Monthly Archives: March 2015

Straight Talk: Metaphors of Lines

Our world is full of objects of different sizes and shapes. Man-made objects are neatly categorized into shapes of one, two or three dimensions. Many metaphors in English are based on our visual experiences with these objects. To follow up with my post last week on circles and spheres, today I will be sharing metaphors based on our collective experiences with points and lines.

good shape, bad shape

We use the concept of shape to describe programs or policies that have no physical form. The word shape has been used metaphorically to mean the condition or status of something.

Example: The U.S. economy was in bad shape during the Great Depression.

This shack is in bad shape...
This shack is in bad shape…


We can also use the word shape as a verb to describe forming policies or programs.

Example: Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped shape progressive Democratic policies in the 1930s.




A point is the smallest of shapes with virtually no dimensions.

the point

The idea of a point of an object is commonly used metaphorically to mean the goal or purpose of an argument, discussion, policy or program.

Example: Presidential candidates must be sure to get to the point when they need to quickly answer a moderator’s question.

blog - shape - Five_point_stencil_illustrationtalking points

Talking points are the main issues that are addressed in a news broadcast.

Example: Critics of mainstream media political coverage claim that the talking points are made by the station managers and are not really the events of the day.




party line

A line is a two-dimensional object from one point to another. The concept of a line is used metaphorically to indicate a wide range of meanings in politics. In one sense, the lines of a text come to represent the policies described in that text. Thus the party line indicates the goals and policies of a political party as described in its documents.

Example: Mitt Romney was chosen as the Republican candidate for the 2012 election because of his record upholding the Republican party line.

voting along party lines

In another sense, party lines indicate the dividing line between Republican and Democratic members of Congress or the Senate. If all Republicans, for instance, vote for Republican-sponsored bills, we say that they are voting along party lines.

Example: Sadly, Democrats and Republicans do not agree on many important issues. Bills in Congress are often voted down on party lines with no real solutions offered.

blog - shape - Vertical-Linelay it all on the line

The concept of a line is also used to mean the imaginary dividing point between what is safe and what is risky. The phrase to lay it all on the line means that one risks everything by doing a certain action.

Example: A presidential candidate must lay it all on the line and work tirelessly for months to win an election.

over the line, cross the line

There is an additional metaphor using the concept of an imaginary line between what is decent and what is in bad taste. If an action or statement is in bad taste, we may say that it is over the line or it crosses the line.

Example: Some Americans complain that negative TV ads with personal attacks on a candidate during a presidential campaign are over the line.

110401-N-HC601-027blur the line

When something is blurry, it is not clear to the eye. When we blur a line metaphorically, we make a dividing line between two concepts, groups of people, or political parties unclear.

Example: Some conservative Democrats blur the line between liberals and conservatives.

straight answers

When a line is drawn directly from one point to another, we say that the line is straight. Describing something that is straight implies that it is true, clear and direct. Giving straight answers indicates that they are true and direct.

Example: Most American voters appreciate presidential candidates who give straight answers to reporters.

blog - shapes - Straight_linestraightforward

Similarly, the word straightforward means that something is direct and clear.

Example: At first, Bill Clinton did not give any straightforward answers when he was asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

straight month

Events that occur in temporal succession may be described as being straight, as in the fifth straight month of economic recovery.

Example: Politicians like to see when unemployment figures drop for three or four straight months.

blog - shapes - Spool_of_stringa string of problems

A string can be pulled in the shape of a straight line. Metaphorically, a string of something can indicate a long line of similar events in succession such as a string of problems.

Example: Barack Obama faced a string of economic problems as soon as he was inaugurated in 2009.

winning streak

A streak is a long, thin mark made by a pen or paintbrush. Similar to the idea of a line or a string, a streak indicates a long succession of similar events. A winning streak is a series of successes in a certain endeavor.

Example: John McCain has had a long winning streak in the elections for the U.S. Senate.

cross purposes

As mentioned earlier, a line can represent an imaginary division between ideas or policies. The idea of crossing a line indicates changing one’s mind or breaking with standard policies or procedures. Doing something at cross purposes means that two people or groups of people are working in opposite directions or with opposite goals.

Example: Cutting federal budgets and laying off workers at a time when we need more jobs may be working at cross purposes.

blog - shapes - Morgan_crossover_2crossover appeal

When one line crosses another, we may say that it is a crossover. Figuratively, anything that changes from one position to another may be called a crossover. Political candidates who can appeal to two or more interest groups may be described as having crossover appeal.

Example: Barack Obama may have won the election in 2008 because of his crossover appeal to minority and women voters.


To split something means to divide it into two parts along a line. One can split something physically like a branch or any number of ideas or groups of people.

