Category Archives: war

Flag Day Metaphors

This coming Sunday, June 14, 2015, is Flag Day. It is a day that recognizes the adoption of the national flag on June 14, 1777. Of course, the first flag designed by the famous Betsy Ross only had 13 stars (and 13 stripes) representing the 13 colonies – soon to be the first 13 states of the United States when the government was formed a decade later.

blog - flags - 13 colonies


Flags are symbols of the patriotism we have for our countries.  We think of flags mostly to represent all of the countries of the world. However, flags have been used for centuries to represent aristocratic families, states, counties, armies or military units.   When used to represent armies in a battle, the flags carry great importance to those fighting in that war. Metaphorically, military banners and flags are used to describe certain aspects of politics. In honor of Flag Day this year, I offer a few examples of metaphors based on military flags.

marching under a flag

Historically, each army carried a flag of its country or particular military division. Soldiers would then march under the flag as they went into battle. In common terms, any group of people united to achieve a common goal may be described as marching under the same flag.

Example: Conservative Republicans often march under the flag of low government spending.

Flags of the members of the United Nations at the UN building in New York City
Flags of the members of the United Nations at the UN building in New York City

unflagging support

Someone who carries the flag of an army is especially devoted to the cause. If the flag falls to the ground, this indicates that the army may be losing the battle. In metaphorical terms, someone with unflagging support is especially devoted to the goals of the project.

Example: In the 2012 election, some progressives who had given Barack Obama unflagging support in the previous election began to lose confidence in him since he had failed to enact many progressive laws.


A flag is also called a standard in some cases. Thus the person is carries the flag may be called a standard-bearer. Metaphorically, a standard-bearer is a person who has the highest amount of honesty and integrity in a group of people.

Example: President Bill Clinton was considered to be the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party until he was caught having an affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky.

under the banner

A banner is a type of flag that is long and narrow. An army may also march under a banner. In common terms, a group of people may act together under a banner if they are working together to achieve a goal.

Example: The American people often get frustrated with politicians who claim to be working under the banner of helping everyone achieve the American dream when they are actually helping corporations get richer.

The 3rd Infantry Division unfurling a flag over the Pentagon two days after the 9/11 attacks.
The 3rd Infantry Division unfurling a flag over the Pentagon two days after the 9/11 attacks.

unfurled his own thoughts

When a flag is unrolled, we may also say that it is unfurled. Ideas or words may also be unfurled as a person speaks.

Example: A good presidential candidate will unfurl his or her own thoughts carefully during a debate.





Next time: Fathers’ Day

Memorial Day Metaphors

In honor of Memorial Day, and the thousands of servicemen and women who have given their lives in serving their country, I offer today a few comments on the metaphors of war. It is a sad fact that the United States has been at war for 222 of its 239-year history. That’s 93% of the time. Thousands of Americans have been killed fighting in these wars. I have done a little research, compiling data from several sources (primarily statistics from a Veterans Administration publication and from the Defense Department.)

Here is a summary of all military personnel killed fighting for our country. A few quick notes on the table below.  Only the largest wars are listed here and they are listed in reverse chronological order. The years of the wars are described according to the time of American involvement.  Battle deaths are listed separately from other types. As you may know, during the Civil War, more people were killed by disease than those killed in battle. Accidents and disease kill thousands of people in every war. There is not much specific data for the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812.  Please let me know if I have made any errors in this summary.


Years War Battle Deaths

Total Deaths

2001 – ?

War in Afghanistan




War in Iraq




Desert Shield/Desert Storm




Vietnam War




Korean War




World War II




World War I




Spanish-American War




Civil War




Mexican War




War of 1812




Revolutionary War








As you can see from the table, over half a million people were killed in battle in America’s wars, and incredibly, there have been more than a million total deaths.

It is no wonder, then, that words, phrases and metaphors from war are in our everyday vocabulary. I have made several bog posts concerning war metaphors in the past two years. Feel free to use the search function to search for any specific metaphors you are interested in. Here are a few of the most common war metaphors used in American politics.

blog - war - war chest

war chest

Historically, the money needed to finance a war on the battlefield was kept in a large chest that traveled with the commanding officers. Metaphorically, the phrase war chest now indicates the amount of money that a candidate has to finance his or her election campaign.

Examples: Although John McCain had a large war chest when he ran for president in 2008, he did not win the election.

under the watch

Sentries are required to watch the perimeter of an army base. This process is referred to as being under their watch. In government, actions and events that occur during a presidency or governorship may also be described as being under the watch of the elected leader.

Examples: President Roosevelt was upset that the attack on Pearl Harbor happened under his watch.

blog - war - triggertrigger happy

If someone frequently fires a gun, we may that this person is trigger happy. In politics, a government official may be called trigger happy if he or she is prone to go to war very easily.

Examples: Many people thought that George W. Bush was a bit trigger happy going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. However, Barack Obama was also keen to continue the war in Afghanistan as well when he became president.

target demographic

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.   A specific group of people in a certain area with certain political views is called a demographic.   Trying to please this group of people is called targeting the demographic.

Examples: Democrats tend to work with wealthy liberal voters as their target demographic for raising campaign money.

blog - war - horizonenemies on the horizon

Battles at sea require that naval commanders be able to see enemies approaching across wide areas of ocean. In other words, they must be able to see their enemies as they appear on the horizon. In politics, candidates or politicians must be able to see their opponents before they attack in a debate or written argument.

Examples: During the Republican presidential primaries in 2012, popular candidates such as Mitt Romney had many enemies on the horizon.


A swift boat was the name of small, fast boats used on rivers by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts famously captained one such boat during the war. During his run for the presidency in 2004, opponents claimed that he was not a decorated war hero after all. These criticisms helped Kerry’s opponent win the election. Afterwards, the process of unfairly criticizing a political candidate based on prior experience came to be called swift boating.

Examples: American voters dislike the swift-boating practices in presidential elections, but, unfortunately, these types of attacks are very common.

The Battle of New Orleans - Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)
The Battle of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)

battleground states

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.

Examples: Ohio and Florida are often considered battleground states in presidential elections.


under attack

When two armies are fighting in a battle, the army on the offensive will be shooting guns or missiles at the other army. The second army is said to be under attack. In politics, candidates running for office or elected officials may be described as being under attack if they are constantly criticized for their views of behavior.

Examples: George W. Bush was constantly under attack from Democrats while he was in office. Later, his Democratic successor, Barack Obama, was always under attack from Republicans.

