Category Archives: Sports

Passing the Baton

With the 2016 Summer Olympics underway in Rio de Janeiro, I thought it was worth mentioning again a few metaphors from the exciting sport of track and field. One of the most common metaphors used during the Democratic National Convention a few weeks ago was the idea that Barack Obama was passing the baton to Hillary Clinton if she were elected to be the next president of the United States, as if they were both in a relay race during the Olympics.   Here are a few more metaphors derived from track and field sporting events.

blog - sports - Track_and_Field_ runnersthe first heat

In sprint and long-distance running competitions, runners often compete in many preliminary races called heats to determine who will be the finalists for the last race. Thus the first heat is the first race of the competition. Figuratively, the first step of a long competitive process may also be called the first heat.

Example: The Republican primaries of 2016 were the first heat to determine who was going to be the nominee to face the Democratic nominee in the November election.

blog - sports - hurdlingthe biggest hurdle

Some races require the runners to jump over wooden bars set up on the track called hurdles. Metaphorically, any obstacle or barrier to progress may be called a hurdle.

Example: Many pundits agreed that high unemployment rates presented Barack Obama with the biggest hurdle to getting reelected in 2012.


In a long-distance race, runners have to run around a track many times to complete a race. Each time around the track is called a lap. In some cases, very fast runners will actually catch up and pass slow runners so that they are one full lap ahead of them. The slow runners are described as being lapped. In politics, people can be described as being lapped if one greatly outperforms the other.

Example: In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton lapped Donald Trump several times in terms of fundraising and corporate donations.

blog - sports - pole vaultvault to, vault over

In a specialized sport, an athlete runs with a long pole, plants it in the ground and uses it to lift himself or herself over a very tall bar. This sport is called the pole vault. The action of jumping in the air with the pole is called vaulting over the bar. Figuratively, when a person has great unexpected success in one area, we may say that he or she has vaulted to a new level of success. When a person faces a large problem, we may also that he or she can vault over the obstacle.

Example: In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan vaulted to the lead and beat his opponent Jimmy Carter by a wide margin.

lower the bar

When a pole vaulter is training, it may be difficult to vault over high settings of the bar. Instead, the trainer may need to lower the bar so that the athlete can succeed in making the vault. Metaphorically, lowering the bar means to lower expectations for a certain person, project or program.

Example: After many long years of war in Afghanistan, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama seemed to lower the bar to define how one would declare victory there.

jump or leap to conclusions

In another specialized track and field sport called long jumping, athletes must run as fast as they can and jump as far as they can. They must make a great leap to beat their opponents. This notion of leaping can also be used in a metaphorical phrase leap or jump to conclusions meaning that one assumes an end result of some process without knowing the facts.

Example: On election night, many television viewers can get frustrated with reporters who leap to conclusions and announce the winners before all of the voting results are in.


070422-N-5215E-003 ANNAPOLIS, Md. (April 22, 2007) - A Special Olympics athlete participates in the long jump at the Naval Academy. This was the 39th year the Academy hosted the event, which drew 175 athletes from the surrounding area for two days of aquatics and track and field competition. More than 300 Midshipmen, active duty service members, and Annapolis-area high school students volunteered as event staff and athlete escorts for the event. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Matthew A. Ebarb (RELEASED)
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (April 22, 2007) – A Special Olympics athlete participates in the long jump at the Naval Academy. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Matthew A. Ebarb (RELEASED)

fall short

Some sports, such as the long jump competition in track and field, require athletes to jump long distances. When an athlete does not jump as far as his opponents have jumped in a competition, we may say that he or she has fallen short of the goal. This phrase is also used in archery when an arrow falls short of reaching the target. In a common phrase, when someone does not meet expectations or success at the proposed goals, we may say that he or she has fallen short.

Example: Many progressives feel that Barack Obama fell short in reaching liberals goals for civil rights in the first few years of his presidency.

track record

The fastest speed of a runner (or car or horse) is literally called the track record. Politicians may also have track records in the way that they vote on particular issues.

Example: Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, has had a good track record of supporting veterans after they return from foreign wars.

U.S. Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (NJROTC) cadets hand off batons during a 8x220-yard relay race on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 17, 2009, during the 2009 NJROTC National Academic, Athletic and Drill competition. Units from 25 high schools, in 13 states, competed in personnel inspections, academic tests, military drill, and athletic events. (U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom/Released)
U.S. Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (NJROTC) cadets hand off batons during a 8×220-yard relay race on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., April 17, 2009 (U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom /Released)

pass the baton

In relay races at track and field events, runners carry a short bar called a baton as they run. When each runner finishes his or her section of the race, he or she passes the baton to the next runner, who passes it to the following runner, etc., until the race is complete. In business or politics, a person who steps down from a position of authority can be said to pass the baton to his or her successor.



Example: During the Democratic National Convention in 2016, some journalists wrote that Barack Obama would be passing the baton to Hillary Clinton if she were to win the presidential election in November.

State of the Union Address 2016, Part 1

President Obama’s State of the Union Speech last week was interesting for several reasons. Most SOTU speeches are filled with metaphors looking forward to better days ahead. Thus there are many journey metaphors such as taking steps, on the right path, going around roadblocks, etc. However, since this was Obama’s final SOTU speech at the end of his two terms, he was talking more about looking back instead of looking forward. Although he does use a few journey metaphors, they are not a primary rhetorical strategy in his speech. He mostly describes the progress he has made in his two terms with metaphors of sports, nature, machines, buildings, physical forces, personification, and journeys. Today I will analyze his use of metaphors in the first four categories listed here. As always, the examples are direct quotations from the transcript of the speech. Italics are mine.


It is very common to talk about group efforts in terms of sports teams. President Obama uses two sports metaphors to indicate how people are working together to solve problems as in team up, or using a wrestling metaphor to describe making a brave effort to defeat an enemy as in gone to the mat.

Example: “Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”

blog - SOTU16 - teamExample: “We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy — something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support.”


It is also very common to describe complex problems in terms of natural phenomenon. The origins of a problem are often described as roots of a tree, while the same word root can be used to mean a process similar to a person or animal digging up food from the ground. Intractable problems can also be described as a marsh or quagmire whose muddy ground makes it almost impossible to cross over. Finally a process that is not succeeding may be described as withering, as if it is a dying flower. President Obama uses nature metaphors to describe problems of terrorism and extreme right-wing politics.

Example: “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

blog - SOTU16 - rootsExample: “We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”

Example: “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”

Example: “Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention.”


Talking about abstract processes often involved comparing them to buildings. We can talk about building lives or nations, building up terrorist organizations, or rebuilding society. We can also talk about supporting or propping up organizations as if they are buildings that are about to fall down.

Example: “Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build.”


Example: “And that’s why the third big question we have to answer is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem.”

Example: “That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions.”

Example: “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis.”

Example: “American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists; or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling.”

Example: “Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria — states they see slipping away from their orbit.” 

Machines and Tools

We are all familiar with various types of machines – everything from household appliances to lawnmowers, cars and trucks. We commonly compare abstract processes to everyday machines. We talk about societies breaking down, or the need to shut down a prison. Sometimes we need to get a machine going again, so we can talk about reinventing a part of society, or reigniting our spirit. To get a machine working again we needs tools to fix it, so we may talk about tools to enforce an agreement, laid off workers retooling for a new job, or the government working to fix problems.

