Space exploration has been in the news lately. The European Space Agency has done the impossible by landing a space probe on the surface of the comet known as 67P traveling at more than 40,000 miles per hour. Humans have always been interested in space exploration. Perhaps not surprisingly, we have a few political metaphors based on our knowledge and experience with the objects in the night sky.
Everyone has seen stars in the night sky. Metaphorically a star is someone who is famous in his or her field, as in being a movie star, or a rising star in politics.
Example: At the 2004 Democratic convention, many people thought Barack Obama was a rising star in American politics. Few people would have believed he would be elected president four years later.
The word stellar is the adjective form of star almost always used metaphorically. A person who is stellar is doing an excellent job in his or her occupation. When someone is not doing a good job, we may say that his or her performance is less than stellar.
Example: Due to the less-than-stellar performance of the United States Congress in the past ten years, their approval rating has dropped to less than 10%.
The stratosphere is the layer of the earth’s atmosphere approximately between six and thirty miles above the earth’s surface. In common terms, we may speak of something that is incredibly large in size or quantity to be in the stratosphere.
Example: As the national debt increases every year, critics of government spending complain that we must do something before the debit goes into the stratosphere.
A black hole is a region of space that absorbs all light and energy around it. Metaphorically, a black hole is something that takes up all the time, money or energy of a project or process.
Example: Critics of the War in Afghanistan complained that it had been a black hole of government spending with no sign of victory in sight.
A meteor is a small piece of space debris that enters the earth’s atmosphere and quickly burns up as it falls toward earth (a meteor that lands on earth being called a meteorite). A meteor is also called a shooting star because it travels so quickly, one can hardly see it before it is gone. Metaphorically, something that is meteoric happens very quickly. We may talk of the sudden success or fame of a person by saying it is a meteoric rise.
Example: Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from state senator to president surprised everyone except perhaps some of his closest colleagues.
As mentioned, a shooting star is another name for a meteor that quickly streaks across the sky and usually burns out before reaching the earth’s surface.
Example: Critics of Barack Obama claimed his shooting star would soon burn out after facing the harsh realities of being the president of the United States.
Hello! I have a different type of blog post today. It may appear to some of my loyal readers that all types of non-literal language can be classified as metaphors. This is not true. There are many different types of figurative language in addition to metaphors including similes, slang, idioms, clichés, proverbs, and analogies. One of the greatest challenges of doing metaphor research is sorting out these different types of language use. This past week after the midterm elections, there were many examples of slang and analogies that were confusingly similar to metaphors. I am certainly no expert on figurative language, but allow me to provide a few examples of when terms and phrases are not metaphors.
Slang: Red States and Blue States
We cannot turn on the television or radio during an election without hearing about red states and blue states. Here is a brief history of these terms: The United States has two dominant political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. During presidential elections, each state will be won by either party. In the 1990s, television stations and newspapers struggled to show which party had won each state. Eventually the media began using two contrasting colors for the two parties, red for Republican-won states, and blue for Democrat-won states. In time, people began to shorten the names to simply red states and blue states. States that can be either predominantly Democratic or Republican may be referred to as purple states.
It is very confusing as to whether or not these terms are actually metaphors. In fact, I may have described them incorrectly in a previous post. After a great deal of research and consultation with a few other experts, I have concluded that they are not metaphors. There is nothing intrinsically red or blue about any political party. In this case, the color-based origin of these slang terms is completely arbitrary.
The confusion arises when one considers that some color terms are metaphors while others are not. A metaphor is constructed when a person compares the attributes of an object or process to a person or another object or process. For example, describing a cold-hearted person as a block of ice makes sense to us because we understand that ice is cold. Or if we say that a person is a sharp thinker, we understand that the person’s mind is being compared to the sharpness of a knife. However, in some cases, there is no real-world experience with which to form the comparison. For example, we can call a cowardly person yellow even though there is there is nothing yellow about that person’s skin. Similarly, one can be green with envy, although the person is most likely not green. In these cases, the terms are not metaphors.