Example: In 2010, the rise of the Tea Party split the Republican Party into two camps of moderate and conservative politicians.

crooked, crook

A line that is not straight is crooked. In one of the most common metaphors, we can say that a person or person that is not honest is being crooked.

Example: Richard Nixon famously said, “I’m not a crook,” but then resigned from the presidency to avoid being impeached.

blog - shapes - Winding_roadwry, awry

Wry is an old word meaning that an object was crooked, bent or twisted. If a person has a wry sense of humor, he or she has a way of twisting the meanings of words. If another form of the word, we say that a process has gone awry if it has not gone as planned.

Example: In 2008, John McCain hoped that his choice of Sarah Palin his running mate, but his plans went awry as Barack Obama surged in the polls before the election.

flat economy

In contrast to a straight line which has a positive connotation, a flat line has a negative connotation. Lines used in graphs that are slanted upwards indicate improvements in sales or economic growth. Lines that are flat indicate no growth or improvement. Therefore, the concept of a flat line can be used metaphorically to mean a lack of growth.

Example: After the 2008 economic crisis, the economy was very flat for many years.

flat tax

The idea of flat can also be used to describe a situation that does not change. Thus a flat tax is a tax that is paid at the same rate no matter the amount of income that one has.

Example: Some Americans believe that we should have a flat tax. In the current system, many wealthy individuals get lower tax rates because of loopholes.

blog - shapes - flat highwayflatly

The concept of a flat line has one positive connotation in that it can be used as an adjective, flatly, meaning that there is no uncertainty about a statement that is being made.

Example: Most politicians flatly deny that they have committed any wrongdoing, even if they are found guilty of misdemeanors later.


As you can see, we can create a wide variety of metaphors based on the simplest of shapes. These examples provide further evidence that we create conceptual metaphors based on common experiences with our world. It is interesting how we develop abstract meanings of words and phrases in English that parallel the physical appearance of shapes. For example, straight meaning “honest,” while crooked meaning “dishonest.” It is a tribute to the complexity of the human mind that we can create and understand these metaphorical expressions with ease. I hope my blog posts can help English language learners further understand these wonderful expressions.

Next time: Squares and Rectangles

Spheres of Influence

Recently 47 Republican Senators sent a letter to the leaders of Iran warning them not to work with President Obama on nuclear negotiations. Many conservatives applauded the bold move, while many liberals complained that the senators had gone beyond their authority and undermined the efforts of President Obama and his staff to reach a deal. In the past couple weeks, I have heard several journalists speak of the problem of the senators going beyond their foreign policy sphere. While we would not normally give such an expression a second thought, phrases such as sphere of influence or circle of friends reveal a complex category of metaphors based on everyday shapes.   Here are a few examples of metaphors from circles and spheres.



blog - shapes - led-circle-greeninner circle, circle of friends

Circles are a common shape in our human experience. As such, circular shapes are used in many English metaphors. For one example, a group of friends or colleagues that is frequently seen around a central person may be called an inner circle or a circle of friends.

Example: When George W. Bush was president, his inner circle included Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

come full circle

To draw a circle, one must begin drawing at one point, complete an entire revolution and return to the same point to finish. The phrase to come full circle means that a person, group of people or country has returned to the starting point of whatever process they were involved in.

Example: Since the 1930s, the United States has come full circle. During the Great Depression there was high income inequality; in the 1950s, there was a strong middle class, and now there is great inequality again.

blog - shapes - clock full circle go around

The round shape of a circle is another common source of English metaphor. In walking, we may go around an obstacle to get to where we are going, making a semi-circular motion in doing so. Figuratively, we can also go around problems or issues if we do not want to deal with them.

Example: In some cases, a U.S. president may need to go around Congress to get something done if the Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a certain policy or bill.

roundly criticized

In another sense of being round, we can also say that to do something completely is to do it roundly, as if we are completing a circle in our thoroughness. In a common expression, a person or group can be roundly criticized if they are criticized by many different people for many different reasons.

Example: Although the reasons for invading Iraq were roundly criticized in 2003 by many liberals in the United States, the war eventually brought peace and stability to the country.

circular reasoning

If people give a reason for acting or believing a certain way on an issue without really giving a logical explanation or referring back to an earlier explanation, we may say that they are guilty of circular reasoning.

Example: Most American voters do not like it when presidential candidates avoid answering an important question by saying that is always the way they have done it. This is simply circular reasoning.

blog - shapes - loop of cordin the loop, out of the loop

A loop is a circular shape of string, cord, ribbon etc. Metaphorically, people who are in a small group of friends or colleagues may be described as being in the loop, especially with regard to who is able to receive current information on an ongoing process.