Example: “That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.” 


Example: “Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.”

Example: “That is why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo: it’s expensive, it’s unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies.”

Example: “It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector;”

Example: “This brings me to the second big question we have to answer as a country: how do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?”

Example: “Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build.”

Example: “Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.”

Example: “It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

blog - SOTU16 - Hand_tools

Next Time: SOTU 2016, Part 2

Ted Cruz Takes a Right Turn

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been in the news lately. His blunt attacks on the current administration and his own party have endeared him to many conservative voters and allied him with the controversial front runner Donald Trump. A recent Time magazine article nicely summarizes his campaign successes so far and provides a treasure trove of political metaphors. The article is by author Alex Altman entitled Right Turns Only: Ted Cruz’s Radical Plan to Win the White House in the September 7/14 double issue, pages 52 – 55. Online you can read the article here if you are a subscriber.

Altman’s description includes a variety of conceptual metaphors. In addition to the usual sports and military metaphors, I will highlight several interesting examples from agriculture, cooking, religion and vehicles. All quotations are from the article. Some examples are listed several times if they contain more than one metaphor. All metaphors are in italics, not in the original.



blog - cruz - Pea_seed_germinatingseed money

Seeds are used to grow vegetables in a garden or farm. Seeds, metaphorically, are the starting points of a project. Likewise, seed money is the cash or capital used to finance an expensive project.   In this example, the authors of the article are explaining how Ted Cruz’s campaign style has attracted big donors.

Example: “The pitch has attracted plenty of seed money–more than $50 million between his campaign and affiliated super PACs, a total that ranks second only to Jeb Bush’s.”


take root

Trees have roots that not only hold the tree into the ground but symbolize the beginnings of the tree’s growth. The concept of roots is commonly used metaphorically to mean the origin of something.

Example: “At 13, he enrolled in an after-school program designed to inculcate the merits of free-market economics. By then his obsession with the Constitution had taken root.”


Specific farming terms or techniques can also be used in politics. A swath is a wide portion of a land recently plowed or harvested. The term swath may also be used to describe a large group of voters.

Example: “Cruz’s plan is to corner the market for Tea Party conservatives and compete for swaths of the evangelical and libertarian vote.”

blog - cruz - Milking-a-cow-pastmilk

Some farm animals such as dairy cows and goats are used to obtain their milk for human consumption. This process is known as milking. Metaphorically, if one takes advantage of a situation for a long period of time, this may also be known as milking. The author of the article, Alex Altman, describes Ted Cruz’s amazing childhood, having been raised in Canada by Cuban refugees who fled the Batista regime in the 1950s but implies that he talks about it too often to gain sympathy from his supporters.


Example: “Few politicians milk as much mileage from biography as Cruz.”



cooked up

Cooking is a way of preparing food to eat. It is normally a long process that takes a large number of ingredients and the skill of the chef. Metaphorically, the concept of cooking has a negative connotation, in that one can create something that is not true by cooking it up.

Example: “In recent weeks alone, he has dismissed global warming as a fiction cooked up by government stooges…”

canned jokes

In the 1800s, people starting preserving food by putting in tightly sealed jars and tin cans. The so-called canned food was great for keeping food from spoiling, but canned food also earned a reputation for not having much taste and always tasting the same no matter how it was cooked. In popular terms, a speech or set of ideas can be described as being canned if they are not original or are not very exciting.

Example: “His stump speech, delivered without notes or teleprompter, is precisely honed, down to the canned jokes and the pauses for emphasis.”

blog - cruz - sprinklessprinkles

Some desserts such as cookies or cupcakes often have colored sugar bits placed on top of the frosting. These small candies are called sprinkles because one must sprinkle them onto the surface from a small jar. Metaphorically, a person can sprinkle a public talk with various types of comments to add flavor or color to the speech.

Example: “He sprinkles his speeches with social cues–ain’ts and God-bless-yous and Chuck Norris jokes–that show the audience he’s one of them.”

blog - cruz - skewerskewer

Small pieces of meat can be cooked on a barbecue grill by putting all the pieces on a long thin metal rod called a skewer. The skewered meat can be cooked along with vegetables to make a wonderful meal. In popular terms, a person can be skewered by someone or a group of people by very strong criticism.

Example: “His taste for skewering his own party often surprises even those familiar with his scorched-earth style.”




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: “The party has compressed the 2016 primary calendar into a few months in order to limit the damage the race inflicts on the eventual nominee.”


When the horses are running in a 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.

Example: “So while rivals jockeyed for scraps of territory in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz barnstormed the nation’s reddest precincts in a bus with Right turns only plastered above the bumper.”

up for grabs

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 or up for grabs.

Example: “Seven Southern states with about a third of the delegates needed to win the nomination are likely to be up for grabs on March 1, a Super Tuesday bonanza Cruz calls the SEC primary.”

040321-N-5862D-206   Millington, Tenn. (March 21, 2004) Ð Cmdr. Brad Neff takes the checkered flag for a victory lap at the Memphis Motor Speedway in the Sports Car Club of AmericaÕs (SCCA) first national race in the Mid-West division of the 2004 season. Cdr. Neff, a U.S. Navy submarine officer is currently stationed at the Navy Recruiting Command aboard Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tenn. The 41-year-old Oakland, Calif. native is in his second year racing competitively in the Touring One (T-1) class in the SCCA amateur racing circuit. U.S. Navy photo by Chief PhotographerÕs Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)
Millington, Tenn. (March 21, 2004) Cmdr. Brad Neff takes the checkered flag for a victory lap at the Memphis Motor Speedway in the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) first national race in the Mid-West division of the 2004 season. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond. (RELEASED)

victory lap

In car racing, the winning car will often take one more lap around the track so that the fans can cheer for the winner. The same is true of track and field runners. This lap is called the victory lap. In metaphorical terms, a person in business or politics who celebrates after a big win may be described as taking a victory lap.

Example: “Big crowds greeted him like a gridiron legend. But this was no victory lap. The Texas Senator has a new Southern strategy. Seven Southern states with about a third of the delegates needed to win the nomination are likely to be up for grabs on March 1, a Super Tuesday bonanza Cruz calls the SEC primary.”


The power of a normal engine can be greatly increased with the addition of a device called a turbocharger. Metaphorically, any significant increase in energy, money or progress may be referred to as turbocharging.

Example: “The first presidential debate had boosted his poll numbers and turbocharged his fundraising.”


Athletes need strong, muscular bodies to compete at the collegiate or professional level. Having muscle implies that one is strong and ready for competition. In politics, a person or group with muscle means that they are ready for a political battle.

Example: “Cruz boasts that he is the rare true conservative with the fundraising firepower and organizational muscle to slug it out with the GOP’s Establishment favorites through a grinding national campaign.”

