Monthly Archives: January 2015

“Good News People” – the 2015 State of the Union Address

As you know, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union (SOTU) Address last week. It has been a challenge analyzing it for its rhetorical power and metaphorical content. State of the Union speeches are especially difficult to study because they cover such a broad range of topics. Having just studied a brilliant speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. singularly focused on the topic of voting rights, I found it bizarre to study the SOTU this time – by my count, President Obama touched on 72 different topics – everything from Cuba to Russia, Ebola, immigrants, community colleges, black neighborhoods, Wall Street and missions to Mars. Most college students would not get a passing grade from their professors on such a rambling paper – “…and your thesis statement is what exactly?”

Nonetheless, there were some interesting rhetorical and metaphorical techniques used by Obama and his speechwriters. As I have mentioned in previous posts, good speeches contain the three elements of logos (logic), ethos (ethics) and pathos (emotions) as originally discovered by the ancient Greeks. Just briefly, President Obama repeatedly explained the logic of celebrating the improved economic conditions such as lower unemployment rates, higher stock markets, and better health care. He also touched on the ethical imperative to fight terrorists around the world, improve race relations within our police departments, and work harder to help our young people go to college. However, he more commonly appealed to our sense of pathos, describing the fear inspired by recent terrorist attacks, mentioning particular tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City, and highlighting the struggle of a young couple named Rebekah and Ben, who “bounced back” to improve their lives after the economic recession of 2008.

As for the metaphor usage, I first looked to see if I could find any overarching theme to the speech. As any beginning music student knows, one can usually tell the key signature of a musical piece by looking at its last note (major or minor keys, or different modes, are another story). One can also tell the major theme of a speech by looking at the last paragraph. Here is the last major paragraph of the SOTU speech:

“My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)

I think there are several core metaphorical themes present in the last paragraph that create the tone and message for the entire speech. The first is that the United States is a family. It is common in political speeches for the orator to use personification of his or her country, e.g., “America at its strongest.” However, the entire country can also be personified as a family. The second metaphorical theme is that this family has been through some rough times but is doing better now. This implies the metaphor of a journey, a collective journey of the government working for the people. Finally, the story of this family on the journey is told as a metaphor of literature, as a narrative. There are several other sets of metaphors including those of buildings, vision and team sports. In total, President Obama delivered a speech using several complex metaphors to reassure the citizens of the United States as the ability of the country to recover from hard times. Even though he gave powerful evidence that the country recovered amazingly well from the recession in 2008, weak audience response prompted him to quip, “This is good news, people.”

Here are a few examples of conceptual metaphors used in the speech. As always, the quotations are taken directly from the speech; the italics are mine.


We are all familiar with stories – everything from simple bedtime stories we heard as children to complex plots in novels and films. Every story has someone who narrates the events – someone who provides the narrative. In the State of the Union Address, President Obama refers to the economic and social conditions as part of a collective story. He infers that he is the person who will write the story, working together with everyone in the country. He specifically refers to the turning a page to start the speech, and beginning a new chapter as he ends the speech. In the middle he refers to the story of the young couple as our story.

blog - SOTU 15 - Shakespeare First_Folio_VA

Example: “But tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. “

Example: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”

Example: “A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)


There are several intersecting types of personification used in the speech. For one, terrorism is described as a person who can touch the people in the United States. In correlation with this metaphor is another idea that the country is our home, so the geographical boundaries are called our shores.

blog - SOTU 15 - touch Hands_of_God_and_Adam

Example: “We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.”

Terrorism is also described as a strong person who can physically move, or drag another individual to a new location or draw a person into a new situation. At the same time, the United States is personified as a person who is standing up and getting stronger.

Example: “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?”

Example: “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” (Applause.)

Example: “When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.”

Example: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. (Applause.) We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”

Example: “And it has been your resilience, your effort that has made it possible for our country to emerge stronger.”

Countries can also be personified as people who partner with others to achieve a goal. Others strong countries may be described as being bullies to other countries.

blog - SOTU 15 - partners Lennon-McCartney
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriting partnerships in history


Example: “Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

Example: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” (Applause.)

In a final example, an economic recovery is also personified as someone who can touch people’s lives.

Example: “Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives.”


Another set of metaphors correlates nicely with the idea of the country as a family. In this case President Obama compares the country of people as being on the same team who must either write fair rules that everyone agrees upon or play by the same rules. Teams must also up their game to be competitive and win the next contest.