Example: There is a very small group of people who were in the loop when Barack Obama was making decisions to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011.


blog - shapes - Earth_Eastern_Hemispheresphere of influence

A three-dimensional round shape is called a sphere, as in a ball or globe. Metaphorically, we speak of spheres as the area surrounding a person or group. A sphere of influence is the group of people that can be influenced by another person, group or country.

Example: The United States has a large sphere of influence when it comes to military power due to military bases all around the world.


Due to the rise of the Internet, many people have their own website journals known as blogs. The collective group of information and opinions in all these blogs is known as the blogosphere.

Example: American media coverage of political events is often influenced by both liberal and conservative critics in the blogosphere.

blog - shapes - balloonballoon

A balloon is a large inflatable bag used as a toy or transportation as in a hot-air balloon. Helium balloons are known to increase in size and rise up in the air. As a verb, to balloon means to rise or expand noticeably. In economics, prices or economic indicators can balloon if they increase more than expected.

Example: In the 1990s, housing prices ballooned to record highs.

blog - shapes - Soap_bubble_skybubble

A bubble is also a common spherical object. Normally they can increase in size until the interior pressure causes them to burst.   A housing bubble is a trend of unusually high housing prices. It is called a bubble because it normally bursts after several years and housing prices fall once again.

Example: The economic crisis of 2008 was partially caused by the housing bubble bursting and market prices falling, causing many people to foreclose on their homes.

Next time: More Metaphors of Shapes

In Memory of Tom Schweich

One of the most enduring theoretical questions in modern linguistics is whether or not our language use affects the behavior of people who read or listen to that language. Obvious examples include television advertising that persuades consumers to buy certain products or perhaps a powerful speaker inspiring his or her audience to take up a cause. In politics, it is easy to make the case that some politicians use specific language styles or constructions to persuade people to join their cause. For example, political groups have been known to use certain euphemisms to reach a goal, as in calling torture “refined interrogation techniques” or a policy that allows air pollution “the Clean Air Act.” It is also clear that metaphors are sometimes used for similar reasons, as in calling immigration “a wave of immigrants” to make them more stigmatized or referring to economy as being “crippled” or in “need of a cure” to gain support for austerity measures or tax cuts.

blog - toxic - Tom_SchweichSometimes in politics, however, direct campaign rhetoric can have the most powerful consequences. Tragically, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Missouri recently took his own life after being the target of verbal attacks by members of his own party who supported another candidate. Tom Schweich, the Missouri State Auditor, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 26, 2015 at the age of 54. I did not know anything about Mr. Schweich until I heard of his death. However, he had an impressive curriculum vitae. He was a graduate of Yale and Harvard, and had been hand-picked by former U.S. Senator Jack Danforth to investigate the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas in 1993. He also served as the chief of staff to two ambassadors to the United Nations, and was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush administration. In that capacity he helped uncover the Iraqi Oil for Food scandal. Later he worked to reduce international narcotics trafficking and was the ambassador to Afghanistan.

Sadly, when he announced his candidacy for the governor of Missouri, he became the target of radio ads created by the PR firms of one his competitors, comparing him to Barney Fife of the 1960s TV show Andy Griffith based on his physical appearance. The same ad stated that he would be “crushed like a little bug” in the election. Worst of all, several anti-Semitic remarks were aimed at him by members of his own party. Mr. Schweich is actually a Christian Episcopalian, although he has Jewish ancestors.   No one knows why these comments led to his suicide. The people involved in the ads have claimed that they are not anti-Semitic and had not intention of doing harm to Mr. Schweich.

However, television commentators such as Chuck Todd on Meet the Press (March 8, 2015) quickly labeled such comments as “toxic discourse.” In this metaphor, political language is compared to the toxic or poisonous chemicals in water or air pollution. I have previously discussed other similar scientific metaphors such as meltdown, fallout and the nuclear option.   Some friends and colleagues of Mr. Schweich, including former Senator Danforth, called it political bullying.

blog - toxic - Red_toxicity_labelWhile this sad case has little to do with metaphor analysis, it certainly shows that politics can be a dirty business and that language does indeed have powerful effects on those who hear it. I am hoping this short blog post today calls attention to the negative effects of modern political campaign ads, and to celebrate the life of Tom Schweich, a truly patriotic American government official who deserved a long, successful life in politics.

