Tag Archives: Meet the Press

Metaphors vs Slang and Analogies

Hello! I have a different type of blog post today.  It may appear to some of my loyal readers that all types of non-literal language can be classified as metaphors.  This is not true.  There are many different types of figurative language in addition to metaphors including similes, slang, idioms, clichés, proverbs, and analogies.  One of the greatest challenges of doing metaphor research is sorting out these different types of language use. This past week after the midterm elections, there were many examples of slang and analogies that were confusingly similar to metaphors.  I am certainly no expert on figurative language, but allow me to provide a few examples of when terms and phrases are not metaphors.

Slang:  Red States and Blue States

blog - slang - 2008_General_Election_Results_by_County

We cannot turn on the television or radio during an election without hearing about red states and blue states.   Here is a brief history of these terms: The United States has two dominant political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. During presidential elections, each state will be won by either party.  In the 1990s, television stations and newspapers struggled to show which party had won each state.  Eventually the media began using two contrasting colors for the two parties, red for Republican-won states, and blue for Democrat-won states.  In time, people began to shorten the names to simply red states and blue states.  States that can be either predominantly Democratic or Republican may be referred to as purple states.

It is very confusing as to whether or not these terms are actually metaphors.  In fact, I may have described them incorrectly in a previous post.  After a great deal of research and consultation with a few other experts, I have concluded that they are not metaphors.  There is nothing intrinsically red or blue about any political party.  In this case, the color-based origin of these slang terms is completely arbitrary.

The confusion arises when one considers that some color terms are metaphors while others are not.  A metaphor is constructed when a person compares the attributes of an object or process to a person or another object or process.  For example, describing a cold-hearted person as a block of ice makes sense to us because we understand that ice is cold. Or if we say that a person is a sharp thinker, we understand that the person’s mind is being compared to the sharpness of a knife.  However, in some cases, there is no real-world experience with which to form the comparison.  For example, we can call a cowardly person yellow even though there is there is nothing yellow about that person’s skin.  Similarly, one can be green with envy, although the person is most likely not green.  In these cases, the terms are not metaphors.

blog - slang - green Cucumber_leafHowever, we can say that a person is green if he or she is new to a job.  This usage is derived from the fact that, as any gardener knows, a new plant will have bright green shoots and leaves when it first emerges from the ground.  The immaturity of the plant is compared to the immaturity and lack of experience of the person.  We can also refer to something as being silver or golden based on our experiences with the colors and value of these precious metals.  As another example, people have no doubt experienced red tape when dealing with a bureaucracy.  In this case, the phrase is derived from the old practice of tying up government documents with red tape. Or we can have blue-collar workers because many factory workers wear light blue shirts as their uniforms.  As you can see, the phrases red, blue or purple states have no basis in physical reality, so I would call these slang terms instead of metaphors.

Analogies: Bulls, Fire, Fuses, and Wells

A completely different type of confusion arises when people use longer phrases to describe a situation. In the aftermath of the midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed that if President Obama made any executive actions on immigration reform it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  He also said it “would poison the well” and prevent further dialog on the issue.

blog - slang - Madrid_Bullfight

Speaker of the House John Boehner warned President Obama not to go through with an executive order regarding immigration.  He stated, “He’s playing with fire.” “He’s going to burn himself if he continues down this path.”

Later, Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talked about the same issue on Meet the Press (11/9/14) “We’re going to work together and the president cannot sign that executive order. He’s going to light a fuse.”

What are these types of phrases? I noticed that some articles on the Internet described these as idioms, but I believe that they are more correctly described as analogies.  Idioms are notoriously difficult to define and describe.  However, one common criterion among linguists is that idioms are noncompositional, meaning that the words used to make up the idiom do not provide its meaning.

blog - slang - Pluie_de_chatsFor example, describing a heavy rain as raining cats and dogs is very confusing.  There is nothing about cats or dogs that indicate why a heavy rain would have them falling from the sky.  There are some theories about the origins of this phrase including the idea that some animals lived in the roofing thatch of houses during the Middle Ages, and jumped down to the ground when it started raining.  Another idea is that dead animals were washed down city sewer drains after a heavy rain. But these explanations are what are known as being apocryphal or as folk etymologies, a layperson’s explanation for the origin of a phrase without any basis in fact.  We also have the phrase kick the bucket describing a death.  Once again, there seems to be no historical precedent for a person kicking an actual bucket while dying. In any case, there seems to be no real-world experience to call these examples anything but idioms.