Using a strange metaphor, Obama spoke of leveling the playing field. This unusual phrase apparently derives from a problem in early 20th century high school and college football fields. If the school did not have the money to properly create a flat field, the team playing from the high end of the field would have an advantage of being able to run downhill, while the downhill team would have the disadvantage of trying to move the ball uphill. Eventually, teams complained enough that the school literally had to level the playing field. (Thanks to the folks at for the research on this one!) These days this metaphorical phrase indicates a situation where the rules are fair for all sides in a political or economic competition.

The 1916 Army-Navy football game at the Polo Grounds in New York City
The 1916 Army-Navy football game at the Polo Grounds in New York City

Example: “That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Example: “But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.

Example: “Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense.”

blog - SOTU 15 - Spielzug_Playbook

Example: “In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”

Example: “And in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game.”


President Obama also used many metaphors of building the country as if it were a construction project. In related metaphors, he also spoke of developing strong policies as if he were anchoring a building in a firm foundation or even on bedrock. He also spoke of parts of buildings such as platforms and pillars that are used to construct a strong, sturdy building; these terms here used to describe Internet systems and strong leadership skills.


Example: “You are the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.”

Example: “Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming.”

Example: “And that’s why the third part of middle-class economics is all about building the most competitive economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire.”

Example: “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community — (applause) — and help folks build the fastest networks so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

Example: “We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”

Example: “But the job is not yet done, and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”

blog - SOTU 15 - pillars ParthenonExample: “And there’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values.”

Example: “I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home — a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values.”

Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. And that’s what they deserve.”

blog - SOTU 15 - Foundation-M2325Example: “Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation.”



Another powerful set of metaphors used by the president are those of vision. Even though he spoke of the power of stationary buildings, he also spoke of having a vision of the future. He began by speaking of having a better focus on what he wanted to do as president, and then looked beyond the past and present to a more outward vision of goals in the future.

Example: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”

Example: “Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”

Example: “Third, we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”

A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon
A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon

Example: “Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, naïve, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.”

Example: “If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand.”


Finally, President Obama talked about the future of the country as if we were all on a journey together. Journey metaphors are very common in political speeches, those in previous State of the Union Addresses or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” In this case, the president used several different types of journey metaphors. These included metaphors from walking: taking steps, stepping up, and making strides; driving: going down the road, keeping the pace and staying ahead of the curve; using boats: propelled forward, or run onto the rocks; using trains: derail dreams and paying full freight; and general metaphors of movement: move on and move forward. As you can see below, President Obama mixes and matches these different metaphors to great effect.

Example: “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. (Applause.) This is good news, people.” (Laughter and applause.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExample: “As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of “small steps.” These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”

Example: “And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care.”

Example: “In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: The United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution. And China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Example: “Second, to make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.” (Applause.)

blog - SOTU 15 - curve of the roadExample: “Let’s stay ahead of the curve. (Applause.) And I want to work with this Congress to make sure those already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.” (Applause.)

Example: “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another? Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”

The SS Princess May run up on the rocks near Skagway, Alaska in 1910
The SS Princess May run up on the rocks near Skagway, Alaska in 1910

Example: “Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight.”

Example: “As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties, and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.”

People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965
People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward.”


In sum, President Obama delivered an hour-long speech covering a wide range of political, economic and international issues.   His use of metaphors helped convey his message of the country going through some hard times, but emerging stronger and more hopeful of the future. He told his message as if it were a national story, and used personification of terrorism to increase the emotional response from the audience. He also used personification of the United States to indicate its strength and ability to stand up to adversity. He increased the sense of the people’s involvement with the government by talking of the United States as being on the same sports teams and everyone playing by fair rules. He used metaphors of constructing buildings to describe the work of creating new policies and programs for United States’ citizens. He then used metaphors of vision to describe how he was focusing on the past and present but looking forward to the future. Finally, after laying the foundation and looking beyond, he took us on a journey with several different vehicles. As mentioned, political speeches often use journey metaphors to convey the message of the speaker that the country is not stuck in the past or present but moving forward, putting hard times in the past and looking towards brighter days in the future.

