to purchase a high-risk pool plan if they have preexisting conditions and require more health care than the average person.

donut hole

Donuts are a very popular breakfast item all over the world. Some donuts are solid while others are made with a hole in the middle.  The idea of a donut hole is used metaphorically in some cases to indicate a gap in insurance coverage. SONY DSC

Example:  According to the website, “Most plans with Medicare prescription drug coverage (Part D) have a coverage gap (called a “donut hole”). This means that after you and your drug plan have spent a certain amount of money for covered drugs, you have to pay all costs out-of-pocket for your prescriptions up to a yearly limit. Once you have spent up to the yearly limit, your coverage gap ends and your drug plan helps pay for covered drugs again.”

Next time:  Obamacare, Part 3:  “Rollouts,” “Fixes” and other Media Metaphors

Obamacare Part 1: “Single-Payer,” “Exchanges” and Other Literal Glitches

For the past several weeks, I have been researching the metaphors used in the discussions of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.  There are many different types of metaphors being used as well as many confusing literal names and phrases, so I have decided to break the analysis up into three separate sections. Today I would like to explain some of the names and literal phrases.  Perhaps some readers will benefit from a clearer explanation of some of these important terms.  In the next two posts I will analyze metaphors in policy descriptions and then in media discussions.  I will add the links to the government websites if the reader would like more information on these important terms and policies.

The critics of Obamacare have been complaining that the website and enrollment procedures are filled with glitches.  After analyzing these literal terms, it seems that even the ways that terms are explained by government officials are also filled with glitches.

single payer

Conservative critics of Obamacare complain that it is too much like socialized medicine.  Liberal critics complain that it is not enough like the socialized medicine of other industrialized countries.  These other plans are sometimes called “single payer” health care systems.  However, many people, including myself have been confused as the meaning of this phrase.  Some politicians like to compare government programs and budget analyses to personal experiences and family budgets.  However, in some cases, there are no real world experiences that seem to match the processes the government terminology is trying to explain.  For example, if some friends go out to eat, and big spender Jim picks up the tab, Jim would be a single-payer.  And yet, here is the definition of “single payer” according to the PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Program): “Single-payer is a term used to describe a type of financing system. It refers to one entity acting as administrator, or ‘payer.’ In the case of health care, a single-payer system would be setup such that one entity—a government run organization—would collect all health care fees, and pay out all health care costs.”

blog - ACA - bill payer

Well, I guess that makes sense, but a government agency acting as the “payer” strikes me as being strange.  For health care, people normally either pay a medical clinic or hospital directly or they pay their insurance premiums and then the insurance company pays the clinic.  Having the government pay your medical bills is a new concept to most people.  Moreover, calling a government a single payer probably confuses more people than it helps.  Nonetheless, PNHP adds, “In a single-payer system, all hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers would bill one entity for their services. This alone reduces administrative waste greatly, and saves money, which can be used to provide care and insurance to those who currently don’t have it.”  Perhaps proponents of the single-payer system can come up with a better name for the program the next time it comes up for a vote in Congress.


Another confusing term is the “exchange” where people are allowed to sign up for their new health care policy.  Once again, the meaning in government policy does not seem to match the meaning in everyday life.  For example, if our friend Jim buys a shirt at a department store, and discovers when he tries it on at home that it is the wrong size, he may return to the store to exchange it for the correct size.  In this case, he would be exchanging one shirt for another of equal value.  If Jim and his wife go on a European vacation, they may need to do a currency exchange, meaning they exchange American dollars for European euros, again changing one thing for another.  And yet, in the government, what is being exchanged when one buys health insurance? It is not clear.  However, it seems that the government is using the term exchange in the sense of the stock exchange, in which people buy and sell stocks, bonds, or other financial investments.  To gain some clarification on this confusing term, I consulted the glossary at  Sadly, when I clicked on the term exchange, the glossary only stated: “See Health Insurance Marketplace.”  Even more perplexing is that when I looked up Health Insurance Marketplace, they never mention the word exchange!  I guess I am not the only one who is confused.


For a change, the term marketplace actually makes sense.  A market is a place where people have bought necessary items for hundreds of years.  It is natural that a place to buy health insurance may also be called a marketplace.  The website defines the Health Insurance Marketplace as follows:  “A resource where individuals, families, and small businesses can learn about their health coverage options; compare health insurance plans based on costs, benefits, and other important features; choose a plan; and enroll in coverage.”  (For more details see

blog - ACA - marketI find it interesting, however, that the marketplace is defined as a “resource.” In cyberspace, even a marketplace cannot be defined as a “place” since it does not actually have a physical location.  This must be a difficult task for copywriters on websites trying to describe something that exists only in cyberspace.