Sometimes unusual phrases that appear to idioms actually turn out to be metaphors because of real-life experiences.  One such example is the phrase to bury the hatchet used to describe a peace making process.  This phrase actually dates back to the 1700s when some Native America tribes actually threw a hatchet into the ground symbolically indicating that the war between two tribes was over.  The phrase winning hands down also may seem too unusual to be historical in origin.  However, as I explained in a previous post on horse racing, the phrase is derived from the practice of jockeys lowering their arms when they are winning a horse race by a large margin since they no longer have to spur the horse to a faster pace.

Back to the colorful phrases of the Republicans. I believe these to be analogies. We may remember analogies from our high school SAT tests as in dog:puppy :: cat:kitten.  These, like metaphors, are also a type of comparison.  People may use analogies to explain a complex process or situation.  In politics, we may hear politicians explaining the federal budget, for example, in terms of a household budget, e.g., “The government has to pay its bills every month just like you do at your kitchen table.”

blog - slang - Kitchen_table

Using analogies is a rhetorical strategy to compare a familiar process to a new, complex one.  Thus, for example, comparing President Obama’s executive action on immigration as waving a red flag in front of a bull indicates that it is a dangerous situation for Obama analogous to a bullfighting scenario.  However, I heard several pundits on TV wondering out loud who was whom in the analogy, i.e., who is the bull in this analogy? Who is the matador in the bullfight?  The main idea is that the Republicans will be as angry at Obama as the bull will be at the matador, but in many cases, the bull ends up being killed by the matador, so perhaps they did not think the analogy all the way through.

blog - slang - Fuse_burningSimilarly, Eric Cantor’s reference to lighting the fuse also implies a dangerous situation for the president, but it is not clear why President Obama is lighting the fuse for a bomb, and who would be injured by the bomb if it exploded.  Mitch McConnell’s reference to playing with fire has similar implications but similar ambiguities.

blog - slang - wellThe analogy comparing the executive action as poisoning the well is even more confusing.  The main idea is that poisoning a well is analogous to spoiling the working relationships between two groups of people.  However, this is a rather sinister analogy.  A person who deliberately poisons a well would most likely end up accidentally killing innocent people.  I don’t see how making an executive action would accidentally kill people.

In any case, these sayings are clearly not simply metaphors but complex analogies.  It remains to be seen if President Obama does indeed go through with executive actions without the support of Congress and what the reaction of the Republicans will be.  Stay tuned for further developments!

Next time:  Metaphors of the Night Sky

More Metaphors of the ISIS Crisis

Hello dear readers! Before getting to the metaphors of the day, I would like to say thanks to everyone who continues to read my blog.  As my Facebook or email group members have already heard, I reached a few milestones this past week.  For one, this past week I sent off my 100th post!  My, how time flies!  It is hard to believe, but I have been doing this for 22 months now.  And, according to the stats on my blog software, I have also just reached a total of 50,000 views of my blog.  Pretty amazing for an academic blog! I am not sure if that is 50,000 different people reading the blog one time each, or 500 people reading it 100 times each, most likely the latter.   Once again, thanks for reading.  As always, feel free to leave comments or questions after the blog post.  I would love to hear from you!

Today I would like to add a few more metaphors used in the discussion about the ISIS terrorist group that President Obama did not use in his national speech.

blog - soldiers and bootsboots on the ground

The first example the common phrase boots on the ground.  This phrase is technically not a metaphor but an instance of the type of figurative language called synecdoche (sin-NECK-duh-key).  I have discussed this linguistic phenomenon in a previous post, so I won’t provide too many details here.  However, I should point out that synecdoche occurs when a part of something is used to refer to the whole.  Common examples include all hands on deck, when hands refer to the sailors working on a ship, or the Yankees have a great glove at third base, when the glove refers to the baseball player.  With the phrase boots on the ground, the boots refer to the soldiers who wear them when they go into battle.

Example: A few weeks ago, American military advisors have been saying that there would be no American boots on the ground.  Now, some experts are saying that it might be inevitable to have American soldiers in battle in Iraq or Syria.