MAP - war - arms trainingwar on terror

Although the word war is usually used in a military sense, it is commonly used metaphorically to describe the efforts of a government to fight against a social problem. Most famously, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the United States began a so-called war on terror.   We also talk about war on cancer, poverty, or drugs.

Examples: George W. Bush’s war on terror led to the war in Iraq and trillions of dollars fighting al-Qaeda terrorists around the world.


Linguistically, it makes perfect sense that we use metaphors of war to talk about politics – both are intense competitions with great financial and human costs. However, psychologically it is sad that our system of government is so antagonistic that comparisons to war are almost second nature. Perhaps in the future, we will have more metaphors of peace in our politics. Please remember our service men and women on this national holiday.

Next time:  TBA

Launching Campaigns before Running

Even though the 2016 elections are a year and a half away, several candidates have already announced they are running for president: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio among the Republicans, and the sole Democrat so far, Hillary Clinton. There are three metaphors commonly used to describe these actions, all three of which are fascinating examples how ingrained metaphors are in our daily English language usage. For one, the common phrase of running for president is derived from our collective experience with horse racing. We speak of presidential candidate in a race for the White House as if they are racehorses, and yet no know ever thinks twice about it. We also talk about the campaigns of these candidates. The word campaign was originally used as a term from military operations. In fact the English word campaign is derived word from the French word campagne meaning “country” since military forces often engaged in large battles in open fields in the countryside. This term dates back to Napoleon’s armies in the early 19th century.  Once again, we see how political actions are compared to military operations. Finally, we also find that we say political campaigns are launched. Normally we use the term launch to describe the liftoff or blast of the engines when a rocket begins its trajectory into space. The word launch was originally derived from a Latin term meaning “to throw a spear” related to our term lance.

blog - ACA - rocket

In sum, we cannot even describe a simple beginning of an interest in becoming the president of the United States without using metaphors from three different conceptual domains: horse racing, military operations, and rocket liftoffs. Even more strangely, I cannot think of any alternate literal terms to replace these metaphors. Can you have a process to win an election, begin a campaign, or try to become president? Most of us were taught in school that metaphors and similes are mostly only used in poems and plays, and that normally we speak in literal language. However, these examples are further evidence that thinking in metaphors is a common cognitive process.

Although I have explained some of these metaphors in previous posts, here are a few more examples from horse racing, military operations and vehicles.


Horse Racing

blog - horse - out of the gateout of the gate

Horses begin a race locked behind a wide gate. When the race begins, the horses are released and run as fast as they can out of the gate. Metaphorically, anyone beginning a new process may be described as being out of the gate. In politics, candidates and political figures must make quick decisions and be consistent with their messages. Thus they must be quick out of the gate.

Example: Although Barack Obama promised big changes if he were elected president, he was very slow out of the gate and it took years to make any of the changes that he promised during the campaign.

run for office

Horses run to win the race. Similarly, candidates for political office are said to run in an election to win a position in a government. We may also call this running for office.

Example: Any candidate running for office these days needs millions of dollars to have a successful campaign.

running mate

Extending the idea of running for office, the phrase running mate refers to the person who runs for election with someone else. For example, commonly a vice-presidential candidate is called the running mate of the presidential candidate.

Example: Conservative women voters were excited when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate for vice president in the 2008 election.

blog - horse - front runnerfront runner

When a horse is winning a race, we say that it is out in front of the other horses. We can also say that the horse is the front runner. In a political election, the candidate who is leading in the polls is also referred to as the front runner.

Example: Usually the candidate is who is the strong front runner a month before an election wins the race.

fast track

In a horse race, the horses run on a dirt track inside a horse racing arena. If the track gets wet from recent rains, it will be very hard for the horses to run on it. If the dirt is dry, it will be a fast track for the horses to run on. In common terms, any person or activity that seems to be moving very quickly is said to be on a fast track.

Example: When Paul Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, he started on the fast track to political fame and power in the United States.

inside track

On an oval track, the shortest distance for the horses to run is close to the inside rail of the track. In common terms, there are two meanings to the phrase inside track. First, as in horse racing, to be on the inside track means to be on course to win in whatever competition one is engaged in. Secondly, the word inside also has the connotation of having restricted or secret access to something. Thus, to have the inside track on something means that someone has information that is not available to other people.

Example: In 2008 when the housing market crashed and banks started to fail, the economy was on the inside track to be in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Example: Television reporters in Washington D.C. are always competing to get the inside track on the latest news from the White House.

outside chance

Just as the horses on the inside of the track have the greatest chance of winning, the horses running on the outside have the greatest chance of losing since they have farther to run to win the race. Thus to have an outside chance at completing something means that it is not very likely to happen.

Example: When Barack Obama first announced that he was running for president in 2006, most people thought he only had an outside chance of winning since he was the first African-American in years to try to become president.

blog - horse - photo finishneck and neck

In some horse races, two horses may be running at the same speed in which case the horses’ necks are close to each other and it is difficult to tell who will win the race. We say that the horses are running neck and neck.   In politics, when the candidates are very close to winning the election, we say that the candidates are running neck and neck.

Example: In 2004, John Kerry and George W. Bush were running neck and neck for many months but Bush won the election by a small margin.

home stretch

Towards the end of a horse race, the horses must usually run one last section of track in the middle of the arena. This is called the home stretch because it is the last section or stretch of the track before the horses get home to the finish line. In common terms, the home stretch is the last tiring section of a competition.

Example: Several days before a presidential election, the candidates crisscross the country giving speeches at campaign rallies trying to win as many votes as possible in the home stretch.


blog - war - revolutionprimary battles

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: In every presidential primary, there are many battles among the candidates to gain the nomination of the party.

battle cry

At the start of every battle, there is a call or cry from the commanding officer to alert the troops to begin fighting. The phrase battle cry can also be used to indicate the beginning of a political process.

Example: In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protestors used the slogan “We are the 99%! as their battle cry to gain support against the richest 1% of the nation controlling the government.

battleground states

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: Ohio and Florida are often considered battleground states in presidential elections.

battle lines are drawn

The exact line separating the land controlled by two fighting armies is called the battle line. Metaphorically, a battle line is the ideological separation between two people or groups. In a public political argument, we may say that battle lines are drawn based on a certain view of a controversial topic.

Example: In the 2012 election, Democrats drew many battles lines with Republicans over the tax breaks given to millionaires and billionaires.

