Stretched Too Thin: Metaphors of Width

Recently President Obama gave the commencement speech for the graduates of West Point Military Academy.  It was an incredibly detailed speech about his views on U.S. foreign policy.  There are too many details to describe here but one item that caught my ear was a comment about not stretching our military “too thin.”  This is one type of conceptual metaphor I have not yet covered here in this blog.  Thus, here follows a brief description of metaphors derived from our experiences with width, i.e., thick and thin or broad and narrow…


broad-based movement

Some physical objects such as stone monuments have wide or broad bases.  Figuratively, any action or process that is supported by many people in many parts of the country may be called broad-based.  In politics, a liberal or conservative movement with popular support may be described as a broad-based movement.

Example:  The Tea Party grew into a broad-based movement in 2009 and 2010 due to a backlash against Barack Obama’s liberal policies.

broadly speaking

In a similar sense, to do something broadly indicates that it is done in a general, widely approved way.  Speaking in a general way may be called broadly speaking.

Example:  Broadly speaking, conservatives and liberals differ on many important issues such as women’s health, national security, taxes and government spending.

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Trinity Bridge, St. Petersburg, Russia


A large distance in space is called a span.  The physical concept of a span can be used metaphorically to describe abstract notions of time and cultural events.

Example:  The isolationist policies of the United States avoiding joining world wars spanned many decades in the 20th century.

across the board

Originally a phrase from a betting procedure in horse racing, to say something is true across the board means that it is true for many people, categories, or geographical areas.

Example:  In 2012, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of failing as a president across the board.

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A Japanese war fan

A hand-operated fan used to cool a person in hot weather is usually narrow at the base and wide at the top.  It literally fans out from bottom to top.  Metaphorically, any dispersal of people or goods to a wide geographical area may be described as fanning out.

Example:  During a presidential campaign, activists for each candidate fan out in their home states to try to gain more votes.

large swath

The term swath originally meant a section of crops on a farm that was cleared by a cutting tool called a scythe, for example, a swath of wheat.  Metaphorically, a swath indicates a large group of people across a large geographical area.

Example:  Campaign strategists must consider the large swath of independent voters across the United States who can tip the scales toward one candidate or another in an election.

at large

The notion of a large geographic space is used in a strange metaphor to be at large.  In one sense it may refer to a person who is not centrally located in his or her job as in a newspaper critic at large. It may also refer to a general sense of space and category as in society at large.

Example:  A good president must consider society at large instead of just narrow interest groups in deciding how to govern the country.


narrow the lead

The opposite of wide is narrow.  The concept of a narrow physical space is used metaphorically in many English phrases.  In one instance, a small difference in poll numbers during an election is called a narrow lead.  Making the lead smaller may be called narrowing the lead.

Example:  A presidential candidate behind in the polls will try to narrow the lead of his or her opponent by increasing fundraising, campaign stops and television interviews.

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The gap between the train and the platform at Victoria Station, London

narrow the gap

A gap is a physical space between two objects.  In politics there may also be a gap between mean and women, rich and poor, winner and loser, etc.  To make this gap smaller is sometimes called narrowing the gap.

Example:  Most middle-class American voters hope that the U.S. government can narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

narrow decision, narrow ruling

The concept of a narrow space is also used to describe the small difference in votes from the judges on the Supreme Court.  For example, a 5-4 vote will be called a narrow ruling or a narrow decision.

Example:  The Supreme Court upheld Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act by a narrow 5-4 ruling.

eke out a narrow victory

When a candidate wins an election by a very small margin, we may say that he or she has won a narrow victory.  There is also a word eke that means a small increase in the quantity of something.  In a common phrase we can say that the candidate might eke out a narrow victory.

Example:  In 2012, Barack Obama eked out a narrow victory over Mitt Romney.


thick with lobbyists

A solid object may also be described as being thick or thin.  Being thick means that the object is wide on at least two dimensions.  The term can also describe a physical space with objects close together.  In a metaphorical phrase, a specific place can be thick with people that work in that general area.

Example:  Americans who want to take money out of politics are dismayed when they see that Washington D.C. is often thick with lobbyists.

fat profits

Another way of describing a wide object is saying that it is fat.  While this is considered a derogatory term to describe people, it may be used to describe a large quantity of anything.  A large amount of profits for a company may be called fat profits.

Example:  Many Americans are frustrated that gas prices continue to rise despite fat profits of the oil companies.



wear thin

The opposite of thick is thin.  The concept of a very thin object can be used metaphorically to describe anything that is very small in quantity or in intellectual substance. In one instance, the popularity or a patience of a person can wear thin as if it is an old shirt.

Example:  Barack Obama’s popularity began to wear thin for liberal supporters when he was not able to achieve many progressive goals.

thin gruel

Gruel is a type of simple porridge some people eat for breakfast.  A bowl of porridge with a great deal of oats or other grains is considered a thick and hearty gruel. A bowl with few grains and more water would be considered a thin gruel, meaning it was lacking substance and nutrition. Metaphorically, a policy or program that is weak and ineffective may be called a thin gruel.

Example:  American voters need a president to deliver effective social programs not just thin gruel.

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Pancake batter stretched too thin

spread too thin, stretch too thin

The origins of the phrases spread too thin or stretch too thin are not clear.  However, it seems that we have a common experience of spreading a semi-solid substance such as butter, peanut butter or jelly on a piece of bread or cracker.  If we spread the substance too thin, it won’t have much flavor.  Also, if we spread a substance such as pancake batter too thin on a griddle, it might burn.  Similarly, if we make pie crust or pizza crust too thin, it might burn in the oven.  Also, when making pottery, if one makes the wall of a pot too thin, it might break upon firing or its first usage.  The idea of stretching something too thin is similar.  When stretching a piece of plastic wrap or rubber balloon too thin, it might break.  Metaphorically, when we have too few people to do many jobs, we may say that we are spreading or stretching them too thin with the result that one cannot achieve a good result of the process.  In businesses, employees may be spread too thin, while in the armed forces, soldiers may be stretched too thin for a military operation.

Example:  In a recent speech to West Point graduates, President Obama claimed that our military personnel overseas could be attacked anywhere by rebel forces.  “So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Next time:  Metaphors of height 

2 thoughts on “Stretched Too Thin: Metaphors of Width

  1. This particular post is not only fascinating, but fun! Keep up the great work, Andy.

    1. Hi Dave! Thanks for your continued support. Let me know if I can help with your students in Iowa or your project partners in Las Vegas!

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