However, we can say that a person is green if he or she is new to a job. This usage is derived from the fact that, as any gardener knows, a new plant will have bright green shoots and leaves when it first emerges from the ground. The immaturity of the plant is compared to the immaturity and lack of experience of the person. We can also refer to something as being silver or golden based on our experiences with the colors and value of these precious metals. As another example, people have no doubt experienced red tape when dealing with a bureaucracy. In this case, the phrase is derived from the old practice of tying up government documents with red tape. Or we can have blue-collar workers because many factory workers wear light blue shirts as their uniforms. As you can see, the phrases red, blue or purple states have no basis in physical reality, so I would call these slang terms instead of metaphors.
Analogies: Bulls, Fire, Fuses, and Wells
A completely different type of confusion arises when people use longer phrases to describe a situation. In the aftermath of the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that if President Obama made any executive actions on immigration reform it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” He also said it “would poison the well” and prevent further dialog on the issue.
Speaker of the House John Boehner warned President Obama not to go through with an executive order regarding immigration. He stated, “He’s playing with fire.” “He’s going to burn himself if he continues down this path.”
Later, Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talked about the same issue on Meet the Press (11/9/14) “We’re going to work together and the president cannot sign that executive order. He’s going to light a fuse.”
What are these types of phrases? I noticed that some articles on the Internet described these as idioms, but I believe that they are more correctly described as analogies. Idioms are notoriously difficult to define and describe. However, one common criterion among linguists is that idioms are noncompositional, meaning that the words used to make up the idiom do not provide its meaning.
For example, describing a heavy rain as raining cats and dogs is very confusing. There is nothing about cats or dogs that indicate why a heavy rain would have them falling from the sky. There are some theories about the origins of this phrase including the idea that some animals lived in the roofing thatch of houses during the Middle Ages, and jumped down to the ground when it started raining. Another idea is that dead animals were washed down city sewer drains after a heavy rain. But these explanations are what are known as being apocryphal or as folk etymologies, a layperson’s explanation for the origin of a phrase without any basis in fact. We also have the phrase kick the bucket describing a death. Once again, there seems to be no historical precedent for a person kicking an actual bucket while dying. In any case, there seems to be no real-world experience to call these examples anything but idioms.
Sometimes unusual phrases that appear to idioms actually turn out to be metaphors because of real-life experiences. One such example is the phrase to bury the hatchet used to describe a peace making process. This phrase actually dates back to the 1700s when some Native America tribes actually threw a hatchet into the ground symbolically indicating that the war between two tribes was over. The phrase winning hands down also may seem too unusual to be historical in origin. However, as I explained in a previous post on horse racing, the phrase is derived from the practice of jockeys lowering their arms when they are winning a horse race by a large margin since they no longer have to spur the horse to a faster pace.
Back to the colorful phrases of the Republicans. I believe these to be analogies. We may remember analogies from our high school SAT tests as in dog:puppy :: cat:kitten. These, like metaphors, are also a type of comparison. People may use analogies to explain a complex process or situation. In politics, we may hear politicians explaining the federal budget, for example, in terms of a household budget, e.g., “The government has to pay its bills every month just like you do at your kitchen table.”
Using analogies is a rhetorical strategy to compare a familiar process to a new, complex one. Thus, for example, comparing President Obama’s executive action on immigration as waving a red flag in front of a bull indicates that it is a dangerous situation for Obama analogous to a bullfighting scenario. However, I heard several pundits on TV wondering out loud who was whom in the analogy, i.e., who is the bull in this analogy? Who is the matador in the bullfight? The main idea is that the Republicans will be as angry at Obama as the bull will be at the matador, but in many cases, the bull ends up being killed by the matador, so perhaps they did not think the analogy all the way through.
Similarly, Eric Cantor’s reference to lighting the fuse also implies a dangerous situation for the president, but it is not clear why President Obama is lighting the fuse for a bomb, and who would be injured by the bomb if it exploded. Mitch McConnell’s reference to playing with fire has similar implications but similar ambiguities.