Cost Sharing

Yet another confusing phrase in Obamacare is “cost sharing.”  The website defines this phrase as follows:  “The share of costs covered by your insurance that you pay out of your own pocket. This term generally includes deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments, or similar charges, but it doesn’t include premiums, balance billing amounts for non-network providers, or the cost of non-covered services. Cost sharing in Medicaid and CHIP also includes premiums.”

Is this confusing to anyone else?  The first sentence seems to contradict itself.  It the costs are covered by insurance, why does the policy holder need to pay them?  This does not make any sense to me.  Moreover, if the cost sharing does not include premiums, why are premiums included in Medicaid and CHIP (another acronym for Children’s Health Care Program)?  This could be explained in much clearer language.


People who lose their health insurance for various reasons can buy new health insurance through a government program called COBRA.   The website defines COBRA in the following way:  “A Federal law that may allow you to temporarily keep health coverage after your employment ends, you lose coverage as a dependent of the covered employee, or another qualifying event. If you elect COBRA coverage, you pay 100% of the premiums, including the share the employer used to pay, plus a small administrative fee.”

blog - ACA - cobra            However, they never explain the origin of the word COBRA.  I should note here that a word such as COBRA is known as an acronym, a name whose letters can be pronounced as a word.  Acronyms differ from abbreviations in which the letters are spelled out individually.  For example, the ABC television network is an abbreviation that refers to the American Broadcast Company.  However, NASA is an acronym meaning the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Thus COBRA is an acronym defined at a different government website as follows:

“The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as voluntary or involuntary job loss, reduction in the hours worked, transition between jobs, death, divorce, and other life events.”


The final confusing name in Obamacare is a program called TRICARE.  According to, this is “A health care program for active-duty and retired uniformed services members and their families.”  That is easy enough to understand, but given the name with the prefix “tri,” I wondered what the three parts of the program are.  After all, a tricycle has three wheels, triplets are three children born at the same time, etc.  What is TRICARE named for?  I was never able to find out. I looked through the TRICARE website and could not find an answer.  Why are all these government programs given such confusing names?

Next time:  Obamacare Part II:  Metaphors in the Policy

Rookies and Underdogs: More Sports Metaphors

Even though the 2013 World Series is now history, there are still plenty of sports to enjoy this fall.  The football season is well under way, hockey is in season, and basketball has just begun.   In addition to my recent post on baseball metaphors, I covered football terms several months ago, today I thought I would add a few general metaphors from the world of sports.

Many aspects of American politics are compared to sports, mostly baseball, basketball and football.  The ideas of teamwork, competition and the various moves required in different sports are often used metaphorically to describe elections and other political situations.

1910 Michigan Wolverines football team
1910 Michigan Wolverines football team

team up with

The word team was originally described a group of animals used to pull a plow.  In more modern times, teams apply more commonly to groups in sports.  Politicians may be said to team up with other people or groups to help them get elected or get bills through Congress.

Example: U.S. presidents often team up with business leaders across the country to create jobs in private industry.


The term underdog originally meant the dog that was losing or lost a dogfight, being pinned underneath the winning.  In sports, the underdog is the person or team that is expected to lose the game because of inferior win/loss record.  In politics, an underdog is a person who is not expected to win an election.

Example: In the 2010 Congressional elections, many underdog Conservative candidates won House and Senate seats in a sweeping backlash against Barack Obama’s progressive policies.

Robert Griffin III was voted Offensive Player Rookie of the Year in 2012
Robert Griffin III was voted Rookie of the Year (Offense) in 2012


The word rookie is perhaps derived from the word recruit in a military sense.  More commonly, it is a term in sports used to describe a person in his or her first year of professional play.  In politics, a rookie is a first year Senator, Member of Congress or any other state or federal employee.  The term rookie can also have a negative connotation; it can be used to criticize someone who makes mistakes due to inexperience.

Example: First-year Congressmen and Congresswomen sometimes make rookie mistakes such as not repeating the party lines in television and radio broadcasts.

root for

In sports, to root for a team means to support or cheer for that team to win their games.  In politics, people can also root for the candidates that they hope will win elections.

Example: Many women voters in America rooted for Sarah Palin to win the election with John McCain in 2008 so that she could become the first female vice president.

Belarusian Victoria Azarenka is often a finalist in world tennis championships
Belarusian Victoria Azarenka is often a finalist in world tennis championships


In some sports, players or teams compete for the final places in the playoffs to be able to play for the championship.  These players or teams are known as the finalists.  In American elections, the candidates who win the nominations of their parties and can compete in the state or national elections may also be called finalists.

Example: In the 2012 Republican primaries, many candidates competed to be the finalists to become the nominee of the party, but only Mitt Romney was chosen in the end.

Next time:  Obamacare Metaphors and More!