Next time: Another look at Animal Metaphors

MLK: “Give us the Ballot” Speech

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

On May 17, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd of about 20,000 people at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The topic of the speech was voting rights. Although all American citizens were granted the right to vote in the 14th Amendment from 1868 (five years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), the Jim Crow laws of the American South (with literacy tests and poll taxes) often obstructed African-Americans from actually being able to vote well into the 1960s. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP and other civil rights leaders forced the legislation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited state and local governments from interfering with the voting rights of minorities anywhere in the United States. This movement also resulted in the marches and riots of Selma, Alabama in 1965, now prominently portrayed in a recent movie simply entitled Selma.

blog - MLK ballot - MLK_and_Lyndon_Johnson_2
Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Lyndon Johnson in 1966


The “Give Us the Ballot” speech from 1957 was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to obtain increased voting rights for all minorities. The speech was given three years to the day after the historic Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, (May 17, 1954), prohibiting racial segregation in public schools, overturning the infamous “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson decision from 1896. Some quotations listed below refer to the judicial decision three years earlier. Interestingly, the speech was two years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and six years before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The 22 minute speech can be read here at the website created by Stanford University to archive Dr. King’s speeches. If you have time, I encourage you to listen to the amazingly clear audio recording of the speech. It sounds like it was recorded just yesterday. You can hear the power in emotion in King’s voice as he delivers another brilliant speech. You can also hear the crowd responding with “Yes!” or “Amen!” at certain points in the speech. Unfortunately, the last two minutes of the speech are cut off in the recording at this website. You can hear the powerful conclusion to the speech here on YouTube (audio only).

As for the political metaphors in this speech, they are not as rich or colorful as in “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail” but are still used with brilliant precision and for powerful effect. One particularly clever metaphor is derived from medicine and concludes a section complaining about the weakness of the American government. I quote it here in its entirety to give you a flavor of the speech.

“This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. (Oh yes) The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.” [laughter]

Here is a brief summary of a few notable metaphors from the speech. As always, the quotations are taken directly from the speech. I have italicized the metaphors being studied. Let me know if you have any questions about any of these metaphors.

synecdoche: ballot, benches

The speech cannot be analyzed without a brief mention of two types of figurative language, synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) and metonymy (meh-TAH-nuh-me). Technically these are not metaphors, but I will provide illustrations of them since several of them are featured prominently while one is used in the title of the speech. When Dr. King says, “Give us the ballot” he is not only referring to a physical ballot (the piece of paper), he is also referring to the abstract process of voting. When a part of something is used to describe a whole, this is an example of synecdoche, as in “all hands on deck” in which the hands refer to the sailors doing the work.

blog - MLK ballot - voting_booth

Example: “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

In another example, Dr. King refers to “the benches of the South.” Again he is not simply referring to wooden furniture but to the work of the Supreme Court justices who traditionally sat on wooden benches to hear court cases.

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”

metonymy/toponymy: Washington

            Metonymy occurs when the name of a person or place is used to indicate the work that the people do, or the work that is done at that location as in the famous phrase from the Cold War, “The White House is talking to the Kremlin.” This is similar to personification but is a more specific type of figurative language. In this case, Dr. King speaks of looking to Washington, meaning the work of the American government done in Washington D.C. (Technically, when a name of a specific place is used, this is called a toponym.)

blog - MILK ballot - Wash DCExample: “If the executive and legislative branches of the government were as concerned about the protection of our citizenship rights as the federal courts have been, then the transition from a segregated to an integrated society would be infinitely smoother. But we so often look to Washington in vain for this concern.”

personification: silent, bones, sing

In the more familiar usage of personification, we find that objects are described with human qualities. In these cases, a branch of government is described as being silent, nations have bones, and stars are singing. Note that the last two examples are taken from the Bible, as Dr. King uses a powerful rhetorical strategy appealing to the faith of his audience members. The last example is the final line of the speech.

Example: “In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the executive branch of the government is all too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the desperate need for civil rights legislation, the legislative branch of the government is all too stagnant and hypocritical.”

Example: “‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ [Matthew 26:52] (Yeah, Lord) And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations (Yeah) that failed to follow this command. (All right) We must follow nonviolence and love.” (Yes, Lord)

Example: “When that happens, ‘the morning stars will sing together (Yes sir), and the sons of God will shout for joy.’’’ [Job 38:7] (Yes sir, All right) [applause] (Yes, That’s wonderful, All right)

taste: bitter, rancor, tang

We also find metaphors of taste in this speech. One of the most common examples is a reference to feeling bitter. Some readers may think of this as a dead metaphor, but using the word bitter to describe the feeling of being cheated or treated unfairly was originally derived from the particular bitter taste of some foods. The word rancor is also derived from a Latin word meaning something with a foul taste or smell. In one other instance, Dr. King speaks of the tang of being human. The word tang can literally describe the sharp, stinging taste of particular foods or metaphorically the sharp emotions of a difficult life. Interestingly, he contrasts two senses in one sentences, taste and sight, comparing the tang of being human with the glow of being divine.

