Monthly Archives: April 2014

Democracy for Sale: Metaphors of Buying

To continue my posts on the metaphors of business, today I offer a few examples of metaphors of buying and negotiating.  Note that everyday business transactions are used to create common metaphors to talk about elections, government policies or political deals that happen all the time. How many of these have you heard recently?


cost /cost votes

We say that everything costs money to buy.  In metaphorical terms, things can have more than a monetary cost, e.g., we can say, “the car accident cost him his life.”  In political terms, an action by a politician or political party can have a cost in terms of votes in an election.

Example:  Some say that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice president nominee was the best idea he ever had; others say that it cost him the election.

blog - business - cashafford

To be able to afford something means that one has enough money to buy something.  As with the word cost, the word afford can have other meanings besides money.  Usually used in a negative sense, the phrase cannot afford something means that the person or group will be worse off with a negative result if some action is not taken.

Example:  Teachers say that we cannot afford to cut funding for education even if it costs a lot of money.

Example:  A president cannot afford to look weak when dealing with terrorists.  He or she must be firm and use military action if necessary.

buy some time

One can also buy things besides products.  One can buy abstract ideas such as time.

Example:  Sometimes a president, when faced with a crisis, will buy some time by having committee meetings before he or she must make a decision.

pay/it pays to

Similar to the usage of buy and afford, the word pay can be used for money or other things.  Metaphorically, if we pay for something, we must suffer some personal cost.

Example:  President Hoover paid for his inability to end the Great Depression.  He was replaced in the next election by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Example:  It always pays for a president to listen to the needs of the American people when making decisions or else he or she will be voted out of office.

pay off later

Something that a person does today may have a benefit later.  In such cases, we can say that it will pay off later.

Example:  In 2006 and 2007, Barack Obama spent time and money developing support from voters on the Internet.  This strategy paid off later in 2008 when he used these networks to raise money and gain votes for the election.

pay-back time

If one does something to hurt someone else, we sometimes say that the second person needs to pay back the first person in the form of some kind of vengeance or retribution.  When the second person decides to do something, this is called the pay-back time.  In politics, it’s payback time when a person or group has the power to make a change to something that affected him or her in a negative way at another time.

Example:  If a governor raises too many taxes for the citizens, it will be payback time at the next election.  The governor might be voted out of office.

blog - business - pay dirthit pay dirt

                  When people mine the ground for metals, the miners can be paid for the metals they find.  Any dirt that produces gold or silver or any valuable metal is called pay dirt.  In metaphorical terms, one who hits pay dirt has done something great or succeeded at a difficult task.

Example:  John McCain thought he hit pay dirt when he asked Sarah Palin to be his running mate for the 2008 election, but he did not win the election.

blog - business - coinsshortchange

When we buy things at a store and pay with bills or coins above the price, the cashier will give back change, or the rest of the money we are owed.  If the cashier accidentally keeps some of the money, this is called being shortchanged.  In popular terms, to be shortchanged means to have a result of some process that is less than what one was expecting.

Example:  The brave police and firefighters who were injured helping the victims of the 9/11 attacks seem to have been shortchanged when some of them could not get the government to pay their medical bills.


bargaining table

When business people meet each other to buy or sell their products, they must negotiate or bargain for the costs of their services.  Usually these meetings occur in offices with the people sitting around a table discussing the business until an agreement is reached.  This table is often referred to as the bargaining table.  In politics, world leaders and politicians are often at the bargaining table trying to agree on policies and programs they are trying to start.

Example:  Republican and Democratic members of Congress are always at the bargaining table when it comes to deciding how high taxes should be for people and corporations.

President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher discuss politics with their cabinets at the White House in 1981
President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher discuss politics with their cabinets at the White House in 1981

the business of  politics

Politics is often compared to a business.  When politicians negotiate with each other to try to pass bills, cut budgets, or begin new programs, they are engaging in the business of politics.