The analogy comparing the executive action as poisoning the well is even more confusing. The main idea is that poisoning a well is analogous to spoiling the working relationships between two groups of people. However, this is a rather sinister analogy. A person who deliberately poisons a well would most likely end up accidentally killing innocent people. I don’t see how making an executive action would accidentally kill people.
In any case, these sayings are clearly not simply metaphors but complex analogies. It remains to be seen if President Obama does indeed go through with executive actions without the support of Congress and what the reaction of the Republicans will be. Stay tuned for further developments!
Wow! I was planning to share a few common metaphors used to describe elections in my post this week. Instead I found myself struggling to keep up with the brutal, hyperbolic metaphors used to describe the domination of the elections by the Republicans last week. These metaphors are derived from our collective experiences of physical attacks, war and natural disasters.
First a few metaphors we hear about elections not related to the common metaphors of horse racing as discussed in the previous post.
Games and Sports
In a poker game or other gambling games, the amount of money that is risked is called the stakes. The stakes can be high or low depending on the game. In politics, any deal or negotiation between political parties or businesses may be referred to as a high stakes game.
Example: The 2014 midterm elections were a high stakes game for the U.S. economy.
In basketball, the game begins by the referee throwing the ball straight up in the air. This is called the toss up. The player who can reach and control the ball after the toss up will win the ball for his or her team. In common terms, any competition or election that might be one by any player or team may be called a toss up.
Example: Many governors’ races were toss-ups but most were won by Republicans.
Swings are popular games on a school playground. A child on a swing can push and pull on the chains until the swing goes back and forth going higher and higher in the air. Metaphorically, anything that can move back and forth in two directions might be described as swinging. In politics, a swing state is one in which the voters could elect either Republicans or Democrats depending on the candidates in each election. Importantly, the very notion of a swing state implies that there are only two principal parties in United States politics since swings only move in two directions; third-party candidates have difficulty raising money for campaigns, being invited to debates, and winning state or national elections.
Example: In 2014, Republicans won many midterm elections in red states, blue states and swing states.
Battles are the names of the primary engagements between armies in a war. Metaphorically, battles can also be fought verbally between people or groups. The notion of battle is commonly used in politics.
Example: The 2014 midterm elections turned into a battle for the control of the U.S. senate.
The land areas where battles are fought are called battlegrounds. In politics, states in which voters may vote for either Democrats or Republicans are called battleground states when candidates fight for the votes for their party.
Example: Senate races in the battleground states of New Hampshire and North Carolina were closely watched by television commentators on the night of the midterm elections.
The land where battles are fought between two armies is called the common ground. In an argument, the points on which both sides can agree may also be called the common ground.
Example: After the election, both Republicans and Democrats talked about finding common ground to work together for the next two years.
Fighting and boxing
In a fight, the two opponents can hit each other with great force, also known as beating one’s opponent. In sports and politics, the winning team or candidates may also be described as beating their opponents.
Example: The Republicans beat the Democrats in many elections for the House of Representatives, the Senate and state governor’s positions.
Another way to describe a person beating another person is to say that one drubs or gives a drubbing to another. In politics, candidates who lose elections by a large margin may be described as getting a drubbing.
Example: The Republicans gave the Democrats a severe drubbing in the 2014 midterm election.
A more hyperbolic term used to describe a loss in an election is a slaughter. The term slaughter was originally used to describe the process of killing and butchering a farm animal. In more common usage, a mass killing of animals or people may also be called a slaughter, as in a military battle with many casualties. In politics, when many different candidates from one party lose their elections, these defeats may be collectively described as a slaughter.
Example: Some cynical television commentators described the Democrats’ losses last week as a slaughter.