MAP - war - arms trainingcombat

Combat is another word for battles fought between armies in a war. Metaphorically, any verbal argument can be described as combat as well. As a verb the word combat can be used to describe efforts to fight against something.

Example: George W. Bush worked hard to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa during his presidency.


A firefight is an intense battle between two armies in which a great deal of gunfire is exchanged. In politics, a heated argument may also be called a firefight.

Example: Sometimes a peaceful presidential debate turns into a firefight among the top candidates.


The word clash is an onomatopoetic word meaning that it represents the sound made by two metallic objects hitting together. A physical confrontation between people or battle between armies may be called a clash. However, metaphorically, a disagreement in words or ideas between two people or groups may also be called a clash. Often we speak of a clash of personalities between two people.

Example: During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and other candidates clashed over positions on the economy.

Starting Vehicles


Some motorcycles require the rider to start the motor by forcefully kicking a pedal. This is known as kick starting the motorcycle. Metaphorically, to kick start something means to begin a new process with great energy and enthusiasm.

Example: Most presidential candidates kick start their campaigns with a big rally at a famous landmark.

kick into gear, put in high gear

Many vehicles have different gears for different speeds. Starting a motorcycle or changing a gear on a bicycle requires the use of one’s foot. This may be called kicking it into gear. Increasing the speed may be referred to as putting the vehicle into high gear.   Figuratively, kicking something into gear means beginning a new process.

Example: During a bad economy, a president may need to kick a new jobs program into high gear to reduce unemployment.

shift gears

Some cars, trucks and buses have manual transmissions which require the driver to shift from lower to higher gears to travel. Figuratively, shifting gears means to change one’s focus from one project to another.

Example: Presidential candidates may need to shift gears during a campaign depending on current events or the questions of media reporters.

blog - vehicles - Shift_stickstuck in neutral

When the gears are not engaged, we say the vehicle is in neutral. It is impossible for the engine to move the engine forward or backward when it is in neutral. In a figurative phrase, being stuck in neutral means that a person or group of people is not making progress towards a desired goal.

Example: Peace talks between warring countries in the Middle East always seem to be stuck in neutral. 


Originally a nautical term, to lurch meant that a ship moved to the side instead of going straight ahead. Now it can also mean the jerky movement of any vehicle forward or to the side. Often when the vehicle does not go smoothly into the next gear, it may lurch forward. Metaphorically, the irregular or inconsistent action of a person or group of people may be called lurching.

Example: Political tensions between two countries with nuclear weapons may lurch the world toward a nuclear war.


A freewheel is a special type of clutch used in some bicycles, motorcycles and trucks that allows the driveshaft to spin freely under certain operating conditions. The freewheel allows the driveshaft to spin without any friction or resistance. Metaphorically, freewheeling means to engage in behavior without any rules or regulations.

Example: Presidential candidates normally do not like to have freewheeling town meetings with the general public. They prefer to have more structured question and answer sessions.

blog - vehicles - Disk_brakeput the brakes on

When a driver needs to slow down a vehicle, he or she needs to apply or put on the brakes. In a figurative phrase, putting the brakes on something means limiting or stopping an action already in progress.

Example: Many environmentalists would like to put the brakes on building new nuclear power plants around the world.


It is pretty clear that we describe politics in English using a wide variety of conceptual metaphors. It is amazing that we can hardly talk about candidates for an election without resorting to metaphors from war, horse racing and vehicles. Please let me know if you hear any more unusual examples as these candidates conduct their campaigns.

Next time: Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Video

Politics on Blast!

One of the many joys of teaching college-age students is that I get to hear the latest slang words and phrases in their everyday conversations. If you don’t mind hearing the word dude at the beginning of every sentence, it can be an interesting way of doing informal linguistic research. One of the phrases I have learned recently is to put someone on blast which roughly means to “embarrass someone by reporting his or her bad behavior.” They also call this putting someone on front street. However, putting someone on blast is also considered to be bad behavior – the perpetrator may be described as being cold or a cold piece. Here is a fictional conversation between two of my students, one of whom has just made fun of the other for getting a bad score on his test in front of the other students.

“Dude, why do you have to put me on blast like that. You’re a cold piece.”

“Sorry, bro. I didn’t mean to put you on front street. My bad.”

The word blast very interesting when it is used in slang phrase or metaphors because it has its origins in warfare and explosions. Of course, literally, the word blast means to explode as in a bomb detonation or a cannon firing. Metaphorically, to blast someone or something means to harshly criticize it or them. This usage is also an example of hyperbole (hi-PER-bo-lee) or great exaggeration, as in “I had a million pages of homework last night.”   Comparing the criticism of something or someone to the explosion of a bomb is indeed hyperbolic. Nonetheless, it is very common to hear examples of the metaphorical usage of blast. Recently, I read it in headlines after an international deal was reached to curb nuclear bomb development in Iran. One headline noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not like the deal by saying, “Netanyahu blasts ‘very, very bad’ Iran nuclear agreement” (see the full article here) In other news, we can also see this headline from another article, “Hill Republicans blast Clinton’s email explanation” or here, “Democrats Blast Schumer Threat to Kill Iran Deal.”

blog - war - blast

Dude, here are a few more examples derived from experiences of explosions, cannons and guns from warfare.

stick to your guns

The terms guns usually refers to handguns, not rifles. Handguns have been used for centuries in warfare, police work and personal protection. The word gun originally meant a device used in warfare in the Middle Ages to throw rocks or other projectiles. Many metaphors for guns are also taken from the days of the Wild West – the wild, generally lawless period in the 1800s in the Midwest and Western states of America. However these metaphors may also be derived from guns used in military endeavors. For example, the phrase stick to your guns means that one must not back down from a fight. This idea was derived from the notion of a soldier continuing to stand and fight when a battle seems to be lost.

Example: When Barack Obama tried to pass a new health care bill in 2010, he had many opponents that tried to weaken the bill. However, he stuck to his guns and got most of the bill passed the way he wanted it.

smoking gun

When a gun is fired, a small amount of smoke is released from the barrel after the gunpowder in the bullet explodes. A smoking gun indicates that the gun has just been fired. Metaphorically, a smoking gun refers to evidence that something has just happened.