A bitter ale
A bitter ale

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.” (That’s right)

Example: “We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter.”

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”



medicine: high blood pressure, anemia, injections, veins

blog - MLK ballot - Sphygmomanometer           In the clever example listed above, Dr. King contrasts high blood pressure to anemia (low iron content in the blood) using common medical terms to illustrate a problem. In another example, he describes the work of civil rights leaders changing society as people injecting new meaning into the veins of civilization.

Example: “These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.”


blog - MLK ballot - Injection_Syringe_01Example: “If you will do that with dignity (Say it), when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, ‘There lived a great people. (Yes sir, Yes) A people with “fleecy locks and black complexion,’” but a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization (Yes); a people which stood up with dignity and honor and saved Western civilization in her darkest hour.”

standing, rising

Political speeches often contain metaphors of body position, i.e., those that relate how we use our bodies to strong or weak language. For example, a person lying down has little or no power to fend off an attack or go on the offensive. A person must rise up from a lying or sitting position to take action. Metaphorically, standing up or rising up indicate a person or group taking a strong stance for or against something. In the speech, Dr. King that notes that some states protested the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling, describing them as rising up in defiance. In other points of the speech he encourages the audience members to stand up for justice and he cites a quote about truth rising again by the 19th century Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant from his 1839 poem “Battlefield.”

Example: “Many states have risen up in open defiance.”

Example: “There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”

Example: “Stand up for justice.”

nature: hilltops and mountains

Dr. King’s speeches often used imagery from nature, some descriptions or phrases borrowed from the Bible. In his other speeches, he used the analogy of the challenge of achieving civil rights for everyone as climbing over hilltops and mountains. Note that here too there is an example of personification when he speaks of the Red Sea standing up.

The San Gabriel Mountains of California
The San Gabriel Mountains of California

Example: “Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. (Yes) And even after you’ve crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil (Yes) and gigantic mountains of opposition.”

day and night

Dr. King also often used pairs of contrasting elements in nature for rhetorical effect. In metaphorical imagery, goodness, hope, and truth are associated with the daytime, while evil, despair and lies are associated with the night.   Similarly, the time of midnight may be associated with the worst of the bad qualities of the nighttime. Dr. King often described the process of achieving civil rights as going from the night to the day.

Example: “For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity.”

Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England
Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England

Example: “There is the danger that those of us who have been forced so long to stand amid the tragic midnight of oppression—those of us who have been trampled over, those of us who have been kicked about—there is the danger that we will become bitter.”

light and dark

As with the comparison of day and night, we can also speak of light and dark with similar metaphorical associations. Light is always associated with hope and goodness. Here again he is referring to the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada
The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

Example: “It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom.”

hot and cold

Another set of contrasting metaphorical terms consists of hot and cold, with the medium state of lukewarm used as well. The metaphorical concept of hot implies passion, energy and enthusiasm, while cold implies lethargy and inaction. Here Dr. King is lamenting the fact that liberalism of the late 1950s is not very supportive of the right to vote.

blog - MLK ballot - hot and cold faucetExample: “It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.’”

open and closed/containers

Yet another contrast is derived from the metaphorical concept of containers. We speak of many abstract states and processes as if they are inside or outside of a container, such as in “falling in love” or being “out of fashion.” We can also talk about states being open or closed. A person’s mind is metaphorically conceived as a box, so that one be open-minded or close-minded, if one is open to new ideas or not. We can also speak of events or processes that are emerging, as if they are animals or insects coming out of an enclosed space or container. Here he talks about an emerging new order and emerging freedom.

blog - MLK ballot - container boxExample: “It is unfortunate that at this time the leadership of the white South stems from the close-minded reactionaries. These persons gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas and by deliberately appealing to the deepest hate responses within the human mind. It is my firm belief that this close-minded, reactionary, recalcitrant group constitutes a numerical minority. There are in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.”

Example: “But if we will become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns, the old, the new order which is emerging will be nothing but a duplication of the old order.” (Yeah, That’s all right)

A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis
A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

Example: “We must not seek to use our emerging freedom and our growing power to do the same thing to the white minority that has been done to us for so many centuries.”