Similar to the notion of a slaughter, a bloodbath is an event in which many people are killed, as if there is so much blood one is bathing in it. This term is usually reserved to describe horrific battle scenes in a war. However, it may also be used to describe a series of tremendous losses by one political party. Oddly, the term bloodletting has a similar meaning despite having quite a different literal meaning. In the Middle Ages, doctors believed that draining people of their “bad blood” would cure them of their illnesses. This process was known as bloodletting. Metaphorically, the term bloodletting can also be used to describe a great loss by one political party.
Example: The Republicans gained six Senate seats in the midterm election bloodbath.
Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the earth’s crust or continental plates. These events may also be called seismic shifts. Tremors are smaller quakes that happen before or after a major earthquake. Metaphorically, earthquakes, seismic shifts and tremors can describe important events that happen in an organization that change the normal course of activities.
Example: It was an earthquake for the Democrats last Tuesday night when they lost so many seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
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: Republican Governor John Kasich was reelected in a landslide victory winning 64% of the vote.
A wave is a movement of water coming into a shore. Metaphorically, any strong movement in a process or actions may be called a wave. The most common metaphor used to describe the Republican victories last week was a wave.
Example: The 2014 midterm elections were described as a Republican wave of victories over Democratic candidates.
A tide is the movement of the ocean going out and coming in based on the moon’s gravitational pull. The term tide is used in a wide variety of metaphors indicating a powerful force such as a strong wave coming in to a shore. These metaphors include the phrases the tideof war, turning the tide, or turning back thetide.
Example: There was a strong tide of victories for the Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections.
A tsunami is a huge ocean wave that devastates coastal communities as happened in Indonesia and Thailand 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: The Republican tsunami in the midterm elections surprised everyone on the television news shows.
The term rout is derived from an old French word meaning a strong battlefield win during a war. Metaphorically a rout is a strong victory in sports or politics.
Example: President Obama was forced to admit that the midterm elections were a rout for the Republicans against the Democrats.
One final example is one of the strangest of all political metaphors…
Shellac is a type of furniture varnish or protective coating. It is famous for being long lasting because it is thick and requires many coats to apply it to the furniture. Treating furniture in this way is called giving it a shellacking. Metaphorically, to give a person a shellacking means that they are treated very roughly by someone else.
Example: The Republicans gave the Democrats a clear shellacking in the 2014 midterm elections.
A political campaign is often compared to a horse race. The horses, betting procedures and methods for determining the winner in a horse race are commonly used to describe elections.
Before the Race
A horse race involves people betting a lot of money on horses that they think can win. In a political campaign, people put a lot of money behind candidates whom they hope can win an election. Thus an election is often compared to a horse race.
Example: Candidates wishing to run for the president of the United States must enter the race at least a year or two before the election in order to have time to raise money and get the public to know them.
People at a horse race place bets on the horses that they think will win. In common terms, we also metaphorically place bets on political candidates.
Example: In the 2012 presidential election, many conservatives placed their bets on Mitt Romney. However, he was not able to win the election.
on the ticket
A person who bets at a horse race receives a small piece of paper called a ticket which lists the names of the horses he or she has just bet on. Thus the horse one bets for is on the ticket. In politics, we also say that a person who runs for office is on the ticket. Additionally, one can bet on several horses at the same time, including the horse one thinks will win, place (come in second) or show (come in third) in the race. Thus, we also say that a president and vice president will be on the same ticket.
Example: Everyone was surprised when John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be on the ticket with him as the vice-presidential candidate in 2008.
The metaphorical idea of ticket can be stretched even further when a person votes for candidates from two different political parties. This is sometimes called splitting the ticket. The person does this is referred to as a ticket splitter.
Example: Most political candidates do not like people to be ticket splitters on election day because they hurt the unity of the party.
During the Race
out of the gate
Horses begin a race locked behind a wide gate. When the race begins, the horses are released and run as fast as they can out of the gate. Metaphorically, anyone beginning a new process may be described as being out of the gate. In politics, candidates and political figures must make quick decisions and be consistent with their messages. Thus they must be quick out of the gate.