Example: After Barack Obama was elected president, many critics claimed that the was not a U.S. citizen and spent years searching for the smoking gun, a birth certificate from Kenya, but it was never found.

blog - war - colt revolveryoung guns

In a process known as synecdoche, sometimes the name of an object used by a person is later used to describe the person and not simple the tool. In this case, a person using a gun may also be called a gun. Specifically, a young gun is a young person who uses a gun in a forceful and accurate manner. Thus, metaphorically, a young gun is any young person who is very good at what he or she does and is forceful and confident in the work.

Example: Most members of Congress are middle-aged or older. However, sometimes some young guns are elected and provide youthful energy to the body of lawmakers.

turn their guns on

In a battle, soldiers sometimes must fight the enemy from several different sides. When they are attacked by a new force, the soldiers must turn their guns to fire at the new enemy. Metaphorically, people can turn their guns on other people if they start verbally attacking their opponents in a debate or argument.

Example: In a presidential debate, some candidates may turn their guns on other candidates to prove that they are superior to them.

blog - war - triggertrigger

Every gun has a trigger mechanism that fires the bullet. In common terms, a trigger is any action that starts a new process.

Example: In 2011, a special super committee was formed to solve the country’s budget problems. When they did not find a solution before the deadline, budget cuts in military spending and social services were automatically triggered.

trigger a recession

The term trigger can also be used to indicate the beginning of the end of something.

Example: Some experts believe that the recession of 2008 was triggered by the Wall Street bank failures.

trigger happy

If someone frequently fires a gun, we may that this person is trigger happy. In politics, a government official may be called trigger happy if he or she is prone to go to war very easily.

Example: Many people thought that George W. Bush was a bit trigger happy going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. However, Barack Obama was also keen to continue the war in Afghanistan as well when he became president.

fire a campaign manager

We say that to shoot a gun is to fire it. This term derives from the earlier practice of setting fire to the gunpowder in a weapon to launch or discharge the projectile. In common terms, we also use the word fire to mean discharging someone from a job.

Example: Many presidential candidates end up firing their campaign manager if they do not seem to be on track to win the election.

Unit trains in 5th Fleet AORfire off an e-mail

We can also use the word fire to mean sending off a letter or email in a quick manner.

Example: Presidential candidates may fire off an email to the campaign staff if they think something is not going as planned.

surefire way

In the early days of guns and rifles, they did not always work properly. Sometimes the gunpowder did not explode and the bullet was not discharged. More reliable weapons were sometimes referred to as surefire guns or rifles if they were more likely to work on a regular basis. In modern terms, a plan or process that is almost certain to work properly is called a surefire way.

Example: In American politics, a surefire way for a man to lose an election is to be caught in an adulterous relationship with another woman.

blog - war - target 2target demographic

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.   A specific group of people in a certain area with certain political views is called a demographic.   Trying to please this group of people is called targeting the demographic.

Example: Democrats tend to work with wealthy liberal voters as their target demographic for raising campaign money.

call the shots

Firing a weapon can be called taking a shot. In the military, the person in command of an army or navy who decides when weapons are to be fired may be described as the person who is calling the shots. In metaphorical terms, a person who makes important decisions within an organization may also be referred to as someone who calls the shots.

Example: In a presidential election, the campaign manager, handpicked by the candidate, is the one calling the shots for scheduling public appearances and rallies.

blog - war - Berdan_Sharps_riflea long shot

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.

Example: When Barack Obama ran for president, many people thought it was a long shot for him to win the election since he was not very well known at the time.

big shot

A discharge from a large gun or cannon may be called a big shot. Metaphorically, a very important person in an organization may also be referred to as a big shot.

Example: People running for public office in the United States usually do not win the election unless they are backed with the money and support of big shots in local or national business circles.

straight shooter

Someone who is very accurate at shooting a gun is called a straight shooter. Metaphorically, a person who is always honest and does not make up stories or fabrications is also sometimes called a straight shooter.

Example: John McCain has been known for years as a straight shooter since he always stuck to his principles and told the truth in Congress.

shoot back, fire back

In a battle, enemies shoot at each other with guns. When one side fires first, the other side shoots or fires back. We may also use the phrase shoot back to refer to someone responding to an accusation or challenging point in an argument.

Example: During the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle compared himself to former president John F. Kennedy, also called Jack Kennedy, in terms of length of service in Congress. Bentsen, a former colleague of Kennedy’s shot back, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

blog - war - Firing_squad_1867circular firing squad

In years past, a person who commits treason against his or her country is sometimes shot by a firing squad, a group of soldiers with rifles trained for just such an action. Theoretically a firing squad lined up in a circle would shoot and kill themselves. In common terms, a circular firing squad is a group of people who work against their own interests.

Example: When Hilary Clinton ran for the Democratic candidate in the presidential primary in 2007, her campaign was not very successful. Critics later claimed that the campaign staff was like a circular firing squad.


The size of a bullet that can fit in a gun barrel is called its caliber. To measure the exact size of something later came to be called to calibrate something. In modern terms, any difficult process or plan can be calibrated by experts to determine success.

Example: Barack Obama knew that he would have a hard time getting Democratic bills passed in Congress. However, he apparently did not calibrate the tremendous difficulty he would have dealing with the Republican-held House of Representatives during his two terms.


The term salvo is from an old Italian word meaning a group of guns or cannons fired at the same time. It is still used in military jargon to mean the same thing. However, in politics, any large-scale attack of one person against another may also be called a salvo, especially common in presidential elections.

Example: During a presidential debate, one candidate may launch an opening salvo against his or her opponent to start an argument.


A fusillade is another term used to describe a large group of guns fired at the same target at the same time. In politics, any group of attacks from one person on another may be called a fusillade.

Example: In the last days of a presidential election, there is usually a daily fusillade of criticisms between the two remaining candidates.


When cannon balls, missiles or bombs are launched to hit a target at a great distance, their flight path must be calibrated exactly to go where it is supposed to go. The path that the bomb takes in the air, flying up in the air and back down to the ground, is called its trajectory. Events and processes can also have trajectories depending on their starting and ending points.

Example: In 2012, many people thought Mitt Romney was on the trajectory to win the presidential election. However, he was not able to win after all.

bang for the buck

The phrase bang for the buck literally means to have a loud explosion for money. Metaphorically, its origins lie in the desire of American politicians in the 1950s and 1960s to get more military force from the weapons they were currently paying for. In common terms today, to get a bang for a buck indicates that a person got a good deal buying something, or at least got the value for the money.