Eli Manning of the New York Giants
Eli Manning of the New York Giants

throw a Hail Mary

In football, when a team is losing and has one last chance to win or tie the game, the quarterback may throw a long pass into the end zone hoping one of his receivers can catch it. The success of such a pass is so unlikely, people joke that you need to say a catholic Hail Mary prayer to have any chance of succeeding. Thus, throwing this type of pass is known as throwing a Hail Mary. In business or politics, trying to do something that is very unlikely to succeed is also known as a Hail Mary.

Example: “’It is unlikely to be possible for a candidate to do what some candidates in previous decades have done,’ Cruz explains, ‘which is go camp out in an early state, spend a year there, throw a Hail Mary and get enough momentum to win the nomination.’”



true believers

People who are completely faithful to their religion may be called true believers. In politics, the same phrase may be used to describe those who have complete faith in a political leader or certain political ideologies.

Example: “Cruz is convinced there are enough true believers to push a proven warrior into the White House.”

party faithful

In a specific metaphorical use of the concept of faith, we say that members of a political party are faithful to that party and will always vote for candidates and policies presented by that party.

Example: “When he preaches to the party faithful, Cruz ditches the lectern and roams the stage, carving up his targets in tightly constructed paragraphs.”

Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage in Thailand
Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage in Thailand


In some religions, people take long journeys to go to the birthplace of their faith or to see a beloved religious leader. This type of journey is called a pilgrimage. In politics, journeys by people to see their favorite politician may also be called a pilgrimage.

Example: “The southeast is a strange place for a political pilgrimage.”



blog - cruz - Road_Sign_No_Left_Turnright turns only

Our sense of what is left, right and center is derived from the orientation to our own bodies, e.g., left hand, right leg, etc. Historically, in politics, left indicated liberal and right indicated conservative. This usage dates to the French National Assembly in 1789 when the more conservative politicians sat to the right side of the president’s chair, while the liberal thinkers sat on the left. We still use these terms today. Interestingly, we have extended the meaning of left and right to turning directions while driving a vehicle, making a left turn indicates that one is becoming more liberal while making a right turn means becoming more conservative. Ted Cruz has capitalized on this metaphorical usage and uses a slogan of right turns only for his supporters.

Example: “So while rivals jockeyed for scraps of territory in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz barnstormed the nation’s reddest precincts in a bus with Right turns only plastered above the bumper.”


In the early 1800s, theatrical troupes put on plays in barns for local communities. This was known as barnstorming. The term took on a new meaning in the early 1900s when pilots with newly invented airplanes crisscrossed the country putting on air shows for small communities. In politics, candidates who visit all parts of the country giving campaign speeches may also be described as barnstorming.

Example: “So while rivals jockeyed for scraps of territory in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz barnstormed the nation’s reddest precincts in a bus with Right turns only plastered above the bumper.”


The word drive has many meanings. In the context of vehicles, to drive means to operate a vehicle. Figuratively, any action to move a process forward may also be known as driving.

Example: “Instead of softening his rhetoric, he believes a pure conservative message can drive millions of disaffected white and evangelical voters back to the polls.”




A military soldier is often called a warrior, i.e., one who goes to war. In politics, a person who fights for his or her principles in campaigns may also be called a warrior.

Example: “Cruz is convinced there are enough true believers to push a proven warrior into the White House.”

World War I soldiers marching in Toronto, May 1918
World War I soldiers marching in Toronto, May 1918

rank and file

Large groups of soldiers can be arranged in horizontal rows called ranks, and vertical columns called files. Commanding officers are not arranged in such ways. Thus, the rank and file soldiers are the hardworking soldiers who are not in high positions. Metaphorically, ordinary people in business and politics may be referred to as the rank and file if they loyally support their business leaders and politicians.

Example: “The reinvention prompts some Republicans to suggest the party-crasher routine is an act Cruz created as he watched the GOP rank and file lurch to the right during the early years of the Obama presidency.”

stand up and fight, lead the fight

In boxing and the military, strong boxers or soldiers must stand up and fight dangerous battles. Metaphorically, politicians also stand up and fight for their principles in campaigns, in Congress or in the presidency. Those in leadership roles may also be described as leading the fight. Ordinary citizens may also be described as standing up and fighting for their rights as well.

Example: “’Voters should ask every candidate, Show me where you’ve stood up and fought,’ Cruz explains, digging into a double cheeseburger with jalapeños at a Whataburger outside Houston.”

Example: “’What I ask activists to do is to pick the 10 or 12 most important fights of the last several years,’ Cruz says as his SUV wheels toward another book signing in Texas. On every big conservative battle, he says, from Obamacare to government spending to religious liberty, I’ve been leading the fight.’”

command an army

Military leaders are often called commanders who control their armies. Metaphorically, a politician may also be described as someone who is commanding the army of his or her supporters.

Example: “Cruz is a constitutional scholar who commands a populist army, a careful tactician who picks long-shot fights.”

battle grounds

The land 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: “But if the 2016 battle is waged on those grounds, it may favor the fighter who only turns right.”

blog - war - Cannon_Firefirepower

A gun, rifle, or cannon can be described in terms of its explosive power depending on the amount of gunpowder used in its bullets or shells. This is also called firepower. Metaphorically, the ability to raise money or win elections in politics may be called firepower.

Example: “Cruz boasts that he is the rare true conservative with the fundraising firepower and organizational muscle to slug it out with the GOP’s Establishment favorites through a grinding national campaign.”


With guns as well as bows and arrows, people practice shooting their weapons by aiming at a target a long distance away. The literal target has been changed to mean a metaphorical goal in a process or project. In politics, candidates and elected officials try to please their constituents who may vote for them.   These voters may be referred to as the target audience.

Example: “The goal is to determine their target audience and feed each segment a message calibrated to sway them.”

long-shot fights, long-shot bid

To shoot at a target far away is called taking a long shot. The farther away the target, the less likely the person can accurately hit it. In common terms, a long shot is something that has a very low likelihood of happening. In politics, a long shot is a person who is not likely to win an election or an event that is not likely to happen. In the following examples, we see uses of long-shot fights and long-shot bids.

Example: “Cruz is a constitutional scholar who commands a populist army, a careful tactician who picks long-shot fights.”

Example: “But when Cruz launched a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012, he campaigned as a self-styled insurgent.”

bog - cruz - scorched earth Kuwait1991
Iraqi soldiers set fire to oil pipelines during the First Gulf War in Kuwait in 1991.

scorched earth

In some military operations, an army will burn all of the land belonging to an enemy so that it is unusable. This strategy is known as a scorched earth policy. Metaphorically, criticism of an adversary that is done in a quick and brutal fashion may be described as a scorched earth policy or style.

Example: “His taste for skewering his own party often surprises even those familiar with his scorched-earth style.”

badge of honor

Military personnel who demonstrate extraordinary bravery in battle are often awarded medals or badges of honor for their heroism. In popular terms, any a person who is known for brave acts may be considered as someone metaphorically wearing a badge of honor.

Example: “From the time he arrived in the Senate in 2013, Cruz grasped that pariah status in Washington can be a powerful weapon, so he wears his colleagues’ contempt as a badge of honor.”

