Low, Short, Under and at the Bottom

To finish off my series on metaphors of height, here is a final set of examples derived from the concept of being at the bottom of a container, being under something, or being lower or shorter than something else.  In all cases, these metaphors carry a negative connotation in comparison to objects that are higher or taller than others. In politics, these “lower-class” metaphors are used to describe bad economic trends, disappointing political events or other negative aspects of governance.

blog - height - rock bottom


rock bottom

As with the concepts of top, we have metaphors of being at the bottom of something.  One way to describe being at the lowest point is to say we have hit rock bottom, as if we have sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Example:  President Obama’s popularity seemed to hit rock bottom when the Democrats lost so many elections during the 2010 midterm elections.


blog - height - low on the scalelow on the scale/lower down the scale

The word low describes the position of being towards the bottom of a place.  A scale is a tool for measuring the weight or height of something.  Metaphorically, being on the low end of a scale means that the person or thing has a lower value, such as lower income, or does not have much importance relative to other items measured on the same scale.


Example:  Tax cuts often help wealthy Americans, but they do not always help those people lower down the scale.

low profile

As explained earlier, a profile is a side view of a person. Contrary to a high profile, a low profile indicates lack of visibility or importance in a certain situation.

Example:  After stepping down as president in 2009, George W. Bush kept a low profile until he released his book Decision Points in late 2010.

low moment

A low moment is a time when someone or group of people is unsuccessful, defeated or emotionally depressed.

Example:  The low moment for George W. Bush’s presidency was when we were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.


blog - height - shortfall archeryshortfalls

In contrast to the positive connotations of someone being tall, someone or something that is short indicates a lack or deficiency in something.  A shortfall is a quantity of something that is lower than expected. This term originally derives from the sport of archery when an archer shoots an arrow but it falls to the ground short of the target.

Example:  After the economic collapse of 2008, many local governments experienced budget shortfalls and had to make serious budget cuts.

short selling

Short selling is a rather complex financial transaction.  In real estate, a homeowner may need to sell a house even though the price paid for the house is less than the amount that the homeowner owes to the bank.  If the bank buys the house back from the homeowner in this case, this is called short-selling because the value of the house has fallen short of the mortgage value.  With investments, a person may borrow a stock from an investment firm with the expectation that the value will go down but the person can make a profit if the stock price rises.   This is also called short selling by the brokerage firm.

Example:  Some economists claim that the short selling of mortgages and investments and Wall Street partially led to the collapse of the economy in 2008.


When a person applies for a job, the company puts his or her name on a list of the top people to be considered.  To be near the top of the list is sometimes called being shortlisted.

Example:  Whenever there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president makes a shortlist of possible judges to fill the seat, and then chooses one to be confirmed by the Senate.



As with the word low, the concept of under implies something negative or lacking in importance.  The people who work at the lower levels of a company or government are sometimes called the underlings.

Example:  In an election campaign, the candidate makes all the speeches, but the underlings do a lot of work behind the scenes organizing each event.

blog - height - undercoverundercover

In military and police departments around the world, most officers wear uniforms and are well known to the local people.  However, some officers work in secret and do not want their identities known so that they can catch criminals more easily.  These agents are called undercover officers.  More broadly, any person or action that is hidden from public view is considered undercover.

Example:  As Commander-in-Chief, a U.S. president must sometimes authorize undercover military operations to ensure national security.


Literally to undercut something means to make a low cut into an object such as a piece of wood so that the higher portion remains above the lower portion.  Metaphorically, undercutting refers to such things as offering lower prices than a competitor, or more abstractly, to reduce the effectiveness of another person’s actions or reputation.

Example:  High unemployment ratings undercut President Obama’s plan for economic recovery in 2009 and 2010.


The term underwrite is a word dating back to the 15th century describing signing one’s name to a legal insurance document promising to pay losses if any occur on the policy.  In modern terms, to underwrite something means to take on financial responsibility for a large project.

Example:  With the stimulus plan of 2009, President Obama decided to underwrite the recovery of many banks and large corporations that were close to bankruptcy.

Next time: A Perfect Storm!  Metaphors of Weather