Example: In 2011, President Obama tried to get Congress to pass a bill giving many Americans new jobs and to reduce the high unemployment rates. However, critics complained that the plan was too expensive and did not give enough bang for the buck.

blog - war - Cannon_Firecannon fodder

The phrase cannon fodder is a translation from a German term meaning food for the cannon, meaning that soldiers are often killed in large numbers in wars, as if they are simply blown up by the cannons. In modern terms, the phrase is still applied to cases where soldiers seem to be sacrificed for no reason on battlefields. More abstractly, the phrase cannon fodder can also indicate any large number of people who are treated unfairly in a process.

Example: When governments make huge budget cuts in education, some critics complain that our children are becoming cannon fodder for politicians.


It is always striking to me how many different political metaphors are based on terms of war, the implication being that Americans consider politics as comparable to military actions. I am not sure what this says about the American psyche, but it is clear that American politicians are very aggressive and treat their campaigns as military operations.

Next time: Launching Campaigns before Running.

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

President Obama and the ISIS Crisis

As you may know from recent news reports, the terrorist group known as ISIS recently brutally beheaded several American and European journalists in the Middle East.  The United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East have begun a strategic bombing campaign to destroy them.

There have been a wide variety of metaphors used described these terrorists.  President Obama gave a short speech on September 10 as the Americans began their aerial attacks.  Today I would like to share a brief analysis of the metaphors used in that speech.

blog - obama - LevantFirst, however, a couple clarifications are in order.  For one, there are many confusing names for the terrorist group.  Most media experts refer to them as ISIS (pronounced EYE-sis) which is an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the countries on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean) with the final “S” indicating the specific country of Syria.    Other experts refer to the group as ISIL (EYE-sil) with the “L” referring to the Levant.  Yet others use this same acronym but pronounce it as IH-sil, rhyming with whistle.  In the speech by President Obama, he refers to the group as ISIL with the long “i” pronunciation.  Yet others refer to the group as simply the Islamic State, a name that is somewhat confusing since the group does not belong to any particular country or nation state. Nonetheless, I noticed in browsing through French and Spanish online newspapers, journalists in those countries also refer to the group simply as the Islamic State while those in England refer to it as ISIS as well.

blog - rhetoric - ethos pathos logosAlso, I would like to explain something very interesting about the speech.  If you are a student of classical rhetoric, you may have studied that the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle and Cicero, were among the first to analyze what made a speech effective.*  Aristotle wrote that a good speech moves the listeners by appealing to their senses of pathos (emotions), logos (logic) and ethos (ethics).  Although I have not had a class in classical rhetoric since about the time of the ancient Greeks, I could not help but notice that President Obama’s speech seemed to have been written to appeal to all three of these senses.

At the beginning of the speech, Obama reminded the audience of the brutal behavior of ISIS, including the beheadings of the American journalists.

“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists — Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.”

Although this is an important reason why he was persuaded to launch attacks against ISIS, I believe he also mentioned the beheadings to appeal to the pathos of the listeners.  He knows that Americans will be more supportive of military actions if they have an emotional response to the behavior of the terrorist group.

In the middle of the speech, Obama outlines the four steps in his strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.  He gave very clear summaries of these four steps and explained why each step had to be taken.

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

This part of the speech appeals to our sense of logos.  We can understand why a military response is needed given the brutality of the killings mentioned earlier in the speech.

At the end of the speech, Obama explains that America has a moral duty to do something about these terrorists.  He suggested that we could not simply sit back and do nothing.

“America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”

With these remarks he appealed to our sense of ethos, including the audience in his sense of a moral obligation to do something to stop the terrorists before they could do any more brutal killings.

By appealing to the listeners’ sense of pathos, logos, and ethos, President Obama most likely was trying to persuade his audience to support him in his military operations at a time in history when most Americans are tired of war.

As for the speech itself, here are a few examples of the metaphors used to further appeal to the audience.  Let me begin with several idiosyncratic metaphors to describe the terrorists themselves.


Obama describes the terrorist group as a cancer, using a medical metaphor we all understand as a serious and often fatal medical condition.  Even with modern medicine, beating cancer is a daunting task requiring great skill and practice.  Obama’s use of the cancer metaphor here indicates that getting ridding of ISIS will also require great skill and patience.

Example:  “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”

blog - nature - river damcut off, stem the flow

In a pair of metaphors used to describe the terrorists, their funding and their source of fighters are compared to a stream of water.  In one part of the speech, President Obama describes how to need to stem of the flow of European soldiers into the area who fight with ISIS, as if they are flowing down a river.  The phrase cut off can be used to mean a literal cutting of a physical material, such as cutting off a branch of a tree, but can also mean turning off a flow of water from a hose. Metaphorically, to cut off something means to stop the flow of some source of money, goods or services.

Example: “Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into — and out of — the Middle East.”

blog - education - erasererase

We are all familiar with the ability to erase marks we make on paper with a lead pencil.  Metaphorically, we can also erase problems, mistakes, or bad aspects of our lives.  In the president’s speech, he talks about the desire to erase the evil of the terrorist groups.

Example:  “Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

blog - machines - counterweightcounterweight

The final example of a metaphor used to describe the terrorist group is counterweight.   Some types of heavy machinery require a heavy weight on one side of the machine to balance out the tremendous weight on the other side of the machine, such as on a building crane.  The opposite, balancing weight is called the counterweight.  Metaphorically, a counterweight is an action or process that balances out the effects of another process, usually one that is out of the control of the people involved.  In the speech in question here, President Obama describes his military strategy as a counterweight to the actions of the terrorist group in light of the civil war already ongoing in Syria, fueled by the actions of President Bashar al-Assad.

Example:  “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”

The final set of metaphor examples are based on the principle of personification in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is described in terms of a human being.  In this case, President Obama describes the United States as being a person in several different ways.

blog - personification - strength 2strength/strongest as a nation

Human beings have physical strength from the use of their muscles. People can increase their strength through physical labor, exercise or weight lifting.  Metaphorically, countries can have strength through the force of their citizens or their military power.

Example: “I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve.”

Example: “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together.”

blog - personification - seizeposition/seize

Humans can also have strength from a certain body position, as a boxer takes a stance to throw a punch.  From certain positions, a person can also grab or seize something if it is within his or her reach. Metaphorically, countries can be in a position to take an action or seize something important.

Example: “Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression. Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the grueling work required to bounce back — America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.”

dragged into

A person lacking in strength or in the wrong position can be pushed or pulled into a weaker position. In some cases, weaker people can be forcibly dragged into a new position by someone or something stronger.  Metaphorically, countries can be dragged into a war or some other dangerous situation if they are not in control of their own governments.