Many political speeches contain journey metaphors. Rhetorically, a good speaker will invite comparisons of the process under discussion to a physical journey. Thus we can talk about the “road to the White House” or “roadblocks in the way of progress.” Here Dr. King speaks mostly of the speed of the journey of civil rights. Many black leaders at the time were often told to slow down and not force the governments to change their laws so quickly. Dr. King often showed an impatience with this attitude that shows up in this speech as well in a section of the speech I quoted earlier.   Dr. King also uses a metaphor of the warning signal. Literally this type of signal might be used on a roadway or shipping lane to warn travellers of some type of danger ahead. Metaphorically, a warning signal is any event that would warn a person or group of something bad that might happen in the future.   There is also an interesting type of metaphor based on our experiences of meeting people in a walkway or road. We must be careful not to collide with each other. Metaphorically, we can meet ideas or values along the way. Dr. King speaks of “meeting hate with love.” Finally, Dr. King exhorts his audience towards the end of the speech to continue the journey, e.g., keep moving and keep going.

Example: “It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: ‘Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.’”

Example: “We must meet hate with love. (Yeah) We must meet physical force with soul force.”

blog - MLK ballot - warning signalExample: “There is another warning signal.”

Example: “Keep moving. (Go on ahead) Let nothing slow you up. (Go on ahead) Move on with dignity and honor and respectability.”

A track runner at the University of Wisconsin
A track runner at the University of Wisconsin

Example: “Keep going today. (Yes sir) Keep moving amid every obstacle. (Yes sir) Keep moving amid every mountain of opposition.” (Yes sir, Yeah)


Dr. King’s speech “Give us the Ballot” is a wonderful example of his amazing oratorical skills and brilliant use of metaphors. He would continue to polish his skills leading up to his tour de force “I Have a Dream” speech six years later. I hope you have found these metaphors interesting. For further reading, I always strongly recommend the works of Jonathan Charteris-Black who has written masterful analyses of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. See my review of his book on Politicians and Rhetoric here. You may also check out my previous analyses of “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I hope we all work a little bit every day to help Dr. King realize his dream of civil rights for all Americans and for people all over the world.

This coming week, President Obama is scheduled to deliver another State of the Union address. I will be working on that next! Stay tuned…

Next Week: The State of the Union Address

Metaphors of Farm Animals

Greetings!  As promised, today I have a few more examples of metaphors derived from animals.  This time I look at cows, oxen, sheep, goats and pigs.  Believe it or not, they do indeed exist!  Previously I wrote a short blog on cows and beef, but today I offer a more complete list.  Note that most of these terms originated in the history of farming and ranching, some from our English-speaking ancestors in Great Britain, others from our own experience in the western United States. As mentioned last time, these metaphors illustrate the close relationship between humans and animals for work, companionship or food.  Please let me know if you have any questions about these fascinating metaphors.

Cows and Oxen

blog - animals - Cow_female_black_whitecow

Cows are animals that can be easily grouped or herded into specific places.  People can be cowed if they do not stand up for what they believe in.

Example:  President Obama does not seem to be cowed by the efforts of the powerful lobbyists to change policies to benefit their corporations.


A young cow that is found without a brand is said to be a maverick, named after a rancher named Maverick who often did not brand his cows.  In political terms, a maverick is someone who is very independent of political parties.

Example:  John McCain is known as being a maverick for opposing policies of any party that he does not agree with.

blog - animals - Texas_longhorn_cattle_bull_grazingbull, bull sessions, bully and the bully pulpit

A bull is a male cow.  The term bull or bully can have many meanings in politics.  Bulls can be very strong and aggressive.  Thus, to bully people means to act aggressively towards them and get them to do what the bully wants them to do.  The word bully is also an old expression meaning, “Great! Exciting!”  The phrase bully pulpit was first used to describe the speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, 1901-1909.  A pulpit is the place in a church where the priest or pastor gives his sermon to the congregation.  Politicians are sometimes described as having a bully pulpit when they tend to lecture and tell the Congress or the American people what to do.  Bull feces can be called bullshit, (a swear word in English), sometimes shortened to just bull.  This term in turn can be used to describe something that has no value, so to talk bull means to speak without telling the truth.  Conversations with lots of bull can be called bull sessions.

Example:  The American people become frustrated if politicians only engage in bull sessions and do not get anything done.

Example:  A good political leader does not bully his colleagues.  Rather, he needs to work with them cooperatively.

