Monthly Archives: December 2013

“Meat and Potatoes” – Metaphors of Food

This is the season when families and friends get together to celebrate the holidays.  Often we make large meals to share and may indulge a bit too much.  As we are digesting our dinners, here are a few political metaphors derived from terms and phrases concerning food.


Bread is a common food in American households.  A breadwinner is someone who earns money and is able to buy the food for the family.

Example:  Politicians must be aware that in tough economic times, both parents must be the breadwinners in a family to be able to support their children.

meat and potatoes, bread-and-butter

For many years, most Americans have eaten a diet which most often included some sort of meat for protein and potatoes for carbohydrates.  Typically a family will also have fresh bread with butter as a side dish.  Thus, these dishes have become symbolic of an everyday people and events.  In politics, a common problem is considered to be a meat-and-potato or bread-and-butter issue.

blog - food - meat and potatoes

Example:  Most network televisions news shows just give the meat and potatoes of the day’s news.  You need to read a newspaper or the Internet to get more details.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, the economy was a bread-and-butter issue for Mitt Romney.



When bread is cooked in toaster or oven, it is called toast.  Metaphorically, something that is completed finished or failed is also called toast.

Example:  Political campaigns are so expensive these days, if a candidate does not raise enough money to pay for television ads, his or her campaign will be toast and another candidate will win the election.

blog - food - toast


                  Bread that is toasted too long may become hard and crusty.  In popular terms, a crusty person is someone who tends to be old, mean spirited and unwilling to change.

Example:  Compared to the young Barack Obama, John McCain was considered by some to be a “crusty old man” of his critics during the 2008 presidential election.

red meat

Many Americans enjoy eating fresh cuts of meat, especially beef steaks.  When the meat is fresh, it still retains the blood from the animal, giving it a red color.  Metaphorically, red meat symbolizes raw emotions or very important issues.

Example:  Presidential debates often include questions about red-meat issues such as national security policies and views on abortion.

meaty questions

When a person is hungry, one needs to have a substantial meal with a good amount of protein, usually in the form of meat.  A meaty dinner is one which contains a large amount of meat to satisfy the hunger of the people.  A meaty question is one that addresses a complex issue and will require a thoughtful response.

Example:  During a campaign, news reporters need to ask meaty questions about important issues, and not easy questions that do not reveal the candidate’s opinions and policy views.

meat on bones

Many pieces of meat such as pork chops or steaks are served with a bone still inside the meat.  A   good portion will have plenty of meat on the bone; a small or cheap portion will have very little meat.  In popular terms, something with meat on the bones is an issue that is complex or substantial.

Example:  During a presidential campaign, reporters might complain if the candidates describe a new policy without much meat on the bones.


One of the most common food metaphors in American politics is the pork-barrel project, the process by which Senators and members of the House of Representatives working in Washington D.C. obtain funding for projects in their home states or districts.  This process is always controversial since millions of dollars are spent on projects which sometimes only benefit a few people.  The origin of the term derives from the practice of plantation owners in the early 1800s of feeding their slaves with pork preserved in large wooden barrels.  The barrels would be brought to the slaves who would fight over the amount of meat in the barrel, trying to get enough for each of their families.  In later days, the term would be used to describe members of Congress trying to get enough of federal tax money to bring home to their home districts.

Example:  Americans like to complain about too much pork-barrel spending in Washington, but they don’t complain when their representatives obtain money for a new highway or hospital in their home town.

blog - food - bacon copybring home the bacon

Traditionally, in an American family, the husband or father is the person earning the most income for the family.  Thus, the father brings home the paycheck to support the family.  Although the origins of the phrase bring home the bacon are unclear, it seems to have been derived from the practice of a man winning or earning a substantial amount of meat to bring home to feed his family.

Example:  While many American men are the main wage earners in their families, today, many women are bringing home the bacon.  Politicians must consider childcare and maternity leave issues when women are working full time while taking care of their children.

egg on

The phrase egg on actually has nothing to do with eggs so technically it is not a metaphor, but I thought I should include it here for the sake of completeness.   The phrase comes from a word from the Old Norse language meaning to encourage or incite someone to do something.

Example:  In some countries, protests against the government are common.  Politicians trying to overthrow the government may be egged on by protesters in big cities.

blog - food - big cheesebig cheese

An important person is sometimes called a big cheese.  Apparently, the origin of this phrase had nothing to do with cheese.  British soldiers in India in the 1840s had an expression that’s the thing meaning “that is correct.”  A Persian word chiz was used to replace the word thing, changing the phrase to that’s the chiz.  Later the phrase changed to the big chiz, or in modern spelling, the big cheese, meaning the best or correct thing.  However, today the phrase indicates an important person, sometimes in a positive sense of someone who is essential to a company or group of people, but also sometimes in a negative sense as in someone who abuses his power.