Example: “…we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”


People can work on a project together.  In such cases, these people may be considered partners in this endeavor.  In some cases, the people who began the project can be joined by others who may help them achieve their goals.  Metaphorically, countries can also work as partners, and later be joined by other countries to achieve a common goal.

Example: “But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”

Example: “This is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.”

blog - personification - handshakehelping

A strong person may be in a position to help a weaker person achieve a goal.  Countries can also metaphorically help another country with military or financial aid.

Example: “And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.”

at home

Most people live in houses, and metaphorically countries also have a home in their own government and land.  When politicians do international diplomacy or take military actions in other countries, they often refer to the United States as home.

Example: “So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”

These are just a few of the many examples of metaphors used by President Obama in the short speech on his planned attacks on ISIS.  It is clear that he and his speechwriters used the classical rhetoric strategy of pathos, logos and ethos to gain support from Americans for his military actions.  He also used many examples of personification to make it appear that the government is acting as a sensible person instead of an abstract body of politicians.

blog - personification - home

Strangely, I noticed that there was a distinct absence of journey metaphors.  As faithful readers of this blog know, journey metaphors are commonly used in important political speeches such as state of the union addresses or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  These journey metaphors are used by skilled orators to involve the listeners in the process as if the audience and the speaker are on an important journey through life together.  Given that the speech was focused solely on an immediate military strategy, perhaps metaphors about long journeys would have been inappropriate.  However, I can’t help but think that President Obama is not quite sure the American people are joining him on this journey into more military action in the Middle East.

Next time:  More metaphors of the ISIS crisis.

*If anyone is interested in further research on classical or modern rhetoric, here are a few suggestions.

Aristotle (1991). On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse (G. Kennedy, Trans.).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Charteris-Black, J. (2011). Politicians and rhetoric:  The persuasive power of metaphor (2nd Ed.).  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Cicero (1986). On oratory and orators (J. S. Watson, Trans.).  Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Copi, I. & Cohen, C. (2001). Introduction to logic (11th Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall.

Book Review: Metaphors in International Relations Theory

Today I would like to share the first of several book reviews.  In the process of researching metaphors for my book in the past few years, I have read many brilliant scholarly works.  One of the books I have enjoyed the most is one entitled Metaphors in International Relations Theory by Michael P. Marks (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).   Professor Marks teaches political science at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and has published several books on international relations.  I must admit that I do not have much training or experience in political science, much less international relations theory.  However, I would like to offer a few comments with regard to Professor Marks’ analysis of the metaphors used in international relations.

Marks book

The book consists of nine chapters.  The first four chapters provide an excellent background to the complexity of international relations. The next two chapters consist of analyses of two common topic areas: power and international security.  The following chapter details how game theory is used to create metaphors to describe international politics. The final two chapters summarize how metaphors are actually changing how experts understand international relations.

In the introductory chapter Marks claims, “…a major contention of this study is that the generally accepted paradigms that are used to analyze international relations are built on metaphorical imagery that provides the very theoretical propositions these paradigms use to hypothesize and make predictions about international affairs” (p. 4).  He goes on to provide an excellent summary of research on metaphors.  Building on the seminal work of Lakoff and Johnson (e.g. Metaphors We Live By, 1980, and other great works), Marks demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the conceptual metaphor model and applies this knowledge to a very detailed analysis of political metaphors throughout the book.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to showing how conceptual metaphors are commonly used in international relations.  Marks gives many examples such as using personification to describe a state as in “yesterday France vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution” (p. 50) or talking about the “balance of power” between two nations as if they are on a scale (p. 82).  The most fascinating chapter is one dedicated to metaphors of international security, specifically war and terrorism.  Marks provides detailed analyses of common metaphors such as the “Cold War” “hawks and doves” and “sheriffs and cowboys” among many others. He also explains how we routinely have “wars” on every social problem such as the “war on drugs” or the “war on terrorism.”  Marks also includes a chapter on game theory metaphors, explaining how experts in international relations analyze political decisions in terms of games such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” or “chicken.”

In the penultimate chapter, Marks gives a brief summary of how metaphors were used throughout history to describe politics and international relations.  He notes that in the Middle Ages, nations were described as places on a map “occupying a space relative to the divine forces of the universe” (p. 162).  Starting in the 17th century, political theories were modeled after machines (following the invention of mechanical devices of the time) and people were described as being influenced by the social and political transformations of the era as if they were part of a clockwork mechanism.  In the 18th century, machine metaphors were replaced by biological metaphors, representing the dynamic political changes that were happening at the time such as the French Revolution.  These biological metaphors led in the 19th century to such common phrases as the “society of nations” or the “community of states” (p. 166).  More recent metaphors include describing international relations as the “world” or the “web” with “dark corners” and “dark shadows.”

Marks concludes the book by summarizing the importance of metaphors in international relations.  He argues that although many theorists are not even aware of their metaphor usage, their metaphors influence the way other experts and the general public think about the issues at hand.  Marks claims, “the state of theorizing any given moment in the field of international relations is a direct reflection of the metaphorical language that is shared among scholars at that time” (p. 189).

It is difficult for me to pass judgment on the entirety of the book.  Not having a background in politics or international relations, I cannot comment on the accuracy of his descriptions of political theories.  However, having studied metaphors for about 30 years, I was quite impressed with Marks’ knowledge of metaphors.  I am always impressed when scholars from other fields show mastery of such a difficult subject.  Marks certainly does this throughout the book.

My quibbles with the book are few.  I was a little confused in his chapter on game theory.  He did not spend a great deal of time explaining the prisoner’s dilemma game and how it is applied to international relations.  In fact, my only frustration with the book was that Marks provided great examples of metaphors in international relations, but he did not always provide examples of how these metaphors were used in real-life political decisions or events.  For example, how has the “war on terrorism” influenced U.S. foreign policy since the Bush administration?  Or how could the “balance of power” metaphor be used to explain the endless battles between Israel and Palestine? Perhaps that is expecting too much from one book.  Marks bemoans the fact that no one has written a thorough history of political metaphors.  I would love to see Professor Marks write such a book, giving examples of how metaphors have influenced policies and world events throughout history.  I definitely look forward to his next book.

In the meantime, linguists and political scientists would both benefit a great deal from reading Michael Marks’ Metaphors in International Relations Theory.  If you are interested, check your local bookstores for a copy or order it online.

