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