New Zealand soldiers in a trench in France in World War I
New Zealand soldiers in a trench in France in World War I

fighting trench warfare

During World War I, soldiers had to dig deep ditches or trenches to protect themselves from enemy attacks. This type of fighting wars was called fighting in the trenches. Metaphorically, politicians involved in complex negotiations or arguments may be described as fighting in the trenches or fighting trench warfare.

Example: “It’s entirely possible that one person wins Iowa, a different person wins New Hampshire, and a third wins South Carolina,” Cruz says. “Which means then you’re fighting trench warfare nationwide.”

dig in

The action of creating a trench for protection in a battle is sometimes known as digging in. Metaphorically, taking a firm stand on an issue and not budging from one’s position may also be known as digging in.

Example: “But with so many hopefuls like Cruz raising so much early money, the prospects of a costly, drawn-out fight are now very real. And Cruz is digging in for the long haul.”


            As I have mentioned many times in this space, I am always amazed that ordinary conversation and writing are filled with conceptual metaphors. Even a brief article (2300 words) by my count contains about 80 different metaphors.   I have only analyzed a portion of them here. While it is common to compare elections to sports competitions or wars, it is fascinating that we have metaphors based on cooking, farming or journeys as well. It is more evidence to support the theories of Lakoff and Johnson who have argued for years that metaphorically thinking is part of normal cognition. Comments and questions are always welcome!

Donald Trump: Streetball Rhetoric

Dear readers,

My apologies for the long delay since my last post. I have been swamped with work and family obligations the past few weeks. One of the work projects I have been involved in was being on the selection committee to hire not one, but two, deans at my college. I spent many, many hours in the evenings and weekends reading the files of the job candidates – the time I normally spend working on this blog. I mention this only because I was quite amused to observe that the metaphors we use to describe a hiring process are the same that we use to describe an election process.

blog - nature - Corn_field
A field of candidates?

We used metaphors of nature to talk about the group of candidates who applied for the positions: we had a large field of candidates that we narrowed down to a small pool of hopeful administrators. We also used personification to talk about the qualities of the candidates: we talked invited many strong candidates to the interview process, while we had to eliminate several other weak candidates.


blog - personification - strength 2
A strong candidate?

Then we used boxing metaphors to describe how we arranged the interviews: we had many candidates in the first round of interviews, and then only a few candidates were invited to the second round. Finally, we used metaphors of spatial prepositions to talk about the expected results of the hiring process (still not finalized as I write this): we were excited about the outcome of the hiring process, but it was up to the college president to make the final decision. And now we are getting down to the wire, because the new deans are supposed to be in place at the beginning of our fall quarter only a few weeks away… I am always amazed how commonly we use metaphors to describe everyday actions.

Anyway, back to the blog…

Readers of this blog will know that I have been analyzing the metaphors used in recent announcements of candidates in the 2016 presidential election. Some candidates have used many colorful metaphors such as Rand Paul and Hilary Clinton. Most other candidates have used fairly direct rhetorical styles with few metaphors.

Donald Trump has earned a great deal of notoriety in the past few weeks by being blunt and critical of President Obama, other presidential candidates, other countries and certain ethnic groups. Most liberals and even other Republican candidates have condemned his comments while some conservatives have applauded his candid remarks. In fact, he has surged to the top of the Republican polls. Pundits on TV news shows have claimed that Donald Trump appeals to conservative voters who are frustrated at government gridlock, trade imbalances and foreign policy actions by President Obama.

It has been a mystery to me how a candidate who has alienated so many Americans can be leading in the polls. He dominated the recent Republican debate, and has just appeared on the cover of the most recent Time magazine. I wondered if there was anything in the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s speeches that would attract conservative voters. I was surprised to find a rhetorical style with unusual metaphor usages that would definitely attract some voters.

blog - trump - bball hoop outdoorsI found that Trump speaks like someone trash talking other players in a streetball game. He is very critical of other players, uses a lot of hyperbole and compares political situations to various sports. The term streetball normally refers to basketball games played by local people in an urban neighborhood. However, when I was growing up in a far south suburb of Chicago, we did not have any city parks nearby. We had to play all kinds of sports in the street – baseball in the hot and humid days of summer, football in the cool, crisp days of fall, even hockey in the winter if the streets were icy enough. Lacking a hoop, we never played basketball in the street but we called both our baseball and football games streetball. We had our share of trash talking back in the day, mostly teasing our siblings and friends about their lack of abilities in whatever sport we happened to be playing. Calling someone stupid or lazy was not acceptable behavior on our block. In urban streetball games and professional basketball games, however, the teasing and name calling can amount to downright rude or vicious attacks on other players.

Even in common parlance talking about sports, we use metaphors of violent physical attacks to describe victories and losses. We say that one team beat or killed another team. Donald Trump uses similar expressions to talk about political rivals. He often uses hyperbole or exaggeration as he does his trash talking. Here are a few examples from his speech announcing his candidacy for president back in June. The metaphors in question are in italics.

Hyperbole/Trash Talking

Example: “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”

Example: “When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.”

Ohio State University beat the University of Michigan 34 to 0 in 1934.
Ohio State University beat the University of Michigan 34 to 0 in 1934.

Example: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.”

Example: “I like them. And I hear their speeches. And they don’t talk jobs and they don’t talk China. When was the last time you heard China is killing us? They’re devaluing their currency to a level that you wouldn’t believe. It makes it impossible for our companies to compete, impossible. They’re killing us.”

Example: “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid. We have people that aren’t smart. And we have people that are controlled by special interests. And it’s just not going to work.”

Example: “Hey, I’m not saying they’re stupid. I like China. I sell apartments for — I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them? I own a big chunk of the Bank of America Building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas, that I got from China in a war. Very valuable.”

Example: TRUMP: “Sadly, the American dream is dead.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “Bring it back.”


Another aspect of streetball is taking the ball away, common in either basketball of football, as in a steal or a fumble.  In poor areas of town, such as where I grew up, often only one person on the block could afford a nice basketball or football, so we had to make sure that person was playing in the game or else we could not play at all. In rare cases, the person owning the ball, having lost a game or felt cheated, could say, “I’m going home and taking my ball with me!” thus ending the game. Not surprisingly, taking the ball away has many emotional feelings attached to the action. Donald Trump talks about countries taking away our jobs, our money or our military equipment. Ironically, in each case, as far as I know, our government or our corporations have given away those resources instead of someone else actually taking them. Nonetheless, Trump routinely blames other people for these losses. In one example, he even uses a street fighting phrase of saying that no one will push us around. He also talks about taking or bringing the jobs back as if he is taking a basketball back during a game.

One player tries to take the ball from another in a women's basketball game in Australia.
One player tries to take the ball from another in a women’s basketball game in Australia.

Example: “Iran is going to take over the Middle East, Iran and somebody else will get the oil, and it turned out that Iran is now taking over Iraq. Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they’re taking it over big league.”

Example: “Last week, I read 2,300 Humvees — these are big vehicles — were left behind for the enemy. 2,000? You would say maybe two, maybe four? 2,300 sophisticated vehicles, they ran, and the enemy took them.”



Example: “That’s right. A lot of people up there can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs.”

Example: “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets. Our vets have been abandoned.”

Example: “We need — we need somebody — we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that.”

Example: “I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places. I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money.”