Dinosaur footprintlarge footprint

In a strange mixture of synecdoche and personification, we can also talk about a country leaving a footprint in another country.  People and animals leave footprints in sand or soft soils as they walk.  Metaphorically, countries can leave footprints in another country if they have many people working in that country.  Recently, I have heard pundits on TV talking about not having American boots on the ground in Syria because we don’t want to have a large footprint there.

Example:  After the U.S. government spent billions of dollars on the War in Iraq, many Americans are vehemently against having another large footprint in Iraq or Syria trying to defeat ISIS.

blog - ISIS - neighborhoodneighborhood 

As explained in the analysis of President Obama’s speech in my previous post, it is common for people to talk about countries as if they are people.  Another example worthy of mention is the notion of a neighborhood of countries.  We may say for example, that Mexico and Canada are American neighbors as if they are families that live on the same street.  On TV news shows the past few weeks, some commentators have wondered why the other countries in the Middle East are not helping more to defeat ISIS.  President Obama himself used the metaphor of a neighborhood in a television interview.

Example:  “Saudi Arabia needs to help take down ISIS because it’s in their neighborhood.” – Pres. Obama on Meet the Press, Sep. 7.

war fatigue

Yet another example of personification is the phrase war fatigue.  People and animals can get tired or have fatigue.  Metaphorically, countries can be described as being fatigued if its citizens collectively share a common emotion.  Specifically, a country can have war fatigue if most of its citizens are tired of their country being at war.

Example:  After more than 10 years of wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans are suffering from war fatigue and are very reluctant to see more American boots on the ground in the Middle East.

clear vision

People and countries can also have a collective vision.  This is indeed a strange metaphor since no one can see through someone else’s eyes.  And yet we can talk about the United States having a clear vision of how a war against ISIS will develop militarily and/or diplomatically.

Example:  Supporters of President Obama claim that he laid out a clear vision of the war against ISIS with the four-step strategy he explained in his national speech.

blog - ISIS - 58_edsel_pacerwhat does a victory look like?

Another odd metaphor of vision is the question one might hear on a news show: “What does a victory look like?”  We have all had the experience of listening to someone describe a physical object in answer to a request, as in “What did the 1958 Ford Edsel look like?”  Metaphorically, we can also talk about an event as if it is a physical object, as in what winning a war looks like in terms of government takeovers, captured soldiers or the end of combat.

Example:  Many TV news commentators are asking American military advisors what a victory against ISIS would look like.

blog - ISIS - needlethreading a needle

In a totally different conceptual metaphor, we can describe military strategies in terms of a sewing technique.  Anyone who has tried to sew a garment knows that it is very difficult to thread a needle, inserting the slender thread through a tiny hole at the top of the needle.  Metaphorically, threading a needle indicates a situation that is very difficult and takes great precision to do accurately.

Example:  “Obama and his top advisers appeared to be threading a needle as they carefully clarified how exactly U.S. troops might be used, a day after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey opened the door to approving ‘U.S. military ground forces’” (“White House: No ‘combat role,’ but US troops could ‘forward deploy’ with Iraqis” Foxnews.com, Sept. 17, 2014).

hawks and doves

Finally, I must mention one of the most common metaphors from our experiences with animals.  Traditionally, hawks are symbolic of war since they are very skilled at killing prey, while doves are symbolic of peace since they are quiet, calm birds with a soothing call.  Metaphorically, people who support military activities are commonly referred to as hawks, while people who are anti-war and who support diplomacy and peace negotiations are often called doves.   The recent crisis in the Middle East has caused TV commentators to begin describing experts as being hawks or doves. (I discussed other metaphors of birds in a previous post.)