 Next time:  Metaphors of Tools

Memorial Day War Metaphors

I have never served in the military (although I was in the Peace Corps many years ago).  However, my grandfather was a pilot in World War I (!) and my oldest brother was in the Navy during the Vietnam War.  I have the utmost respect for those military personnel and their families who have sacrificed so much for their country.

I have covered war metaphors extensively in previous posts. However, on this Memorial Day, I would like to add a few more examples of metaphors based on experiences of military personnel after the end of a war.

After the War

win its share of battles

Presidential elections are often referred to as battles, but candidates must earn the greatest number of votes in each state.  Each candidate must win the most popular and electoral votes to win the election.   Thus, after an election, commentators may claim that one party or the other won its share of battles in an election.

Example:  In 2008, John McCain won his share of battles, but he was not able to win the presidential election.

The First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War, July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War                                      July 21, 1861

take-no-prisoners style

During a war, enemy soldiers may be captured and held as prisoners of war.  However, in some extreme battles, all soldiers are killed and no prisoners are taken.  This is referred to as a take-no-prisoners style of war.  Metaphorically, a politician who makes no concessions and fights for what he or she wants may also be described as having a take-no-prisoner style of governing.

Example:  Some Republican Congresspersons have a take-no-prisoner style of writing policies for immigration reform.

badge of honor, badge of shame

After a war, military personnel who have been very heroic may be given medals or badges for their bravery.  These may be referred to as badges of honor.  Metaphorically, someone who does something good for his or her community may earn a badge of honor.  Someone who does something embarrassing may be labeled with a badge of shame.

Example:  Although critics of Barack Obama claim his policies in support of the middle class are bad for the country.  However, he stated that he wears the title of culture warrior as a badge of honor.

The U.S. Medal of Honor
The U.S. Army Medal of Honor

war stories

People who have fought in a war will have many scary stories of their experiences.  These are simply called war stories.  People involved in politics may also have stories of their experiences in elections or government service.  These stories may also be referred to as war stories.

Example:  John McCain has many war stories from his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and as a U.S. Congressman for several decades.

Next time:  TBA


President Johnson’s War on Poverty

President Johnson’s War on Poverty

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty, first proposed in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. The civil rights movements of the 1960s highlighted the appalling degree of poverty that many Americans were living in at the time.  President Johnson named his efforts solve this problem his War on Poverty.  Although some modern critics claim that this program was a failure (see Republican Representative Paul Ryan’s recent comments at others note how much the program has reduced poverty for millions of Americans, especially children and the elderly (see

Two months after his State of the Union address, President Johnson delivered a special message to Congress offering more details of his plan on March 16, 1964.  Out of curiosity I read through this speech to see what political metaphors he used in addition to the obvious war metaphors.  I was not surprised to find that he used a great deal of political metaphors in the speech, but I was intrigued that he used a complex array of four different conceptual metaphors to explain his program.  Using the format of Lakoff and Johnson, I can summarize these metaphors as follows: 1) POVERTY IS A PART OF NATURE; 2) POVERTY IS A PRISON; 3) LEAVING POVERTY IS A JOURNEY; and 4) POVERTY IS A ENEMY OF WAR.  I will categorize several metaphors below using excerpts from President Johnson’s speech as examples.  Italics are mine.  You can read the entire speech at



We often compare people or processes to parts of nature.  The word source is commonly used to indicate the origin of some process or phenomenon.  Its origins, however, lie in a French word meaning to be the source of natural spring water.  Thus, talking about the source of poverty is using a metaphor of nature.

Example:  … through a new Community Action program we intend to strike at poverty at its source – in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside among the very young and the impoverished old.

blog - nature - rootsdeeply rooted

When we compare something to a tree, we are speaking of its strength, age or durability, e.g., saying someone is “as strong as an oak.”   A tree has roots that go deep underground to give it stability and strength in strong winds or high waters.  Saying that a problem is deeply rooted indicates that it has been around for many years and will be very difficult to solve.

Example:  We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many.


Johnson compares being in poverty to being in a jail or prison.  People who are very poor often do not have the means to get a better job (or any job) due to a lack of resources, medical disabilities or financial difficulties.


If one is being forced to live in confined quarters, sometimes the only means of getting out of that situation is by escaping.

Example:  [The war on poverty] will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.

break out of

Another way of describing an escape is to say that a person is breaking out of prison.

Example:  … we intend to create new opportunities for certain hard-hit groups to break out of the pattern of poverty.

blog - journey - open dooropen door

In some situations, merely getting help opening a door can provide the escape that is needed.  Sometimes a tool such as a lever is needed to pry open the door.

Example:  It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside.

carry out their plans

Although some people may not consider this to be a metaphor, the phrase carry out takes a physical process and turns it into a metaphorical action.  For example, a person can literally carry out a box from an office, or carry out plans to achieve a goal.

Example:  It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty-and help them to carry out their plans.


show the way

Once a person begins a journey, sometimes a local expert may need to show that person the best road or direction to travel.

Example:  But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens.


Distances on long roads or highways are sometimes indicated by stone markers along the side of the road. The markers that indicate the distance of one mile are called milestones.  In metaphorical terms, a milestone is the observance of a significant amount of progress made in a long process.

Example:  It can be a milestone in our one-hundred eighty-year search for a better life for our people.

blog - journey - barrierbarriers

            In some cases, roads are blocked by barriers because of construction or dangerous road conditions.  Metaphorically, any impediment to making progress towards a certain goal may be described as a barrier.

Example:  [The war on poverty] will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.

charts a new course

When the captain of a ship begins a long journey, he or she must chart the course towards their destination. Metaphorically, starting a new program or process may also be described as charting a new course.  Additionally, the idea of having a new course indicates that the approach being taken is different from previous approaches.

Example:  The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done.  It charts a new course.


Finally, and most importantly, Johnson compares the entire approach to eliminate poverty in the United States to a war against a strong enemy.  I have written about war metaphors in previous posts, although I am not sure of the exact origin of these types of metaphors.  In 1964, President Johnson would have been speaking only a generation after World War II, and in the middle of the Vietnam War.  Perhaps war metaphors would not be unexpected in that time of history.  His approach to solving the problem of poverty is to relate it to a war.  He repeats the phrase war on poverty six times during the speech.

war on poverty

Example:  Therefore this bill creates, in the Executive Office of the President, a new Office of Economic Opportunity. Its Director will be my personal Chief of Staff for the War against poverty. I intend to appoint Sargent Shriver to this post. . . .