Example: Although Barack Obama promised big changes if he were elected president, he was very slow out of the gate and it took years to make any of the changes that he promised during the campaign.
run for office
Horses run to win the race. Similarly, candidates for political office are said to run in an election to win a position in a government. We may also call this running for office.
Example: Any candidate running for office these days needs millions of dollars to have a successful campaign.
Extending the idea of running for office, the phrase running mate refers to the person who runs for election with someone else. For example, commonly a vice-presidential candidate is called the running mate of the presidential candidate.
Example: Conservative women voters were excited when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate for vice president in the 2008 election.
run the risk
Although the origin of this phrase is unclear, when we do something that may have a negative outcome, we may say that we are running a risk. In horse racing, when the horse runs, it runs with no guarantee that it will win the race. Thus, there is a risk that the horse will not win. In politics, a very common phrase to describe something that may have a bad outcome for the person or group is running a risk.
Example: When political candidates appear on popular TV shows, they run the risk of not being considered a serious professional.
When a horse is winning a race, we say that it is out in front of the other horses. We can also say that the horse is the front runner. In a political election, the candidate who is leading in the polls is also referred to as the front runner.
Example: Usually the candidate is who is the strong front runner a month before an election wins the race.
In a horse race, the horses run on a dirt track inside a horse racing arena. If the track gets wet from recent rains, it will be very hard for the horses to run on it. If the dirt is dry, it will be a fast track for the horses to run on. In common terms, any person or activity that seems to be moving very quickly is said to be on a fast track.
Example: When Paul Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, he started on the fast track to political fame and power in the United States.
On an oval track, the shortest distance for the horses to run is close to the inside rail of the track. In common terms, there are two meanings to the phrase inside track. First, as in horse racing, to be on the inside track means to be on course to win in whatever competition one is engaged in. Secondly, the word inside also has the connotation of having restricted or secret access to something. Thus, to have the inside track on something means that someone has information that is not available to other people.
Example: In 2008 when the housing market crashed and banks started to fail, the economy was on the insidetrack to be in the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Example: Television reporters in Washington D.C. are always competing to get the inside track on the latest news from the White House.
Just as the horses on the inside of the track have the greatest chance of winning, the horses running on the outside have the greatest chance of losing since they have farther to run to win the race. Thus to have an outside chance at completing something means that it is not very likely to happen.
Example: When Barack Obama first announced that he was running for president in 2006, most people thought he only had an outside chance of winning since he was the first African-American in years to try to become president.
jockey for position
When the horses are running the race, the jockeys (persons who ride the horses) must try to get in the best position possible so that they can win the race. Of course, every jockey wants to be on the inside track so they must fight to get where they want to be. This is called jockeying for position. In politics, we may also say that candidates must jockey for position to gain the best advantage and win the election. Beyond an election, politicians may also jockey for position to try to pass a bill, gain more influence on the president, or earn a higher position within the government.
Example: When a new president enters the White House, members of Congress of the majority party jockey for position to become the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader.
pull even with
In some cases, one horse may be leading a race, but another horse may catch up and run at the same speed as the front runner. This is called pulling even with the other horse. In an election, when one candidate is leading in the polls but another candidate catches up, this may also be called pulling even with the other candidate.
Example: In 2008, it seemed that John McCain was pulling even with Barack Obama, but Obama was able to win the election in the end.
keep pace with
When two horses are running at the same speed, we may say that they are keeping pace with each other. In common terms, we may describe many processes at keeping pace with something else if they are occurring at the same rate of speed.
Example: When an economy is not good and people start losing jobs, it is very sad when the government’s job creation programs cannot keep pace with the rate of job losses.
neck and neck
In some horse races, two horses may be running at the same speed in which case the horses’ necks are close to each other and it is difficult to tell who will win the race. We say that the horses are running neck and neck. In politics, when the candidates are very close to winning the election, we say that the candidates are running neck and neck.
Example: In 2004, John Kerry and George W. Bush were running neck and neck for many months but Bush won the election by a small margin.