Example:  Despite a country filled with war fatigue, some hawks in Congress immediately supported air strikes against ISIS, while the doves argued for restraint in getting involved in another war in the Middle East.

blog - nature - hawkblog - nature - dove






Next time:  Metaphors of vision

Metaphors of Tools

There have two distinct metaphors of tools in the news lately: the word tool itself and the phrase to ratchet up something.  The word tool came up a few weeks ago when it was announced that David Gregory was no longer going to be the host of Meet the Press.  In fact, yesterday was the first day for the new host, Chuck Todd.  David Gregory was the host of the news show for seven years and by some accounts did a fine job.  However, ratings were dropping and he was removed.  Moreover, many people on the Internet, mostly Democrats, were extremely critical of him, often calling him a tool, implying that he was being used by the GOP and that he was not critical enough of his Republican guests and their political positions.

blog - tools - wrench shadowThe usage of the word tool in this metaphorical sense indicates a person who is being used by someone else.  The Urban Dictionary describes the meaning even more harshly, indicating that a tool is a person who does even have the mental capacity to know he or she is being used.  I think this is an unfair criticism of David Gregory.  Regardless of his interview abilities, the guests and talking points are most likely dictated by the producers and corporate sponsors of the Meet the Press, not the host.  Regardless of Gregory’s interview skills, he has been roundly criticized on the Internet.  Here is just one blunt example.

Example:  “David Gregory is a tool.” (Daily Kos, June 22, 2014). http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/06/22/1102181/-David-Gregory-is-a-tool

blog - tools - ratchetThe other tool metaphor common in the news lately is to ratchet up something.  When the young black man, Michael Brown, was killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 of this year, many journalists reported that the police force had to ratchet up their presence in Ferguson in response to widespread protests by the local people angered about the death. A ratchet is a type of wrench for tightening or loosening nuts and bolts.  It has gears that prevent it from turning in the opposite direction that one is working.  When tightening something, the more one uses the ratchet, the tighter the nut or bolt becomes.  Figuratively, to ratchet up something means to increase it in gradual steps or degrees.

Example:  “The calls for Obama to take a leading role in this drama seem likely to ratchet up this week, with protests spinning out of control in the St. Louis suburb and Obama briefly interrupting his vacation to return to Washington for meetings.” Newsnet5, August 18, 2014. http://www.newsnet5.com/decodedc/as-tensions-rise-in-ferguson-pressure-mounts-on-president

Here are a few more examples of metaphors of tools used in American newspapers and magazines, TV and radio broadcasts, and Internet news sources.


Most of us are familiar with household tools such as hammers, saws, drills, and rakes, along with nails, screws and bolts for attaching parts of metal or wood together.  The concept of tools has led to many metaphors of fixing or repairing.  Instead of physical objects, tools can be any strategy, plan or action that helps one achieve a goal.

policy tool or planning tool

Government officials can use specific strategies for achieving a fiscal or military goal. These strategies are sometimes referred to as policy or planning tools.

Example:  Raising taxes is one policy tool that the government can use to reduce the deficit.

blog - tools - tool boxrecruiting tool

Governments can also use strategies to recruit people for governmental or military service. These methods may be known as recruiting tools.

Example:  Terrorist organizations sometimes use American military actions around the world as recruiting tools to train new terrorists.


When a factory updates its equipment to improve its production, this is known as retooling the plant.  Metaphorically, any changes made to a process can be called a retooling.

Example:  For the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama had to retool his campaign strategies to earn the votes of progressives that had supported him in 2008.

blog - tools - scalpelsinstrument

Another word for tool is instrument especially when referring to specialized tools for science and medicine.  The word instrument can also be used metaphorically to refer to any method of measuring steps in a process or to achieve a goal.

Example:  The U.S. Constitution has proven to be an excellent instrument of preventing the government from abusing the civil rights of the American people.


The adjective form of instrument is instrumental. Metaphorically, something or someone can be instrumental in accomplishing a goal if they are very useful or helpful in the process.

Example:  Harry S Truman was instrumental in ending World War II by 1945.

well equipped, ill equipped

Factory workers, mechanics or repairpersons need a specific set of tools to do the jobs they are trying to do.  If they have the right tools, we might say that they are well equipped to do the job.  If not, we say that they are ill equipped.

Example:  Some Americans thought that Sarah Palin’s lack of experience in the federal government made her ill equipped to become Vice President in 2008.

blog - tools - axe 2unwieldy

Some tools such as shovels and axes are very heavy and difficult to use or wield in a work situation.  When a tool is difficult to lift or swing, we may say that it is unwieldy.  Metaphorically, a process or policy may be unwieldy if it is difficult to implement.

Example:  Consisting of thousands of pages, the U.S. government’s tax codes are very unwieldy for Congress to regulate.