Opponents in a war are commonly called enemies.  Any social problem in a metaphorical war may be referred to as an enemy.

Example:  What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy.


When a government goes to war, it needs soldiers to fight it.  Its leaders can then recruit people or enlist volunteers to become soldiers or other military personnel.

Example:  … I ask for the authority to recruit and train skilled volunteers for the war against poverty.

enlist volunteers

Example:  It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.

Example:  A new national job Corps will build toward an enlistment of 100,000 young men. They will be drawn from those whose background, health and education make them least fit for useful work. . .

test our weapons

Countries that go to war are often developing new guns, tanks, bombs and other weapons to give them an advantage in a war.  However, new technology must be tested in the filed to make sure that it works properly.  This process may be called testing the weapons.  Metaphorically, trying out new approaches to solving old problems may be called testing weapons as well.

Example:  It will also give us the chance to test our weapons, to try our energy and ideas and imagination for the many battles yet to come.


A quick and strong military action against an enemy may be called a strike.  A forceful government action against a social or economic problem may also be referred to as a strike.

Example:  It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.

Up you goattack

A strong military maneuver in a war is known as an attack.  In politics, the term attack is commonly used metaphorically to indicate any strong verbal message or executive decision.

Example:  It will give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment, under my direction, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a national headquarters for the war against poverty.


A dominant military force may completely conquer another nation, as the Spanish conquistadors did to many Central and South American cultures in the 16th century.  In Johnson’s speech he refers to winning the war against poverty as being a process of conquering it.

Example:  Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

driven from the land

In some cases, a losing army or an invading force may be pushed off of a section of land as a result of a large battle.  This may be described as an army being driven from the land.  Metaphorically, solving a large social problem may also be described as it being driven from the land.

Example:  It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. Were this so we would have conquered poverty long ago.


            Winning a war requires winning many battles.  The idea of a military battle is often used metaphorically to indicate any struggle to solve a difficult problem.

Example:  It will also give us the chance to test our weapons, to try our energy and ideas and imagination for the many battles yet to come.

The Battle of New Orleans - Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)
The Battle of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)


Ultimately, defeating enemies in a war must result in a victory.   Metaphorically, any social problem that can be solved by government action may be described as a victory.

Example:  It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.


In sum, I believe that President Johnson’s powerful use of the metaphors of nature, prison, journeys and war helped persuade Congress to enact his War on Poverty.  Sadly, many American today still live in poverty.  Perhaps more powerful speeches are needed to get our current Congress to act?

Next time:  Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Metaphors of Fire!

The notions of lighting, burning and extinguishing fires are often used metaphorically in business, politics and everyday life.  In these cold days of December, I thought it would be appropriate to describe some metaphors that might warm up my readers.  Enjoy!

light a fire under someone

When one is cold, lighting a fire brings warmth and comfort. Metaphorically, when one is inactive, lighting a fire under someone means they are to become more active or quick in whatever they are doing.

Example: The nomination of Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 lit a fire under Democratic supporters who carried him to victory in the November election.


Another way of saying light a fire is to ignite it.  In popular terms, one can also ignite a problem or a controversy.

Example:  In the early 1970s, the problems for President Nixon were ignited by the break in by his aides at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.


blog - fire - ignitespark

Fires are often started by a single spark from a match or a nearby fire.  Metaphorically, something which stimulates a person or activity to increase speed is called a spark.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate was the spark that ignited the Republican Party to try to win the election.


The word incense comes from Latin meaning to start on fire.  In popular terms, to be incensed means to be very angry.

Example:  During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was incensed when the generals in the army did not win battles and the war dragged on and on.


As with the word incense, the word fume is old word for fire.  To fume at someone or something means to be very angry.

Example:  Supporters of Sarah Palin fumed when comedians made fun of her on national television.


A fire burns with bright flames.  In modern slang, to flame someone means to insult them or say bad things about them, usually on the Internet or on television.

Example:  Radio announcers with a Democratic or Republican agenda sometimes flame the members of the opposite political party on their radio shows.

fan the flames

When a fire is dying, one may need to use a fan or piece of paper to get the fire to burn brightly again.  This process is called fanning the flames.  In popular terms, to fan the flames means to make some argument even more controversial.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks in New York City, any rumor about Osama bin Laden fanned the flames of worries about another terrorist attack.

blaze a trail

Another word for burn is blaze.  To blaze a trail means to do something no one else had ever done, providing more opportunities for people to follow.

Example:  When Barack Obama became the first African-American president in the history of the United States, many Americans agreed he was blazing a trail for other African-Americans to become involved in politics.

blog - fire - fire

flare up

When a fire is burning low, it may burn brighter suddenly if it gets more fuel or oxygen.  This is called flaring up.  In popular terms, a controversy or military action may flare up if it suddenly becomes worse or more intense.

Example:  The war in Afghanistan flared up many times during the 1990s which led to more and more American involvement in the area.

fire up

Similar to flare up, to fire up something means to increase its intensity as when a flame increases its heat.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin fired up the Republican base with her electrifying speeches.

fiery speech

A good speaker can make a speech with a great deal of passion and energy.  In popular terms, this kind of oration is called a fiery speech.

Example:  During World War II, General George Patton was famous was giving fiery speeches to his troops to get them to defeat the Nazi armies.


As we all know, it is very painful to be burned by a flame or fire. In popular terms, to be burned means to be hurt politically by a particular event or controversy.  Additionally there is a saying that “if you play with fire, you can get your fingers burned.”

Example:  In 2013, Barack Obama was burned by the failed rollout of his Affordable Care Act.

burn out

When a fire dies, it is said to burn out.  When a person works too hard at his or her job, he or she can also be said to burn out.

Example:  Presidential candidates must endure a grueling schedule of endless campaign rallies and fundraiser.  It is amazing that they do not get burned out and become exhausted.

flame out

The phrase flame out derives from the event of a jet engine ceasing to work and the flames stopped coming out of the exhaust.  In popular terms, a person can flame out when he or she tries very hard to achieve something but then fails under public view.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was suspected of flaming out if he did not win the November election.

blog - fire - burn outextinguish

When one voluntarily tries to put out a fire, this is called extinguishing the flames.  Metaphorically, one can also extinguish problems in society or emotions in people such as passion or hope.

Example:  When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, it extinguished the hopes of many American women of having the first female president.

Next time:  Food and Drink for the Holidays!