Example:  As president of the United States, Barack Obama is always the biggest cheese in the country.

side dish, main course

American meals may be divided into main courses, such as the meat, potatoes or rice, or the side dishes such as salads, breads or vegetables.  In politics, the principal issue in a debate may be called the main course, while a less important topic may be called a side dish.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential debates, the economy was the main course of the conversations, while the War in Afghanistan became the side dish.

in a pickle

Pickles are cucumbers that have been soaked in a mixture of salt water and spices called a brine.  Originally, the brine was called the pickle, so the phrase to be in a pickle meant to be in a bad situation.  In politics, someone said to be in a pickle is in trouble with voters or other politicians or just in a difficult situation.

Example:  In 2013, Barack Obama found himself in a pickle when the website for the Affordable Care Act was filled with glitches and people could not enroll in the program.


nuts, nut bars, nut jobs, nut cases

Crazy people are sometimes called nutsnut barsnut jobs or nut cases.  Their behavior may be described as nutty.  These phrases are derived from an old expression comparing one’s head to a nut.  To be off one’s nut meant to be crazy or insane.  In American politics, people on the extreme right or left wing of political issues may be called nutsnut barsnut jobs or nut cases.

Example:  Sometimes liberals refer to right wing Republicans as nut jobs if they support wars and tax breaks for rich companies.  Then again, Republicans may refer to liberals as nut cases if they protest wars and spend millions of dollars on social programs.

Next time:  Desserts and Drinks!

Metaphors of Fire!

The notions of lighting, burning and extinguishing fires are often used metaphorically in business, politics and everyday life.  In these cold days of December, I thought it would be appropriate to describe some metaphors that might warm up my readers.  Enjoy!

light a fire under someone

When one is cold, lighting a fire brings warmth and comfort. Metaphorically, when one is inactive, lighting a fire under someone means they are to become more active or quick in whatever they are doing.

Example: The nomination of Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 lit a fire under Democratic supporters who carried him to victory in the November election.


Another way of saying light a fire is to ignite it.  In popular terms, one can also ignite a problem or a controversy.

Example:  In the early 1970s, the problems for President Nixon were ignited by the break in by his aides at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.


blog - fire - ignitespark

Fires are often started by a single spark from a match or a nearby fire.  Metaphorically, something which stimulates a person or activity to increase speed is called a spark.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate was the spark that ignited the Republican Party to try to win the election.


The word incense comes from Latin meaning to start on fire.  In popular terms, to be incensed means to be very angry.

Example:  During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was incensed when the generals in the army did not win battles and the war dragged on and on.


As with the word incense, the word fume is old word for fire.  To fume at someone or something means to be very angry.

Example:  Supporters of Sarah Palin fumed when comedians made fun of her on national television.


A fire burns with bright flames.  In modern slang, to flame someone means to insult them or say bad things about them, usually on the Internet or on television.

Example:  Radio announcers with a Democratic or Republican agenda sometimes flame the members of the opposite political party on their radio shows.

fan the flames

When a fire is dying, one may need to use a fan or piece of paper to get the fire to burn brightly again.  This process is called fanning the flames.  In popular terms, to fan the flames means to make some argument even more controversial.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks in New York City, any rumor about Osama bin Laden fanned the flames of worries about another terrorist attack.

blaze a trail

Another word for burn is blaze.  To blaze a trail means to do something no one else had ever done, providing more opportunities for people to follow.

Example:  When Barack Obama became the first African-American president in the history of the United States, many Americans agreed he was blazing a trail for other African-Americans to become involved in politics.

blog - fire - fire

flare up

When a fire is burning low, it may burn brighter suddenly if it gets more fuel or oxygen.  This is called flaring up.  In popular terms, a controversy or military action may flare up if it suddenly becomes worse or more intense.

Example:  The war in Afghanistan flared up many times during the 1990s which led to more and more American involvement in the area.

fire up

Similar to flare up, to fire up something means to increase its intensity as when a flame increases its heat.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin fired up the Republican base with her electrifying speeches.

fiery speech

A good speaker can make a speech with a great deal of passion and energy.  In popular terms, this kind of oration is called a fiery speech.

Example:  During World War II, General George Patton was famous was giving fiery speeches to his troops to get them to defeat the Nazi armies.


As we all know, it is very painful to be burned by a flame or fire. In popular terms, to be burned means to be hurt politically by a particular event or controversy.  Additionally there is a saying that “if you play with fire, you can get your fingers burned.”

Example:  In 2013, Barack Obama was burned by the failed rollout of his Affordable Care Act.

burn out

When a fire dies, it is said to burn out.  When a person works too hard at his or her job, he or she can also be said to burn out.

Example:  Presidential candidates must endure a grueling schedule of endless campaign rallies and fundraiser.  It is amazing that they do not get burned out and become exhausted.

flame out

The phrase flame out derives from the event of a jet engine ceasing to work and the flames stopped coming out of the exhaust.  In popular terms, a person can flame out when he or she tries very hard to achieve something but then fails under public view.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was suspected of flaming out if he did not win the November election.

blog - fire - burn outextinguish

When one voluntarily tries to put out a fire, this is called extinguishing the flames.  Metaphorically, one can also extinguish problems in society or emotions in people such as passion or hope.