Example: “And guess what? No problem. They’re going to build in Mexico. They’re going to take away thousands of jobs. It’s very bad for us.”

Example: “I will find — within our military, I will find the General Patton or I will find General MacArthur, I will find the right guy. I will find the guy that’s going to take that military and make it really work. Nobody, nobody will be pushing us around.”

Sports metaphors

Finally, Donald Trump uses more obvious sports metaphors. He talks about winners and losers, and alludes to people who lose card games or gambling who end up with nothing. He also uses the metaphor of being a football cheerleader to describe someone who is a champion of important causes. Most often, he uses the baseball metaphor of being in the big leagues, meaning professional baseball teams instead of minor league teams. He uses this metaphor to imply that something is happening on a large scale, or that he is a professional while other politicians are in the minor leagues. At the same time, he continues to use hyperbole such as describing results as a disaster, something being destructive, or the entire country going down the drain.

blog - trump - Sign_wrigley_fieldExample: “Iran is going to take over the Middle East, Iran and somebody else will get the oil, and it turned out that Iran is now taking over Iraq. Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they’re taking it over big league.”

Example: “And we have nothing. We can’t even go there. We have nothing. And every time we give Iraq equipment, the first time a bullet goes off in the air, they leave it.”

Example: “But Obamacare kicks in in 2016. Really big league. It is going to be amazingly destructive. Doctors are quitting. I have a friend who’s a doctor, and he said to me the other day, ‘Donald, I never saw anything like it. I have more accountants than I have nurses. It’s a disaster. My patients are beside themselves. They had a plan that was good. They have no plan now.’”

A cheerleader for the Green Bay Packers
A cheerleader for the Green Bay Packers

Example: “And we also need a cheerleader. You know, when President Obama was elected, I said, “Well, the one thing, I think he’ll do well. I think he’ll be a great cheerleader for the country. I think he’d be a great spirit.” He was vibrant. He was young. I really thought that he would be a great cheerleader. He’s not a leader. That’s true. You’re right about that. But he wasn’t a cheerleader. He’s actually a negative force. He’s been a negative force. He wasn’t a cheerleader; he was the opposite.”

Example: “We have all the cards, but we don’t know how to use them. We don’t even know that we have the cards, because our leaders don’t understand the game. We could turn off that spigot by charging them tax until they behave properly.”

blog - trump - Slot_machineExample: “But he used to say, ‘Donald, don’t go into Manhattan. That’s the big leagues. We don’t know anything about that. Don’t do it.’”

Example: “We have losers. We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.


Clearly Donald Trump has tapped into the anger of many Americans towards their government and what they perceive as the lack of effective policies. More specifically it seems that Trump is appealing to middle-class and lower socioeconomic groups of Americans who feel the government has not been fair to them. Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood myself, I can attest to the common sentiment in those areas that somehow the game of life is rigged against them, and that the rich people in the United States have gotten rich on the backs of the poor, which, historically, is actually true. It is quite ironic, then, that a billionaire such as Donald Trump is seen as the savior to the working class citizens of the United States.

To continue my streetball metaphor further, we can liken American society to a streetball game. The players like the game to go on peacefully just as it is, with everyone playing by the rules. However, in Trump’s ideology, Mexican immigrants have been breaking up their games for years, and China is constantly taking away the ball (well, the ball was probably made in China anyway…). Donald Trump acts as if he can keep the streetball game going without interference from anyone else. He is going to beat or kill anyone who tries to push them around, because he can play in the big leagues. Even though he is great at trash talking, we shall see if he can walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Next time: More metaphors in the news

Hockey and Basketball Metaphors

Metaphors derived from sports terms are quite common. I have previously discussed general sports metaphors, and those from baseball and football. Today, I would like to discuss metaphors from two other sports. We are in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning will be facing my hometown Chicago Blackhawks. (Go Blackhawks!) The NBA playoffs are soon to start as well, with the Cleveland Cavaliers going against the Golden State Warriors. Here are a few common metaphors from basketball and hockey.


Michael Jordan at Boston Garden
Michael Jordan going up for a slam dunk

slam dunk

A basketball player can score two points by jumping and smashing the ball through the hoop. This is known as a slam dunk. Metaphorically, a slam dunk is any action that seems to be 100% certain.

Example: While supporters of Barack Obama hoped he would win reelection in 2012, they knew it was no slam dunk since Mitt Romney was a tough opponent.



                  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: Up until the last minute, the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed like a toss up.

full-court press

When a basketball team puts pressure on the players with the ball on both sides of the court, this is known as a full-court press. In common terms, any group effort to pressure someone to do something or to achieve a goal may be called a full-court press.

Example: Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan gave a full-court press in trying to defeat Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Shawn Marion pivoting to take a shot
Shawn Marion pivoting to take a shot


A basketball player handling the ball must pivot his or her feet to keep the ball away from the opponents. Pivoting in a new direction can help the player move forward with the ball towards the net. In common terms, any person who changes direction in order to focus on a new project may be said to be pivoting.

Example: In a presidential campaign, a candidate who does not to discuss certain issues may pivot to focus on other problems he or she would like to discuss in the media.

no harm, no foul.

Rules in basketball do not allow a player to deliberate push or shove another play. If this happens, the player is given a foul and may be removed from the game. If two players are in close contact but one player is not pushed, the referee may say that there is no penalty. This is called the no harm, no foul rule. In politics, if a statement or action does not insult or injure another person, we may also that there is no harm, no foul.

Example: Many American citizens have been frustrated that the Wall Street banks who created the 2008 economic collapse cried no harm, no foul and were not held accountable by our own Department of Justice.

blog - Basketball - ball

blog - hockey - hockey_puck_-_2






Hockey and Figure Skating

Wayne Gretzky skating as a New York Ranger
Wayne Gretzky skating as a New York Ranger

skate by

Both figure skating and hockey require the participants to skate on ice. The skates allow the person to glide over the surface of the ice with little resistance. Metaphorically, to skate or skate by something means that a person can do something without much pressure to do something different, or to do something illegal without being punished.

Example: Wall Street bankers who gave themselves bonuses while losing the pensions of thousands of investors in 2008 skated by with hardly any fines or prosecutions.


The actual skates worn by Boston Bruin great Bobby Orr in 1970
The actual skates worn by Boston Bruin great Bobby Orr in 1970


skate over, skating-over

If a person does a job in a superficial way or avoids dealing with a problem, we may say that the end result is a skating over of the responsibilities.

Example: Most viewers of presidential debates do not like it when candidates skate over problems brought up by the moderators and never really answer their questions.

Next time: Flag Day!

Describing Presidential Candidates

A recent Time magazine article described 16 different prospective Republican presidential candidates (Feb. 16, 2015, pp. 10 -11, by Zeke Miller, illustrations by Lon Tweeten). I was amazed to find 29 different metaphors in 13 different categories (with a few more I decided not to analyze this time…) in a very short graphic article (pictures below). Once again, it is not hard to find evidence that metaphors are ubiquitous in describing American politics.

