Metaphors of Height: Life at the Top

In my last post, I described a few metaphors based on visual experiences with width.  Today I will describe a few examples of metaphors of height. The concept of height is one of the most commonly used concepts of metaphors in the English language.  The notion of up is good, strong, and successful, while the notion of down is considered to be bad, weak or failing.  These metaphors are used in many areas of culture, economics, and politics.  I found almost 100 examples of metaphors of height, far too many to cover in one blog post.  I will describe a few examples with the words height, high, tall and top today.  I will cover the other examples in subsequent posts.  I hope you will reach new heights in metaphor comprehension as you read these examples!


Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada


The top of a hill, mountain or building is at a height taller than the average person.  Experientially, anything that happened above a person’s head was considered better or more important than people.  Metaphorically, we can talk about the height of an epidemic, a crime wave, the population of a city, or many other social conditions.

Example:  At the height of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, both countries were spending millions of dollars on nuclear weapons to protect against attacks from the other country.

new heights

If one climbs to the top of a mountain or building, we may say that the person has reached a new height.   Metaphorically, when one reaches a large goal or completes a great achievement, we may say that the person has reached new heights.

Example:  The American civil rights movement reached new heights when Barack Obama became the first African-American president.

heightened awareness

We have various states of awareness of our surroundings.  We can be unaware or mildly aware of what is going on around us.  When something exciting or scary happens we become more aware of what is going on.  We may call this having heightened awareness.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks in New York, Americans instantly developed a heightened awareness of possible threats from terrorist groups.


The Chrysler Building, New York City
The Chrysler Building, New York City

high office

An office can be a place of business, but it can also refer to the level of state or national government.  The office of the president is commonly considered to be the highest office in the country.

Example:  George Washington was the first person to be elected to the high office of President of the United States.

high command

In the military, there is a strong hierarchy of levels of command of other service personnel.  For example, while a sergeant may have a low command, a general has a high command.  In politics, the president is the so-called commander-in-chief while other leaders around the world are in the high command of their governments.

Example:  It is widely believed that Osama bin Laden was in the high command of the terrorist organization that attacked New York on 9/11.

General George Patton, 1945
General George Patton, 1945


As mentioned, there are different levels of commands or ranks in the military.  A person with a high command may also be referred to as a high-ranking member of the military.  In politics, a high-ranking person is a very important person in the government.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks, President George Bush gathered together all of the high-ranking members of the military and the government to decide how to retaliate against the terrorists.

highly decorated

                  In the military, a soldier or any service member can earn decorations through acts of bravery.  A high-ranking officer such as a general with many such honors may be referred to as being highly decorated.

Example:  American presidents often choose highly decorated generals to be their military leaders.

high profile

A profile is a side or outline view of a person.  Metaphorically a profile of a person can mean how important a person is in a certain social group.  Someone with a high profile is an important or famous person in that social group.

Example:  When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate for the 2008 election, Ms. Palin jumped from an unknown governor to a high-profile politician overnight.


When one thinks of the best reasons to do something, or to provide the best benefits for the most people, we may say that the person is being high minded.  Often, however, people use this term as a criticism towards people who talk about doing something for good reasons, but ends up doing something else for practical reasons.

Example:  When President Obama first took office, he made a high-minded speech about closing the prison at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.  However, years later he still had not closed the prison because of practical problems of dealing with the terrorists locked up there.

high-value target

In a war against terrorists, the United States military forces try to eliminate leaders of the terrorist groups.  These people or groups are considered to be very important targets of the military.  Sometimes the military personnel refer to these people as high-value targets.

Example:  After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Osama bin Laden was the biggest high-value target in the Al-Queda group until he was killed in 2011.

higher ups

In any organization, there are leaders at the top and many other workers at lower levels.  The top administrators are sometimes referred to as the higher ups.  In politics, business, or military hierarchies, the higher ups are the people who get most of the credit when things go right, but they also get the blame when things go wrong.

Example:  When the reports of abuse emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, many of the lower level military staff were punished but the higher ups seemed to avoid any blame.


tall order

A tall person or building is normally out of reach for most people.  Metaphorically, something that is tall is out of reach or difficult to accomplish.  An order is another word for a task or duty as in an order of food in a restaurant.  Thus, a tall order is task that is very difficult to complete.

Example:  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had the task of ending slavery, ending the war, and reuniting the country.  That was a tall order no U.S. president has had to face before or since.

A Paul Bunyan statue in Akeley, Minnesota
A Paul Bunyan statue in Akeley, Minnesota

tall tales

Similar to the idea of a tall order, a tall tale is a story that is too impossible to believe.  In a form of literature from the Western United States, there are many tall tales about giant lumberjacks or super strong cowboys.  In common English, a tall tale is any story that is difficult to believe.

Example:  It seems that in every election, there are candidates who tell tall tales about their background, usually about military service, that turn out not to be true.




people at the top

As with the idea of the leaders of an organization being high in the chain of command, we may also say that these leaders are the people at the top. 

Example:  In the U.S. government, the people at the top are the president and vice president, along with the Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the House.

A heap of wood and other objects for a bonfire
A heap of wood and other objects for a bonfire

top of the heap

A heap is a tall pile or hill of many items mixed together.  In yet another height metaphor, the people in leadership roles in an organization may be referred to as being at the top of the heap.

Example:  When a candidate wins an election, quite often the campaign staff members who helped the candidate win move into the top of the heap in the candidate’s new government.

top tier

A tier is a horizontal part of a stadium, theater or any tall building.  Metaphorically, any group of people can be described in terms of tiers such as political parties, business organizations or tax groups. The top tier of any organization is the group of the most powerful or important people.

Example:  Democrats tend to think that the top tier of income earners in the country should be heavily taxed to provide necessary income to the government, while the Republicans believe the top earners should be given tax breaks so that they can expand their businesses and create more jobs.

Hmmm, I wonder what they keep in the top drawer...
Hmmm, I wonder what they keep in the top drawer…

top drawer

Cabinets and office desks contain a variety of drawers.  Traditionally, the most important information, files or documents are placed in the top drawer.  Metaphorically, important or very talented persons are sometimes referred to as being top-drawer individuals.

Example:  Whenever there is a crisis, a good leader should consult with all the top-drawer advisors working in the government at that time.

Next time:  Honeymoons and Romance:  Metaphors of Love!

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