A hammer is a powerful tool used to pound in nails in building houses and other wooden structures. The action of hammering is used metaphorically to describe any forceful and repetitive action as in reporters hammering away questions at people.

Example:  Some critics have hammered Joe Biden for being outspoken and making errors when he is giving speeches.

blog - tools - sledgehammersledgehammer

A sledgehammer is a very large, heavy hammer used to break apart concrete or wooden structures.  Metaphorically, to sledgehammer something means to destroy it completely.

Example:  Some military dictators around the world take a sledgehammer to civil rights in their countries and arrest and detain anyone they please.

make one’s mark on

When one uses a heavy tool such as a hammer, the action makes a mark or dent on the surface of the material that is struck.  In a figurative phrase, to make one’s mark on something means that the person has made a lasting contribution or had an effect on a cultural or political process.

Example:  John F. Kennedy made his mark on progressive Democratic policies in his short term as president in the early 1960s.

Drills and Needles

full bore

Drills are used for making or boring holes in wood or metal.  The word bore has come to mean the size of a tube that is used in machines.  In a combustion engine a carburetor running wide open (as fast as possible) is said to be operating at full bore.  Metaphorically, anything that is done with great effort may be described as being full bore.

Example:  Presidential candidates often come out with full-bore assaults on their opponents in the last few weeks of the campaign.

small bore

In an opposite sense, a device with a small bore lacks power.  If a gun or rifle has a small-bore barrel, it can only shoot small bullets so cannot be very powerful.  Figuratively, any action, statement or idea that is weak may be described as being small bore.

Example:  Conservatives may accuse liberals of having small-bore ideas when it comes to reducing the deficit since the liberals like to increase spending for social programs.

blog - tools - needleneedle

A needle is a small, sharp instrument used in sewing.  Figuratively, to needle a person means to tease, mock or ask him or her many repeated questions.

Example:  Newspaper reporters often needle politicians on important issues to get the most information as possible for their articles.

move the needle

Needle is also the name of a small piece of metal in machines used to measure the strength or pressure of something.  For example, a loud noise will move the needle of sound recording equipment.  Figuratively, saying an action moves the needle means that it has made a large increase in the amount of something.

Example:  In a political campaign, thousands of small donations barely move the needle while a huge corporate donation can make a big difference in the campaign funds.

Other Tools

blog - tools - rakerake in

A rake is a common garden tool for collecting leaves and other yard debris.  In a common metaphor, collecting lots of money in sales or campaign donations is called raking it in.

Example:  In most presidential campaigns, the candidates rake in millions of dollars in donations.

blog - tools - keykey issues

We all use keys in our daily lives to open locked doors.  The concept of a key being something important is one of the most common of all English metaphors.  In politics, important problems can be called key issues. We can also speak of key states, key districts, key cabinet posts, etc.

Example:  American voters like to hear candidates discuss the key issues during presidential debates.


A rivet is a small bolt used to connect two sheets of metal.  Sheets that are riveted together are firmly attached to each other.  In a figurative phrase, something that is riveting is very interesting or fascinating to a viewer or listener.

Example:  Martin Luther King, Jr. was famous for his riveting and inspiring speeches on civil rights.

lightning rod

A lightning rod is a metal device placed on a roof of a building to absorb any lightning strikes instead of the lightning going into the building. Figuratively a lightning rod is any person who seems to be the focus of controversy wherever he or she goes.

Example:  As soon as Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan for his running mate prior to the 2012 presidential election, Ryan became the lightning rod for all Democratic criticisms against the Republican budget proposals.

cobble together

To cobble means to repair something quickly and ineffectively.  Metaphorically, to cobble together something form a makeshift alliance of people or combination of ideas.

Example:  Presidential candidates may try to cobble together a coalition of minority voters to try to help them win the election.

blog - tools - whipMinority Whip

A whip is a long braided piece of leather used to make horses or farm animals work harder or run faster.  In a strange metaphor from the British Parliament, a person who is in charge of maintaining order among the members of the minority party is known as the minority whip.

Example:  Normally it is the job of the Minority Whip in the House of Representatives to rally the members of Congress to support the party’s national policies.

Next time: Book Review – Politicians and Rhetoric