For further information, please refer to the following sources:

Casting a Net for Terrorists

The masked terrorist responsible for the brutal beheadings of Westerners in Syria was recently identified as the British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John. Once his identity was determined, it was revealed that the British Secret Service known as MI5 had been watching Emwazi for several years but was not able to prevent him from undergoing radicalization by terrorist groups and getting involved in brutal murders with ISIS. Critics widely wondered how he could have “slipped through the net” (e.g., an article from the British Telegraph newspaper, “MI5 blunders that allowed Jihadi John to slip the net.” . Using the metaphor of net to catch terrorists reminds me of the metaphors of fishing. I have previously discussed metaphors of hunting. Today I would like to share a few examples of metaphors from our collective experiences of fishing.

blog - fishing - baittake the bait

Bait is the small bits of fish, worms or insects placed on a fishhook used to attract and catch fish in rivers, lakes, or oceans. When a fish is caught on a hook we say that the fish has taken the bait, Metaphorically, bait is something used to attract someone into doing something he or she would not ordinarily do.

Example: During a presidential debate, one candidate may attack the other candidate to try to get him or her to become angry. An experienced politician will stay calm and not take the bait.


Chum is similar to bait, but it is a greater quantity of small fish cut up and dropped into the water to attract larger fish to the area. Chum is often used to attract sharks.   In politics, chum is a series of comments by a politician designed to attract comments or actions from an opponent, especially when these comments will distract the opponent from a more important issue the first politician does not want to discuss.

Example: Liberals often complain that conservatives throw out the chum of national defense arguments instead of dealing with everyday economic problems.

Traditional net fishing in Patzcuaro, Mexico
Traditional net fishing in Patzcuaro, Mexico


Some fish are simply trapped in nets thrown into a river, lake or ocean. The word net is widely used in English with many metaphorical meanings. In economics, net is the amount of money earned by a business and left after paying expenses. A total value of a business or a person is called the net worth. In technology, the net is a short name for the Internet on which millions of people communicate with each other and gain information. In politics, the word net may be used to indicate the end result or gain of some activity.

Example: A good presidential candidate may net thousands of votes from a single campaign rally.

cast a wide net

In fishing, a group of people may throw out a very long and wide net to catch as many fish as possible at one time. As part of the net metaphor, we can also say that we can cast a wide net to search for someone to fill a position or become a political candidate.

Example:  In 2010, the Republican offshoot called the Tea Party cast a wide net to find candidates for the midterm elections.


A very common metaphor using the idea of a net is the term network. A network is an interconnected group of people who work together toward a common goal. In media, a network is the name for a television company. In politics, a network can indicate either a television company or a social network of supporters.

Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama developed a huge network of young voters who helped him reach the White House.

Catching a mahi-mahi or dolphin fish
Catching a mahi-mahi or dolphin fish

catch up/caught up

When a fisherman gets a fish from the water, we say that he or she is catching the fish. We also have a phrasal verb catch up from the sport of track or horse racing meaning one reaches the same position in a race as a competitor. This can also be used in the past tense as caught up. However, to say someone is caught up in something means that he or she is trapped as if in a fish net. In politics, people can be caught up in scandals if they were doing something illegal that no one knew about, but whose behavior was discovered during an investigation into something else.

Example: For political candidates, it is bad news if they are caught up in a scandal in their home district. The news reports on this event could seriously damage their reputation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  


A catchall is something that holds a wide variety of items. Although its origin is unknown, perhaps the term was derived from the fishing technique of using a net to catch fish. Often the fishermen bring in many different kinds of fish or other sea creatures in the same net. In politics, one may find a catchall bill with many earmarks or funding for local projects, or one may hear a catchall phrase, one with many meanings.

Example:  Critics of the war on terror have claimed that Al-Qaeda is a catchall phrase meaning all sorts of different terrorist groups.

blog - fishing - Fishing_reelreel in

When someone is using a fishing rod and reel to catch a fish, he or she must reel in the fish once it has bitten the hook. In metaphorical terms, the phrase reel in one of two things, either a method of attracting people to join a project or purpose, or a method of controlling a person or group who is out of control.

Example: A good candidate knows that an inspiring speech is an effective way to reel in new voters.

Example: After the 2008 economic collapse, many Americans wanted the government to reel in the banks and Wall Street investors who helped cause the collapse.

blog - fishing - Trolling_drawingtroll

Another method of fishing is to drag a fishing line with bait and hook off the back of a boat that travels up and down a river or lake. Instead of waiting for the fish to come to the fisherman, the fisherman goes to the fish. This method is called trolling. In political terms, someone can troll for voters by looking through Internet databases or blogs.

Example: Some political candidates troll for voters on lists of voter registrations in counties in which they think they can get the most votes.

blog - fishing - Fish_hookoff the hook

When a fish takes the bait, its mouth is usually caught on the hook. To release the fish, one has to take the fish off the hook. In metaphorical terms, to take someone off the hook means to stop him or her from being punished for some unacceptable behavior.

Example: After eight years of Republican government, Barack Obama’s government did not want to let George Bush’s off the hook for continuing policies that contributed to the economic problems in 2008.

Next time: Toxic Politics