Towards the end of a horse race, the horses must usually run one last section of track in the middle of the arena. This is called the home stretch because it is the last section or stretch of the track before the horses get home to the finish line. In common terms, the home stretch is the last tiring section of a competition.
Example: Several days before a presidential election, the candidates crisscross the country giving speeches at campaign rallies trying to win as many votes as possible in the home stretch.
At the Finish Line
One unusual phrase borrowed from horse racing is the term hands down. When a jockey is far ahead of the other horses and is certain to win the race, he or she will relax the grip in the reins controlling the horse and put his or her hands down towards the sides of the horse. In horse racing, this is referred to as winning the race hands down. In common terms, when someone wins a sports game or political election by a large margin, this is also called winning hands down. In a related second meaning, we can also say that something absolutely certain is hands down, usually referring to someone’s opinion of a controversial matter.
Example: In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter hands down.
Example: The worst economic times in the United States must be the Great Depression in the 1930s, hands down.
A dark horse in a horse race is one that is not expected to do well, but finishes surprisingly well or even wins the race. The word dark sometimes carries the connotation of something secret or mysterious. In politics, a dark horse is a candidate in an election who surprises everyone with the strong finish.
Example: In the 2010 primary races for Republicans, many dark horse Tea Party candidates beat out traditional Republican incumbents.
Another unusual horse racing term is a dead ringer. This term refers to a fast horse that is illegally substituted for a slow horse in a race. The word ringer is derived from the term ring meaning to substitute for something as in the phrase ring in the New Year. The word dead is used in the sense of being exact or complete as in the phrase dead wrong. In common terms, a person or thing that looks exactly like someone or something else is called a dead ringer.
Example: In 2008, a photographer from Indonesia named Ilham Anas gained fame because he is a dead ringer for Barack Obama.
too close to call
In horse racing, the winner is called on the loudspeaker of the racetrack once the winning horse is determined. If the horses are neck and neck, the announcer may say that the race is too close to call until the officials can review the photographs taken at the finish line. On an election night, if the candidates are all receiving approximately the same amount of votes, we say that the election is too close to call.
Example: In 2000, the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was too close to call on election night. Several weeks later, after many vote recounts, George Bush was declared the winner.
down to the wire
Another expression similar to too close to call is down to the wire. Before the days of high-speed cameras, horse racing tracks had a wire suspended above the finish line so that the officials could determine the winner by seeing the first horse that passed under the wire. In politics, any close election may be called a race down to the wire.
Example: One might say that the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore went down to the wire.
In modern times, high-speed photography is used at the end of every horse race. In cases where the winner is too close to call, the officials look at the photographs to determine exactly which horse won the race. This is called a photo finish. Similarly, an election with two candidates earning almost equal totals of votes might be called a photo finish.
Example: George W. Bush and John Kerry had a photo finish election in 2004. George Bush won the election by a small margin.
As mentioned, the third place position in a horse race is called the show. This finish implies that even though the horse did not win, it at least showed up near the winner. In common terms, a showing also implies a good effort although not a win. In politics, candidates who do not win but make a good effort may be referred to as those with poor showings.
Example: In the 2010 midterm elections, the Democrats had poor showings in several states and lost many seats in Congress.
bet on the wrong horse
If one bets money on a horse, one hopes that this horse will win the race. If that horse loses, we say that we simply bet on the wrong horse. In politics, if we support a candidate who loses an election, we may also say that we bet on the wrong horse.
Example: No one likes to bet on the wrong horse in an election. It pays to do research on the views and popularity of each candidate.
pick the winning horse
In horse racing, a person can win a great deal of money if one picks and bets on the winning horse. In politics, picking a winning candidate in an election is also called picking the winning horse.
Example: In 2012, Americans who voted for Barack Obama picked the winning horse.
If you tune in to the election coverage on Tuesday night, I am sure you will hear many of these metaphors. Let me know if you hear any new ones about horse racing!