Example:  When politicians first go to Washington D.C., they must get used to the business of politics there.  Most likely, it is more complex and difficult than politics in their hometowns.

broker peace

Broker is an old word for businessman or trader.  In modern terms, a broker is one who buys and sells real estate or investments.  However, in politics, deals and peace agreements can also be brokered.

Example:  President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978.

marketplace of ideas

A market is a place where products and services are bought and sold.  A marketplace can also be used metaphorically to mean any place or Internet website where ideas are exchanged using the freedom of expression allowed in the first amendment to the Constitution.

Example:  College classrooms around the world are great marketplaces of ideas.

Next time:  Metaphors of Office Work

Democracy for Sale: Metaphors of Business – Selling

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could donate money to political campaigns in the Citizens United ruling.  At the time, critics complained that our elections were going to be up for sale to the highest bidder.  Some said that it was “Democracy for Sale.”  More recently, in the McCutcheon case, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals could also increase the amounts they could donate to political candidates as well.  Once again, people complained that our election process was up for sale.  Describing politics in terms of business deals is nothing new.  Here are a few metaphors based on procedures of selling items in a business situation.

1953 Election Poster
1953 election poster



                  In business, the goal is to sell as many products as possible so that the company can make the most money.  In politics, people can also sell ideas, policies or programs.

Example:  In 2009, Barack Obama had to sell the idea of using taxpayer money to rescue the banks from financial collapse.

blog - business - for sale

sell out

In business, to sell out of something means to sell the entire amount of products that the company had.  This is a good thing for the company since they will make more money.  However, there is another meaning of selling out that means giving up all of your ideas or values for another cause, usually money.  In entertainment or politics, selling out is a bad thing to do, and the person will lose a great deal of respect.

Example:  If the governor of a state promises to lower taxes for small businesses then raises them instead, he will be accused of selling out.

tough sell

A product that is difficult to sell is called a tough sell.  An expensive house or car, for example, would be a tough sell for most people.  In politics, a tough sell is an idea or program that not many people will like but a politician will try to sell it anyway.

Example:  During the Great Depression in the 1930s, it was a tough sell for President Roosevelt to convince Congress to borrow money to create more jobs.


If we buy products one a time in a store, this is called a retail sale.  If a company buys hundreds of products at a time to sell to someone else, this is called a wholesale purchase since they are buying the whole amount.  In popular terms, to do something wholesale is to do it completely.

Example:  President Roosevelt made wholesale changes in the economy to pull the country out of the Great Depression.

Street peddler in Nepal
Street peddler in Nepal


Peddling is another word for selling something, usually meaning that someone is going door-to-door or traveling to sell the products.  In politics, people can peddle ideas, programs, policies, or influence to do something for someone else.

Example:  Washington D.C. lobbyists who try to get members of Congress to spend money for their companies are often called influence peddlers.

Example:  In is first term, George W. Bush was peddling the idea of privatizing social security but the members of Congress were not buying.  His ideas were not accepted.


A showcase is a large glass case in a store used for displaying products one wants to sell.  To showcase something is to make it visible to everyone and call their attention to it.

Example:  The banking crisis of 2009 showcased the inability of Wall Street executives to regulate themselves.

estate sale

                  An estate sale is held when a person dies and the entire contents of a house are sold at one time.  Sometimes an auction is conducted to get the highest price for each item.  In politics, when a country sells its lands or buildings to people from other country, some people joke that this is like an American estate sale.

Example:  In 2008, the Chrysler Building in New York City, one of the most famous buildings in the United States, was sold to a company from Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates.   At the time, some people wondered if there was going to be an American estate sale and we would sell all of our buildings.

snake oil salesmen

In the 1800s, before there were many doctors in small towns or federal regulations on medicine, anyone could sell anything and call it medicine.  In China, people used to sell a type of snake oil as a pain reliever, although some people claim it did not help.  Later, people called any type of fake medicine snake oil because they had no medicinal value.  In popular terms, a snake oil salesman is someone who is trying to sell something that will not work or has no value.