TIME GOP candidates Feb 15 1

TIME GOP candidates Feb 15 2








Here are a few examples from the article. I include the exact descriptions of candidates in quotation marks, along with the notes indicating whether they are currently “trending up,” “holding steady” or “trending down” in current opinion polls. I have maintained the use of all caps to note the names of the candidates and the polling trends while the italics are mine indicating the metaphors in question. In some descriptions, there is an amazing variety of mixed metaphors so I am forced to repeat some descriptions to illustrate different metaphors. I hope it all makes sense.

Horse racing

            Presidential elections are often compared to horse races because of their similarities in competition, close finishes and large amounts of money involved. Candidates are described as jockeying for position or running in the race.

blog - candidates - jockeyrun/run to the right

Example: Article title – “See How They Run


The Louisiana governor has one reliable move: run to the right with innovative policy solutions. But he still barely registers in the polls.” 



The big beneficiary of Mitt Romney’s decision to abandon a third presidential bid, the former Florida governor has dominated the early jockeying for moneymen and staff. Unknown: how he performs with voters.”


There are several different types of metaphors derived from our experiences with nature.


EPSON DSC PictureA field is a large, open tract of land using for farming or grazing. Metaphorically, any large group of people may be called a field, as in a field of job candidates or in politics, a field of presidential candidates.

Example: “With a potential field larger than any other in memory, the GOP presidential sweepstakes has already split into several smaller contests with different candidates competing in separate lanes for the nomination.”


The only woman in the anti–Hillary Clinton field, Fiorina has been one of the most effective critics of the former Secretary of State. But her record, both as a Senate candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO, is … complicated.”

defense hawk

There are also several metaphors derived from animals. For one, politicians who are pro-military or pro-war are sometimes referred to as hawks or defense hawks in comparison to the bird of prey, famous for quick attacks on small animals (in contrast to doves who are passive, quiet birds).


South Carolina’s most colorful defense hawk wants to reclaim traditional GOP foreign policy–in which instability is usually the enemy. He also may have an ace up his sleeve: support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.”

a breakout

Wild animals may also be caught and held in cages. If they escape, they may be described as breaking out of their enclosures. Metaphorically, an obscure political candidate who suddenly gains a great deal attention in the media may also be described as breaking out.


After wowing an Iowa audience, the Wisconsin governor flew to Washington to attack its politicians, putting him on the verge of a breakout. Next he must prove his mastery of the issues.”

blog - candidates - baskingbasks in high poll numbers

Finally, cold-blooded animals need to warm them up by lying or basking in the sun. In a strange metaphor, we can also say that people bask in the attention of others or in this case, basking in high poll numbers.


A pediatric neurosurgeon with zero political experience, he basks in high early poll numbers and a massive online-fundraising ability. Is he for real? There is a difference between punditry and politics.”


            In one brief example, the entire field of candidates is described as if it is one large container with the successful politicians in Washington D.C. being the insiders, while newcomers from outside Washington are classed the outsiders.   In this case, the Time article describes five governors as being in this category.


Example: “THE OUTSIDERS” [Scott Walker (Wisconsin), George Pataki (New York, former), Rick Perry (Texas), Mike Pence (Indiana), and John Kasich (Ohio)] 


            We use tools to build or repair machines, buildings or household objects.

My beautiful picturegood wrenches

Metaphorically, people who solve problems may be described as being good wrenches (perhaps derived from the slogan of General Motors car parts and mechanics called “good wrenches.”)

Example: “Governors position themselves as good-wrenches ready to fix the nation’s broken politics”


If one changes an attitude or position in a certain situation, he or she may be described as retooling himself or herself.


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”

Card games/gambling

There are several metaphors derived from card games and gambling.


In one instance, the presidential election is compared to a sweepstakes competition in which one person wins the entire amount of prize money. This term is derived from a practice of people playing games of chance seated at a table. The prize money or stakes would be set out on the table, and the winners would use their arms to sweep the stakes closer to their bodies to collect their earnings.

Example: “With a potential field larger than any other in memory, the GOP presidential sweepstakes has already split into several smaller contests with different candidates competing in separate lanes for the nomination.”

blog - candidates - jokerwild cards

In some card games, one or more types of cards are considered wild cards, meaning that they could take on the values of other cards. This is a complex term originally comparing the card to a wild animal with unpredictable behavior. Later the phrase wild card came to mean any person or group with unpredictable behavior such as a football or baseball team in a playoff situation. In politics, a wild card is a candidate who may be unknown but may surprise everyone and win the election.


They want to change the Republican Party, not just win it over” [Lindsey Graham (Senator from South Carolina), Carley Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard), and Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky]

an ace up his sleeve

In high stakes poker games, players may be tempted to cheat in order to win. Some cheating players may hide an ace – the highest-ranking card – up their sleeves so they can secretly pull it out at the correct time in order to win a hand. This is known as having an ace up your sleeve. In general terms, and in politics, having an ace up your sleeve means that you have a secret strategy that may be used later in a process when no one is expecting it.


South Carolina’s most colorful defense hawk wants to reclaim traditional GOP foreign policy–in which instability is usually the enemy. He also may have an ace up his sleeve: support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.” 


            Presidential elections are often compared to boxing matches or other examples of competitive sports.

071020-N-9818V-459take a blow

In boxing, the contenders must hit or punch each other. Receiving a punch is sometimes called taking a blow. Metaphorically, when a person has a setback in politics, this may also be described as taking a blow.


The former Texas governor’s quest to move beyond “oops” took a blow when a state judge refused to throw out his criminal indictment for abuse of power. Mug shots make lousy campaign posters.”

a champion

The winner of a boxing match is normally called a champion. In politics, a person who wins an election may also be called the champion. Interestingly, the word champion has its origins in the Latin word campio meaning a combatant in a field of battle, lending more credence to the use of the word field to describe a group of political candidates.


The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward” 

blog - candidates - Fish-hookmaster barb thrower

In the old days before firearms, people used spears to attack each other. In track and field events, we still have javelin competitions imitating the need for throwing spears. In the sport of fishing, the hooks sometimes contain barbs which are metal points going in the opposite direction of the hook so that the fish cannot get away once it is hooked. Metaphorically, a barb is a stinging, insulting comment. In a combination of physical and abstract actions, we can say that people can throw barbs at someone else as if they are throwing a spear at their target. Someone who is good at witty insults may be called a master barb thrower.


An intellect and master barb thrower, the Kentucky Senator is expanding his father’s libertarian coalition. But his stumble over vaccine mandates suggests that transcending it will be harder.”

have a shot

In hunting and warfare, it is important to be a good marksman with a rifle. A hunter, for example, must wait for the right opportunity to shoot at an animal.   This is known as having a good shot. Metaphorically, having a good opportunity to do something is also known as having a shot at something. 


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”


            We are all familiar with fire, going back to our ancestors millions of years ago. There are three metaphors of fire to describe these candidates.

catching fire, reignite

The first two describe the process of starting a fire as in some combustible materials catching fire, or igniting a fire with some device. Metaphorically, a political candidate or idea that suddenly becomes popular may be described as catching fire, while an issue that had formerly been popular may need to be reignited.


The go-it-his-own-way Ohio governor has been touring the country in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. This is not an issue that shows any sign of catching fire.”


