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