Example:  People will not vote for a political candidate with wild new ideas if they think he is just a snake oil salesman. 

with bells on

In the eastern United States in the 1800s, some peddlers traveled by horseback to sell their products.  In some cases, they put bells on their horses so that the local people would know that they were coming.  In modern terms, to do something with bells on means to do it with enthusiasm and complete support.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, people came out to vote for Barack Obama with bells on.  He won with 53% of the vote while John McCain earned 46% of the vote.


Monger is an old word for a peddler or salesman.  For example, a fishmonger is a fish salesman.  The word monger used as a verb means to sell something.  In politics, someone who supports wars or tries to sell the idea of going to war with another country is a warmonger.

Example:  During World War II, Adolf Hitler was the ultimate warmonger since he tried to take over the world with wars of aggression.

blog - business - fishmonger 1873 London


                  A person who tries to scare the American public without evidence of real danger is sometimes called a fearmonger.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks, everyone became afraid of terrorists.  There was no need for fearmongering politicians.  It was a real attack.

Delivery truck from 1925
Delivery truck from 1925

deliver the goods

If a product is bought by telephone or the Internet, the company needs to deliver or bring that product to the person’s home of office. We can also say that someone delivers the goods or products to someone else.  In popular terms, one can deliver ideas or actions that a person needs.

Example:  In the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover tried to end the Great Depression but he could not deliver the goods.  The Depression seemed to get worse.  President Roosevelt was elected to replace him in 1932.

Next time:  Metaphors of Buying

When Nature is Toxic: Metaphors of Dirt, Poison and Rot

In my last post, I wrote about metaphors based on natural disasters.  Today, I would like to share a few metaphors derived from another dark side of nature, i.e., dirt, mud and poison and rot.  These metaphors also represent a darker side of politics.

Clean and Dirty Nature

dirty politics

We are always in the process of cleaning our houses and offices.  The contrast between clean and dirty is a common set of opposites in metaphor usage.  In politics, any behavior that is perceived to be illegal or improper may be called dirty politics.

Example:  If politicians make a profit on contracts with wind energy companies, critics may complain that there is dirty politics in clean energy.

dirt on someone

Having the dirt on someone means that one has discovered evidence of wrongdoing.  In politics, opposing candidates may investigate each other to find out if there is any wrongdoing in their past.  This is called looking or digging for the dirt on someone.

Example:  In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, candidates spent months digging up dirt on their opponents to discredit them and win the nomination.

soil something

Soil is another word for the dirt that we use for farming, gardening and landscaping. The term soil, however, has a negative connotation in that it indicates something that is metaphorically dirty or unclean.

Example:  The impeachment of Bill Clinton soiled his reputation has a good president.

blog - nature - mud


Mud is a mixture of dirt and water and is especially hard to clean up.  In one of the oldest political metaphors, criticizing someone, often unfairly, is called mudslinging.

Example:  Abraham Lincoln had to endure a great deal of mudslinging from his opponents in his reelection campaign of 1864.

The Bad Side of Nature


Some plants and natural chemicals are poisonous meaning that they could injure or kill animals and people. Metaphorically, people, actions, or even words can be poisonous if they harm other people.

Example:  Most American votes do not like it when presidential candidates use poisonous language in their attack ads.

blog - nature - thornsthorny

Some plants such as roses and raspberry bushes have thorns on their branches.  These thorns can cause a great deal of pain to those who are stabbed with their sharp points.  Metaphorically, something that is thorny is a difficult situation.

Example:  Senators and members of Congress must deal with a great deal of thorny issues in everyday legislation.




When plants stop growing for lack of water, sunlight or nutrients in the soil, they will start to decay.  Metaphorically, any process will decay if it begins to fall apart.