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”


A final metaphor from fire comes from the use of a piece of burning wood from one fire to start another fire. This piece of wood is called a firebrand. Metaphorically, a person who can be a catalyst to change the lives of the people around him or her may also be called a firebrand.


The Tea Party firebrand is a proven draw among the party’s evangelical and Obama-hating grassroots. That same orthodoxy, and an inability to attract campaign staff, could limit the Texas Senator’s ambitions.”


            We can use our experiences with clothing or accessories to describe political situation.

SONY DSCBeltway cred

In a very common metaphor, the political culture surrounding Washington D.C. is known as the beltway. This is for two reasons: there is literally a circular highway system that surrounds Washington D.C., and this highway and political system both resemble a belt that a person would wear to hold up his or her pants. In an unusual slang phrase, a politician who has a good reputation, credit, or “cred” for short in Washington is said to have beltway cred.


A competition for party pros, billionaire money and Beltway cred 

Physical forces

            We often use words and phrases from physical forces such as cutting or hitting to describe abstract processes.

squeeze, drag

In this case, political pressure can be described as squeezing someone. Also, physically moving a heavy object may be called dragging the object. In airplanes or boats, anything that slows down the forward motion of the vehicle is also called drag. Metaphorically, anything that slows down a process may be called a drag on that process.


Squeezed by Jeb’s success and New Jersey’s economic drag, the governor keeps working both sides of the Atlantic. His bombast remains untested in the heartland.”

Body parts/body position

            It is very common to create metaphors based on body parts, such as the foot of the mountain, or the arm of a chair.

The Heartland Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa
The Heartland Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa


We also use metaphors of our hearts to indicate the center of something. The term heartland means the center of a country or culture, normally meaning the Midwestern area of the United States where we grow most of our grains and vegetables.


Squeezed by Jeb’s success and New Jersey’s economic drag, the governor keeps working both sides of the Atlantic. His bombast remains untested in the heartland.”


We can also use metaphors of body actions or positions to describe abstract processes. To embrace or hug someone means to physically hold them close with our arms. Metaphorically, to embrace something means to be in favor of some idea or process.


A conservative star with both Washington and talk-radio polish, the Indiana governor found a way to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. He says he won’t decide whether to run until the end of April.”


            In rare cases, political actions are related metaphorically to theater movements or actions.

bow out

In this instance, we can talk of a politician bowing out of an election. This phrase is derived from the practice of a performer taking a bow at the end of the performance.


The betting money says Bush’s campaign will keep the Florida Senator from running this cycle, but he has impressed GOP bigs nonetheless. Watch for whether he bows out after this month’s book tour to run for re-election instead.”


blog - candidates - Base-foundation-2base

            Every building needs a foundation or base upon which one can build the structure. Metaphorically, the most ardent supporters of a political party are sometimes called the base. Politically, a presidential candidate must appeal to his or her base in order to raise the necessary campaign funds and win the election. The base may even help select the candidate for the next election.


The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward”


            As I have mentioned many times in analysis of political speeches, journey metaphors are very common in describing the process of political actions. In two simple examples, we can talk of presidential candidates stepping forward on their journey to the White House, or we can say someone stumbles when he or she makes a bad remark or policy decision.

stepped forward

Example: “The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward”



An intellect and master barb thrower, the Kentucky Senator is expanding his father’s libertarian coalition. But his stumble over vaccine mandates suggests that transcending it will be harder.”


            It is pretty clear that metaphors are commonly used to describe political candidates. The wide field of Republican candidates provides an opportunity for journalists to use these metaphors describing each one’s unique qualities. Time will tell which of the 16 candidates will survive the grueling primaries to become the party’s nominee next year. I will keep watching the news to see what political metaphors are used in the media. Stay tuned!

Next time: More Metaphors of the Theater

“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

The Republican Wave of 2014

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

blog - elections - Poker_chipshigh stakes

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.

toss-upWizards v/s Bulls 02/28/11

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.


blog - elections - Swing stateswing state

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.

A reenactment of the Battle of Hastings in 1066
A reenactment of the Battle of Hastings in 1066

battleground states

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.

common ground

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.

A true political beating: On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democratic Representative from South Carolina beat abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane on the floor of the Senate.  Brooks was fined $300; Sumner took 3 years to recover from traumatic head injuries and was in chronic pain the rest of his life.  Many South Carolina lawmakers sent Brooks replacement canes...
A true political beating: On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democratic Representative from South Carolina, beat abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane on the floor of the Senate. Brooks was fined $300; Sumner took 3 years to recover from traumatic head injuries and was in chronic pain the rest of his life. Many South Carolina lawmakers sent Brooks replacement canes… Contemporary cartoon by J.L. Magee.


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.

blog - elections - Blood_lettingbloodbath/bloodletting

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.

Natural Disasters

A building in Concepcion, Chile, destroyed in a 2010 earthquake.
A building in Concepcion, Chile, destroyed in a 2010 earthquake.

tremors/earthquakes/seismic shift

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 near San Salvador, El Salvador on January 13, 2001
A landslide near San Salvador, El Salvador on January 13, 2001



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.


blog - elections - Waves_in_pacifica_1


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 tide of war, turning the tide, or turning back the tide.

Example:  There was a strong tide of victories for the Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections.

A wave crashes ashore in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand
A wave crashes ashore in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand


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…

A beautiful piece of shellacked furniture at the Palace of Versailles in Paris
A beautiful piece of shellacked furniture at the Palace of Versailles in Paris


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.

Next time:  Metaphors vs. Slang and Analogies

Stretched Too Thin: Metaphors of Width

Recently President Obama gave the commencement speech for the graduates of West Point Military Academy.  It was an incredibly detailed speech about his views on U.S. foreign policy.  There are too many details to describe here but one item that caught my ear was a comment about not stretching our military “too thin.”  This is one type of conceptual metaphor I have not yet covered here in this blog.  Thus, here follows a brief description of metaphors derived from our experiences with width, i.e., thick and thin or broad and narrow…


broad-based movement

Some physical objects such as stone monuments have wide or broad bases.  Figuratively, any action or process that is supported by many people in many parts of the country may be called broad-based.  In politics, a liberal or conservative movement with popular support may be described as a broad-based movement.

Example:  The Tea Party grew into a broad-based movement in 2009 and 2010 due to a backlash against Barack Obama’s liberal policies.

broadly speaking

In a similar sense, to do something broadly indicates that it is done in a general, widely approved way.  Speaking in a general way may be called broadly speaking.

Example:  Broadly speaking, conservatives and liberals differ on many important issues such as women’s health, national security, taxes and government spending.

blog - width - Trinity_Bridge_-_span_of_a_bridge
Trinity Bridge, St. Petersburg, Russia


A large distance in space is called a span.  The physical concept of a span can be used metaphorically to describe abstract notions of time and cultural events.

Example:  The isolationist policies of the United States avoiding joining world wars spanned many decades in the 20th century.

across the board

Originally a phrase from a betting procedure in horse racing, to say something is true across the board means that it is true for many people, categories, or geographical areas.