Example:  A strong president trying to pass new laws must sometimes use the bully pulpit to get his ideas across.

The famous bull sculpture on New York's Wall Street
The famous bull sculpture on New York’s Wall Street

bull market

When the stock market is on an upward trend and investors are very confident in investing money, this is called a bull market, comparing the market to the strength and power of a bull.  (Compare to a bear market below.)

Example:  It is always good to invest money in a bull market; this is when investors make the most money.


The word drive has many meanings, most commonly today used to mean operate a car or truck.  However, ranchers would often drive their animals to get them to where they wanted them to go, as in a cattle drive.  In general, to drive means to propel something forward.

Example:  The collapse of the banking system drove the economy further into a recession.

beef and beef up

The meat of a cow is called beef.  The size and weight of a cow has allowed the word beef to be used to indicate strength and importance.  The word beef can be used to mean a complaint, as in “What’s your beef?”  One can also use the expression, beef up, meaning to make something stronger.

Example:  Congress is trying to beef up the laws to protect children from abusive parents.


Workers on a farm or ranch who catch and control the animals are said to wrangle with them.  In politics, when people argue or fight, this may be called wrangling as well.

Example:  Most Americans get tired of politicians wrangling over policies instead of getting things done and helping the people.

blog - animals - cattle branding vintagebrand

Rancher must put a mark or brand on the skin of their cows so that they are not stolen by other ranchers.  This same word is used to indicate the names of companies or political policies.

Example:  Some Democrats say Barack Obama has introduced a new brand of politics with his emphasis on helping the poor and middle class.


A stampede occurs when an entire herd of animals runs in the same direction without being controlled by anyone.  In political terms, members of Congress may be stampeded by other politicians who try to pass bills or make laws without giving everyone a chance to study the policies.

Example:  Some critics said that the Patriot Act of 2001, designed to increase anti-terrorism policies of the U.S. government, was stampeded through Congress without many members realizing what the bill actually meant.

fence mending

Ranchers must separate their animals from other ranchers’ animals with strong fences.  If a fence is broken, the animals can run away and cause trouble for the other ranchers.  Thus, one must constantly mend or fix the fences to keep the animals safe and avoid problems with neighbors.  In politics, fence mending means that two politicians who disagreed on something must talk it over and reach a new agreement.

Example:  Republicans are Democrats are always in the process of mending fences to get bills passed in Congress.

blog - animals - earmarkearmark

A rancher with hundreds of cows must mark each one to indicate the gender and age of each animal.  Usually a tag with this information is attached to the ear of each cow, thus called an earmark.  In political terms, an earmark is money secretly put in a bill by a member of Congress to pay for a project in his or her home district, without the rest of Congress knowing that it is part of the bill.

Example:  In 2005, Alaskan senator Ted Stevens famously tried to use an earmark to build a bridge costing $400 million that would be used by only 50 people.

dig in heels

When a rancher is trying to control and stop a large animal from running away, he needs to dig in his heels, or get a firm footing on the ground, or else the animal will get away.   In political terms, someone who does not change his or her position on a policy is said to dig in his heels.

Example:  In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary dug in their heels to try to get a new health care system for America, but Congress did not approve their plans.


A harness is a set of strong leather straps used by the rider or driver to control strong work animals such as horses or oxen.  In popular terms, people speak of being able to harness sources of energy such as the wind or solar power or even harness the will or energy of the American people.

Example:  A good president can harness the energy of all the members of Congress to pass laws to help the American people.

blog - animals - yokeyoke

A yoke is similar to a harness in that it is used to control a strong animal although it is usually larger and made of wood.  In political terms, sometimes people without power are said to be under the yoke of a bad government or unfair policies.

Example:  For hundreds of years, African-Americans suffered under the yoke of slavery.


Animals, like people, need to be fed every day.  Hungry animals eat a lot of food when they can get it.  In politics, journalists like to get many news stories every day to publish in their newspapers and magazines, or television and radio programs.  This process is sometimes called feeding the beast.

Example:  The White House Press Secretary is always feeding news stories to the press.

Sheep, Goats, and Pigs

A shepherd with his flock in Romania
A shepherd with his flock in Romania


A fold is a name for a group of animals on a farm, especially for sheep.  Farmers like to keep the sheep together in the fold.  If an animal runs away or is lost, the farmers try to get it back in the fold.  In politics, someone who strays from the values or policies of a political party or religious group is asked to come back to the fold.