Example:  When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, it extinguished the hopes of many American women of having the first female president.

Next time:  Food and Drink for the Holidays!

“Fallout” and the “Nuclear Option” – When Science Attacks!

There are a great number of metaphors in English derived from scientific terms.  Some are neutral terms such litmus test or DNA (the topic of a future blog post), while others describe problems created by pollution or nuclear technology.  Here are a few of examples of negative scientific metaphors.


Another word for poisonous is toxic, a word originally used to describe poisons used on arrows to kill people with greater efficiency.  Today, toxic is a word usually used to describe a poisonous combination of chemicals created in water or air pollution.  Metaphorically, anything that is extremely bad or potentially harmful may be called toxic.

Example: When banks and Wall Street firms have investments and property that are worth less today than when they were purchased, these may be called toxic assets.

blog - science - toxic water


When a nuclear reactor breaks, the core of the reactor may begin to melt because of the release of nuclear radiation.  This event is called a nuclear meltdown.  This term can be used metaphorically to refer to any failure or collapse of a project or program, or the emotional collapse of a person after a traumatic event.

Example: The financial collapse of 2008 was caused in part from a meltdown of investment regulations among Wall Street banks.


When a nuclear explosion occurs, radioactive particles are released into the air.  When these particles return to the ground, this process is known as the fallout.  This term is also related to container metaphors, as when solid material falls out of its container, such as cereal from a broken cereal box.  Metaphorically, the fallout (written as one word) is something that happens as a result of a larger incident.

Example: The fallout from the Watergate scandal included many White House staff members being arrested and President Nixon resigning.

blog - science - nuclear blast

nuclear option

A nuclear explosion is a very dangerous event.  It must be controlled very carefully.  During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were at the point of war with each other for several decades, the last option to use to avoid war was to use a nuclear bomb on the other country, known as the nuclear option.  In politics, the phrase nuclear option is used hyperbolically to describe the ruling to let the Senate have 50% majority rule on bills and confirmation hearings for judges and cabinet members as opposed to a 60% vote.

Example: In late 2013, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid invoked the nuclear option to break the long practice of filibusters that was delaying all confirmation hearings.

Next time:  Metaphors of Fire!

Cold Weather Metaphors

We all experience a wide variety of temperatures with weather in our local climates or with kitchen appliances which artificially create hot and cold surfaces.  We use these experiences to create metaphors describing other abstract concepts in our everyday lives.  As winter is upon us and the temperature dips into single digits in some parts of the country, I would like to share a few metaphors derived from cold weather terms.


frosty relations

Frost occurs in cold climates when ice crystals form on outdoor surfaces in the winter. When two countries do not get along well, we may say that they have frosty relations.

Example:  Iran and Israel have had frosty relations and have created tension in the Middle East for many decades.


blog - temp - frozenhiring freeze, pay freeze

When water reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it freezes solid.  In many common metaphors, anything that stops completely is said to freeze.  In one instance, when a government or company does not hire any new employees, this is known as a hiring freeze. When no one is allowed to get a raise, this is known as a pay freeze.

Example:  After the economic crisis of 2008, President Obama instituted a pay freeze for all federal government employees.


The adjective form of freeze, frozen, is also commonly used as a metaphor.  People can be frozen into inaction, salaries can be frozen until income is increased, or the assets of people, companies, and countries can be frozen as punishment.

Example:  After Moamar Kadhafi’s involvement in terrorist activities in the 1980s, billions of dollars in Libyan assets around the world were frozen. When Kadhafi was killed in 2011, plans were made to release some of the assets back to the Libyan people.



cool reception

Human relationships can be described in terms of hot, warm, cool or cold temperatures. If people are greeted with affection, we say that they are treated warmly.  If they are greeted without affection, we may say that they have received a cool reception.

Example:  Unpopular speakers at a political party’s convention may be greeted with a cool reception.

blog - temp - iciclecold water

                  When a person is angry at someone or excited about an idea, someone else may need to throw cold water on his face to cool him off.  Metaphorically, throwing cold water on an idea means to disapprove of it or prevent it from happening.

Example:  Some conservatives throw cold water on liberals’ ideas of using solar and wind power instead of oil to meet our energy needs.

cold war

A war that occurs between two countries when there is no actual fighting, only diplomatic disagreements, may be called a cold war.

Example:  The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began in 1947 and lasted to 1991.

cold chill down the spine

When a person is frightened or horrified, he or she may literally have a cold feeling run down his or her spine.  Metaphorically, one can have a cold chill down the spine at hearing some disturbing news.

Example:  Some Republicans get a cold chill down their spine when they think of having a Democratic president in the White House.

John Muir Glaciercoldly

When a person does not have many caring feelings, we may say that they are cold hearted or simply cold.  A person who behaves this way is acting coldly.

Example:  When a hardworking father loses his job and cannot support his family, it is upsetting when government officials coldly cut off funding for food stamps and unemployment benefits.

Next time: “Fallout” and “Nuclear Option” – When Science Attacks!