Example:  In 2012, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of failing as a president across the board.

blog - width - fan out
A Japanese war fan

A hand-operated fan used to cool a person in hot weather is usually narrow at the base and wide at the top.  It literally fans out from bottom to top.  Metaphorically, any dispersal of people or goods to a wide geographical area may be described as fanning out.

Example:  During a presidential campaign, activists for each candidate fan out in their home states to try to gain more votes.

large swath

The term swath originally meant a section of crops on a farm that was cleared by a cutting tool called a scythe, for example, a swath of wheat.  Metaphorically, a swath indicates a large group of people across a large geographical area.

Example:  Campaign strategists must consider the large swath of independent voters across the United States who can tip the scales toward one candidate or another in an election.

at large

The notion of a large geographic space is used in a strange metaphor to be at large.  In one sense it may refer to a person who is not centrally located in his or her job as in a newspaper critic at large. It may also refer to a general sense of space and category as in society at large.

Example:  A good president must consider society at large instead of just narrow interest groups in deciding how to govern the country.


narrow the lead

The opposite of wide is narrow.  The concept of a narrow physical space is used metaphorically in many English phrases.  In one instance, a small difference in poll numbers during an election is called a narrow lead.  Making the lead smaller may be called narrowing the lead.

Example:  A presidential candidate behind in the polls will try to narrow the lead of his or her opponent by increasing fundraising, campaign stops and television interviews.

blog - width - MindTheGapVictoria
The gap between the train and the platform at Victoria Station, London

narrow the gap

A gap is a physical space between two objects.  In politics there may also be a gap between mean and women, rich and poor, winner and loser, etc.  To make this gap smaller is sometimes called narrowing the gap.

Example:  Most middle-class American voters hope that the U.S. government can narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

narrow decision, narrow ruling

The concept of a narrow space is also used to describe the small difference in votes from the judges on the Supreme Court.  For example, a 5-4 vote will be called a narrow ruling or a narrow decision.

Example:  The Supreme Court upheld Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act by a narrow 5-4 ruling.

eke out a narrow victory

When a candidate wins an election by a very small margin, we may say that he or she has won a narrow victory.  There is also a word eke that means a small increase in the quantity of something.  In a common phrase we can say that the candidate might eke out a narrow victory.

Example:  In 2012, Barack Obama eked out a narrow victory over Mitt Romney.


thick with lobbyists

A solid object may also be described as being thick or thin.  Being thick means that the object is wide on at least two dimensions.  The term can also describe a physical space with objects close together.  In a metaphorical phrase, a specific place can be thick with people that work in that general area.

Example:  Americans who want to take money out of politics are dismayed when they see that Washington D.C. is often thick with lobbyists.

fat profits

Another way of describing a wide object is saying that it is fat.  While this is considered a derogatory term to describe people, it may be used to describe a large quantity of anything.  A large amount of profits for a company may be called fat profits.

Example:  Many Americans are frustrated that gas prices continue to rise despite fat profits of the oil companies.



wear thin

The opposite of thick is thin.  The concept of a very thin object can be used metaphorically to describe anything that is very small in quantity or in intellectual substance. In one instance, the popularity or a patience of a person can wear thin as if it is an old shirt.

Example:  Barack Obama’s popularity began to wear thin for liberal supporters when he was not able to achieve many progressive goals.

thin gruel

Gruel is a type of simple porridge some people eat for breakfast.  A bowl of porridge with a great deal of oats or other grains is considered a thick and hearty gruel. A bowl with few grains and more water would be considered a thin gruel, meaning it was lacking substance and nutrition. Metaphorically, a policy or program that is weak and ineffective may be called a thin gruel.

Example:  American voters need a president to deliver effective social programs not just thin gruel.

blog - width - pancake too thin
Pancake batter stretched too thin

spread too thin, stretch too thin

The origins of the phrases spread too thin or stretch too thin are not clear.  However, it seems that we have a common experience of spreading a semi-solid substance such as butter, peanut butter or jelly on a piece of bread or cracker.  If we spread the substance too thin, it won’t have much flavor.  Also, if we spread a substance such as pancake batter too thin on a griddle, it might burn.  Similarly, if we make pie crust or pizza crust too thin, it might burn in the oven.  Also, when making pottery, if one makes the wall of a pot too thin, it might break upon firing or its first usage.  The idea of stretching something too thin is similar.  When stretching a piece of plastic wrap or rubber balloon too thin, it might break.  Metaphorically, when we have too few people to do many jobs, we may say that we are spreading or stretching them too thin with the result that one cannot achieve a good result of the process.  In businesses, employees may be spread too thin, while in the armed forces, soldiers may be stretched too thin for a military operation.

Example:  In a recent speech to West Point graduates, President Obama claimed that our military personnel overseas could be attacked anywhere by rebel forces.  “So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Next time:  Metaphors of height 

Metaphors of Silver and Gold

As the 2014 Sochi Olympics wind down this week and everyone is counting their country’s gold, silver and bronze medals, I thought I would offer a short blog post on metaphors derived from our experience with the colors of silver and gold.

blog - colors - silver liningsilver lining

Silver and gold are both names for colors and names of precious metals.  Thus they are used to describe things that are very valuable.   There is an old expression that every cloud has a silver lining.  This phrase is thought to come from the fact that even dark clouds may have sunlight coming through along the edge giving a silver look to it. This in turn means that even though the sky is dark, the sun is still there and will shine again.  Metaphorically, a silver lining means that even when life is bad, good things can still happen so we need to stay hopeful.

Example:  When the economy is bad and many people lose their jobs, one silver lining is that prices for many items such as houses, cars and gasoline actually go down.

silver tongued

If someone is described as being silver tongued, this means that the person is very good at speaking.

Example: Barack Obama proved himself to be a silver-tongued politician during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.


Gold is one of the most expensive metals and if something is called golden, this means that it is very valuable.

Example:  During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Republicans thought he was the best president ever; he was absolutely golden.

blog - colors - golden boy statue
The Golden Boy statue on the roof of the Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, created by Georges Gardet of Paris in 1918.

golden boy

A young man with potential for doing great things is sometimes called a golden boy.

Example:  John F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of the late 35th U.S. president, was considered America’s golden boy until his tragic death in 1999 at the age of 38.

golden parachute

                  When a business executive retires, he or she is often given a sum of money as a retirement gift.  In some cases, these gifts amount to millions of dollars.  These gifts are sometimes called golden parachutes because they allow the person to retire as if they are jumping from an airplane and landing safely in retirement.

Example:  American citizens become angry when they learn that some business executives get million-dollar golden parachutes even though their companies went bankrupt and investors lost a great deal of money.

gold star

In many American elementary schools, children are given a gold star sticker on their schoolwork meaning that the work was very good.  In popular terms, anything that has high quality can also be described as being gold star.

Example:  The Kennedy family has a gold-star reputation in the United States because of the many contributions their family members have made to American politics.

gold star families

When a soldier is killed in a war, his or her family receives a gold star made from paper that they can put in the front window of their home indicating their loss.  Thus gold star families are those who have lost a family member in military service.

Example:  Some gold star families support political candidates who try to end wars; other gold star families support those who continue America’s military strength around the world.

Next time:  Metaphors of Metals