Example:  Members of Congress who lean too far to the left or right may be asked to come back to the fold of their parties and not be too extreme.

tending the flock

A group of sheep is called a flock, similar to a fold or flock of birds (see above).  To tend the flock means to take care of all the sheep in that group.  In politics, tending the flock means to take care of the needs of a politician’s constituents or followers.

Example:  Presidential candidates must always tend their flocks if they want to get everyone’s vote in the election.


A wether is an old name for a ram or male sheep.  A bell was hung on the neck of the dominant wether in a flock so that the other sheep would follow him, making it easier for the shepherds to herd the flock.  In modern times, a bellwether is something that is an indicator of other things to come.

Example:  The many home foreclosures in the summer of 2008 was a bellwether for the troubling economic problems that soon developed throughout the country.

stray far

Animals on a farm or ranch such as cows, sheep or goats, cannot go far from the ranch or else they will be lost or killed.  To stray means that the animals go away from the farm; ranchers hope that they do not stray far. In political terms, to stray far means that the person is getting away from the policies or values of his or her party.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney tried not to stray far from the values of his conservative Republican party but lost the election to Barack Obama.

blog - animals - goatscapegoat

In ancient Jewish culture, a goat was symbolically given all of the sins of the community and sent into the wilderness, thus relieving everyone of their sins.  The animal was referred to as a scapegoat. Today, a scapegoat is someone who is blamed for the mistakes of other people.

Example:  During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Michael Brown, the director of the federal emergency services, was made the scapegoat of all that went wrong in trying to help the people in the floods.

hog tie

When a farmer needs to catch a hog, or large pig, the workers tie rope around his legs very tightly so that the hog cannot move.  This is referred to a hog tie.  In popular terms, to hog-tie people is to prevent them from doing something they want to do.

Example:  Members of Congress sometimes hog-tie the president when he tries to pass a bill they don’t like by constantly voting it down.


Once again, we can see many examples of how we create metaphors based on every day experiences.  Our close relationships with animals have given us some of our most colorful metaphors.

Next weekend marks the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am working on an analysis of another one of his brilliant speeches.  Stay tuned!

Next time:  Metaphors of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Metaphors of Animals

Happy New Year!  Welcome to another year of the fascinating study of metaphors in American politics.  Today I would like to share some analyses of metaphors of animals.  This post was inspired by a visit with a next-door neighbor just before Christmas.   We had just had a severe windstorm and several large branches of one of our trees had broken off and fallen in to his backyard.  When I went to warn him about the big mess, I was greeted at the door by a beautiful border collie puppy he had just gotten for his kids for Christmas.

I am sure that thousands of American children received puppies or kittens for Christmas, or maybe a hamster, iguana or tropical fish as pets.  Children in rural areas might even have gotten a pony.  It reminded me that humans have had a long history with animals as pets around the house or work animals on the farm.  Dogs were domesticated about 18,000 years ago while cats have been with us about 9000 years.    Horses were trained for work and riding about 4000 BC.   Not surprisingly we have many colorful idioms and proverbs about animals such as it’s raining cats and dogs, or a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  We also have many metaphors based on our experiences with animals.  I have previously written about metaphors of birds.  Here are a few based on our relationships with dogs, cats, fish and horses.  Enjoy!

blog - animals - Border_Collie_liver_portraitDogs


Dogs are often used to watch over and guard their owners’ property.  In politics, watchdog groups are those that help make sure laws are followed and enforced.

Example:  The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is a watchdog group that makes sure our water, air and ground are not polluted.

attack dogs

Dogs that are trained to protect people and fight for them if necessary are referred to as attack dogs.  In politics, attack dogs are the aides of politicians who attack the policies or statements of their opponents.

Example:  At Democratic and Republican conventions, each party’s attack dogs give speeches complaining about their other party’s candidate.

Blue Dog Democrats

Conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives are sometimes called blue dogs.  The name is derived from a twisting of an old name of Yellow Dog Democrats in the 1920s and the paintings of a blue dog popular with some Southern Congressmen. Technically this phrase is an idiom rather than a metaphor since it is not based on real-life blue dogs, but I include it here for the sake of a complete description of popular phrases in politics about dogs.

Example:  You can count on the Blue Dog Democrats to vote for fiscally conservative policies.

blog - animals - YellowLabradorLooking_newdogged

Dogs are known to be very persistent in getting what they want, such as digging for a bone.  For people in politics, one can have a dogged belief in something for which they never change their mind.