Example:  Some people believe that the United States has reached the pinnacle of civilization and now it is in a period of decay.

blog - nature - decaying bananasrotting/rotten

Another way of something is decaying is to say that it is rotting.  Once the process is complete, the plant is then rotten.  This concept is also used metaphorically to mean any condition that is extremely bad.

Example:  After many people lost their jobs after the economic crisis in 2008, critics of Wall Street investment firms cried it was a rotten deal that their executives were still giving themselves millions of dollars in bonuses.

Next time:  Democracy for Sale – Metaphors of Business

Metaphors of Natural Disasters

Several weeks ago, as I planned a series of blog posts concerning metaphors of nature, including those based on natural disasters, I had no idea that several horrific natural disasters would occur in the past two weeks.  Chile recently had an 8.2 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.  Fortunately, only six individuals were killed.  Closer to home, an enormous mudslide in my home state of Washington tragically killed 30 people two weeks ago.  Thirteen people are still missing as I write this.  My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of those tragedies.

Sadly, natural disasters are the basis of several common metaphors without regard for any loss of life or property in these tragedies.  Nonetheless, these disasters are part of our natural experiences and are used to create metaphors describing unexpected or tragic events in other cultural domains.   Here are a few examples.

blog - nature - avalancheavalanche

An avalanche is a tremendous movement of snow down a mountain, often destroying whatever is in its path.  Metaphorically, an avalanche is a tremendous amount of something that was not expected, such as an avalanche of errors, an avalanche of examples, or an avalanche of responses to a decision.

Example:   If politicians start talking about reducing people’s social security benefits, they will most likely receive an avalanche of angry responses from senior citizens.

Results of the 2010 earthquake in Chile
Results of the 2010 earthquake in Chile


Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the earth’s crust or continental plates.  Tremors are smaller quakes that happen before or after a major earthquake.  Metaphorically, earthquakes and tremors can describe important events that happen in an organization that change the normal course of activities.

Example:   When Democrats lost many seats in the House of Representatives in 2010, it sent tremors through the Democratic Party and they knew that they had to regroup in order to win elections in 2012.


When a volcano explodes, this is called an eruption.  In common terms, anything that happens quickly without notice may be called an eruption.

Example:   Cheers erupted all around the world when it was announced that the famous terrorist Osama bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan.

A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010
A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010

Vesuvian temper

Vesuvius is a famous volcano in Italy.  Temper is one’s ability to become angry quickly.  A Vesuvian temper, therefore, is a metaphorical phrase indicating a temper that erupts quickly and strongly.

Example:   Although John McCain is normally a calm, rational person, some colleagues claim that he has a Vesuvian temper when he is upset.


A landslide is similar to an avalanche, but usually indicates a great deal of land and mud falling rapidly down a hill.  Metaphorically, a landslide is a large amount of something that happens quickly and forcefully.

Example:   In 1984, Ronald Reagan was reelected for a second term of president, beating Walter Mondale in a landslide victory.

Results of the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee in 2008
Results of the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee in 2008


When a river overflows its banks, the surrounding countryside, towns, and cities can be flooded with water.  As a metaphor, the concept of flooding is used to describe a large amount of something that covers a wide area.

Example:   In times of high unemployment, a business advertising for workers will be flooded with applications.


In some areas, rivers are dammed up and the water is held back with gates.  When the water reaches a high level, the floodgates may be opened to release the pressure.  Metaphorically, opening the floodgates means that a large amount of information or many actions are suddenly released.

Example:   When a war breaks out, floodgates open and many refugees flee the fighting.

blog - nature - Tsunami_hazard_zone_sign_2tsunami

A tsunami is a huge ocean wave that devastates coastal communities as happened in Indonesia in 2004 and in Japan in 2011.  Metaphorically, the word tsunami is used similarly to the term flood indicating a large amount of something happening quickly.

Example:   Critics of Barack Obama feared that his consumer watchdog efforts would result in a tsunami of new regulations on businesses.

Next time:  When Nature is Toxic