Example:  Many conservative politicians have a dogged belief in pro-life or anti-abortion policies.


Most dogs, especially aggressive or dangerous ones, are kept on leashes.  To unleash a dog or other animal is to allow it to run wild and possibly hurt someone.  Nuclear weapons are often compared to dangerous dogs.

Example:  Everyone is afraid that some day terrorists could unleash nuclear weapons.


Cats make wonderful pets but they are not easy to discipline.  The idea of herding cats indicates something that is impossible to do.  A person who has a pet issue means that he or she works hard on a particular project.

blog - animals - Turkish_Van_Catherding cats

Example:  Some people say that trying to get everyone in Congress to agree on anything is like herding cats.

pet issues or pet projects

Example:  A president’s wife, or first lady, usually has a pet issue such as health care, women’s rights, or helping children learn to read.



blog - animals - Clown_fishfishy

As we all know, fish have a strong smell when they are no longer fresh.  Something that is fishy smells like there might be something wrong or illegal.

Example:  The members of Congress usually investigate fishy financial deals of public officials.


Fish spawn or lay thousands of eggs that grow into adult fish.  When one event grows into a large project or social movement, this is also called spawning.

Example:  Some say that the war in Iraq spawned more terrorist activity in the Middle East.

blog - animals - gutting Cleaning_Fishgut

After one catches a fish, one needs to gut or remove the intestines of the fish before eating.  To gut something metaphorically is to take out all of the important parts of it.

Example:  Sometimes a legislator writes a bill, but it is gutted by the other party, and is not very effective.



Many aspects of riding or training horses are used as metaphors in politics.

blog - animals - Spotted_Saddle_Horse1saddle

A horse rider uses a saddle to help sit comfortably on the horse.  However, saddles can be heavy and make the horse work harder to carry the weight.  Thus, to saddle people with something means to give them extra problems.

Example:  High interest rates on credit cards have saddled many Americans with too much debt.

blog - animals - horse bridle and reinsunbridled

A bridle is a leather harness used to help the rider control the speed and direction of the horse.  An unbridled horse is more energetic and sometimes difficult to control.

Example:  Many candidates have unbridled energy when it comes to running for office. 

rein in

Horse riders use reins, long leather straps, to control the direction of the horse.  To rein in a horse means to keep it under control.  In politics, to rein in something means to take more control of it.

Example:  Many Americans complain that the government needs to rein in spending and balance the budget.

blog - animals - Spurs_cowboy_crockettspur

Some horse riders wear spurs or sharp metal objects on their boots that they can use to kick the horse to make it go faster.  In a similar way, something can spur someone on to do something they might not normally do.

Example:  Voters’ complaints about pollution spurred Congress to pass new laws to protect the environment.

ride out

To ride out a problem means that one can endure or complete a project under difficult circumstances.

Example:  Congress needs to ride out this current economic crisis by whatever means necessary.


A horse rider can ride over an obstacle such as a log in its path.  To override something means to deny or change the direction of a project.

Example:  If the president vetoes a bill that Congress wanted to pass, Congress can override the veto if two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate vote for it.

blog - animals - horse trottingtrot out

A horse walking quickly but not running is referred to as trotting.  To trot out a horse means to bring the horse out to show to someone.  In politics, people can trot out new ideas.

Example:  Candidates sometimes trot out new policies during the election campaign to try to win new voters.

blog - animals - Broncobuster3buck the trend

A wild horse that kicks its hind legs up and down is said to buck the rider, trying to remove him.  A person who does not follow what everyone else is doing is said to buck the trend.

Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama bucked the trend of raising money from rich investors by asking ordinary people to donate small amounts of money.

workhorse and show horse

Some horses are big and strong and do lots of work for their owners; these are called workhorses.  Other horses are beautiful and are meant to be shown off; these are called show horses.  In politics, a candidate who works very hard at his or her job may be called a workhorse.  Someone who is very attractive but is not taken seriously may be called a show horse.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, some critics claimed that Barack Obama, with his good looks and hard work ethic, wondered if he was both a workhorse and a show horse.

Clearly our close relationship to dogs, cats and horses as work animals or pets have inspired many metaphors that we use to discuss politics.  Our experiences with catching and eating fish have inspired other similar metaphors.  Next time we will look at how metaphors are inspired by animals we use raise for meat or work down on the farm.

Next time:  Metaphors of Farm Animals