Tag Archives: obama

Metaphors of Red, Blue, Green and Yellow

In my last post I discussed metaphors derived from the colors of black and white.  Today I discuss metaphors derived from our experiences in seeing colors of red, blue, green and yellow.  As I mentioned last time, some of these conceptual metaphors originate in our experiences with nature, while others are based on arbitrary associations.  Have a look at a spectrum of color metaphors!

Red and Blue

blog - colors - Red_and_Blue_(5836555143)

red states and blue states

                  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.  There is nothing intrinsically red or blue about any political party.  In this case, the color-based origin of these political metaphors is completely arbitrary.

Example:  The west coast of the United States has mostly blue states such as California, Oregon and Washington.  However, the Midwest and South have many red states.


Since purple is a mixture of the colors red and blue, some media analysts say that states with an even mixture of Democratic and Republican voters are called purple states.

Example:  Virginia was formerly known as a red state, but it has been purple during the 2008 and 2012 elections.


The color red has man metaphorical meanings.  In addition to the political meaning explained above, the color red is commonly used to mean anger.

Example:  In the year 2000, many Democrats were seeing red when the Supreme Court voted to uphold George W. Bush’s election win although Al Gore had won the popular vote.

red ink

Pens with red ink were formerly used to write down the amount of money that was lost in a business.  When a business or government is losing more money than it is earning, we say that it is in red ink.

Example:  When the economy is in recession, many state governments get into red ink.  They must begin to make budget cuts.

blog - colors - Civil_War_Red_Tape_02red tape

Many years ago, a kind of red-colored tape was used to hold together official government documents.  Nowadays, the phrase red tape indicates the problems and delays one encounters when trying to get something done in a bureaucracy.

Example:  Many Americans are frustrated by all the red tape they must endure every time they deal with the government for taxes, licenses, passports, etc.


As with the phrase red ink, the term redline originally meant to use red ink to highlight a problem.  In some cases, the names of people who applied for a loan from a bank but did not qualify were crossed off a list with red line.  Thus, to redline someone means to disqualify him or her from doing something.

Example:  In part, the banking crisis of 2008 was caused by banks giving loans to people who should have been redlined since they could not afford to pay the high mortgages.


The rose flower has petals in beautiful shades of red.  If we say something is rosy, this means that the situation is very good.

Example:  When a new president is elected, most people have rosy expectations of making positive changes for the country.


In addition to meaning explained above that blue states are Democratic, the color blue is also used to indicate situations that are sad or depressing.  Also, as mentioned in the chapter on Clothing, blue collar workers are those who work in factories and make middle class wages.

Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama was able to turn some red states blue.

Example:  Many Republicans were feeling blue when Barack Obama won the election.

Example:  During the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton won many votes from blue collar Democrats in the Midwest.

blog - colors - Clouds_Blue_Sky_001out of the blue

If something is unexpected, it seems to fall from the blue sky.  Thus we have an expression that something we were not expecting is out of the blue.

Example:  The rise of Hitler in World War II was not out of the blue; many Europeans knew he was gaining power in the 1930s.

blue blooded

Many years ago in Spain, the term translated as blueblood meant someone who was very rich or from a high social class.  This term may have started from the idea that blood looks blue in people with very fair skin especially when compared to people with darker skin.

Example:  After the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, citizens did not want any more royal British bluebloods controlling their government; they wanted to elect their own presidents.

Green and Yellow

blog - colors - green shoots Convallaria_majalis_IP0404087green

The color green has many metaphorical meanings.  Since most plants are very green when they start to grow, the color green is used to indicate people who are not yet mature or experienced.  Since the color green is associated with plant growth, it has been used to describe programs, organizations and governments that take good care of the environment.  Subsequently, one who works in a business promoting environmental concerns can be called a green collar worker.  Finally, since American money is colored green, the term green can also be used to indicate financial gain.

Example:  Some critics said that Barack Obama was too green to be elected president since he did not have much executive experience.

Example:  Traditionally American-made cars have not been good at saving gas or reducing pollution.  However, now the companies are stating to make greener cars with better gas mileage and less carbon dioxide emissions.

green collar

Example:  After the high oil and gas prices in 2008, many companies started making alternative energy, creating many green collar jobs.


                  A person who is inexperienced can also be called a greenhorn, perhaps derived from animals with new horns when they are young.

Example:  Ronald Reagan was no greenhorn when it came to making public speeches.  He was a famous Hollywood actor before becoming the governor of California and the president of the United States.


A greenback is another word meaning American money, due to its color.

Example:  Americans seem to need more and more greenbacks to buy simple things like food and gasoline. 


In popular terms, to be yellow means to be afraid or cowardly, as in a soldier who is afraid to fight in a war.  In politics, a leader may be called yellow if he or she is afraid to use military force against an enemy.

Example:  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt was not yellow; he declared war on Japan the next day and immediately began plans to attack.

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, a satire of their role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain. Source – Wikipedia.

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, a satire of their role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain. Source – Wikipedia.

yellow journalism

In the 1890’s, a New York newspaper had a comic strip character who always wore yellow clothes.  The Yellow Kid, as he was known, was so popular another newspaper created their own yellow characters to get more people to buy their newspaper.  This competition became known as yellow journalism, later meaning the type of reporting relying on headlines, exaggerations and sensational stories to sell newspapers instead of trying to find all the facts.

Example:  American citizens should be careful about yellow journalism when it comes to learning the truth about the news.  They should only read newspapers that tell the real truth about events.

Other color metaphors


If someone cannot physically see colors, this is called being colorblind.  Metaphorically, being colorblind means that one does not form opinions or make decisions based on a person’s race.

Example:  Did America become more colorblind after Barack Obama was elected the first black president? Or will race still an important issue in society for many years to come?


If a person is looking off-color, this means he or shoe does not have the usual color of healthy skin.  In jewelry, a jewel that is off-color is less valuable because it is not as pure as other examples of that type of gem.  In popular terms, a joke or story is considered off color if it is not accepted by normal society, usually because it has some sexual content.

Example:  Good politicians are careful not to tell any off-color stories since many people will be offended.

blog - colors - Colored_pencils_chevre

true colors

If people show their true colors, this means that they are showing what they really think or believe.

Example:  Democrats show their true colors when they write laws that help poor people have better lives.

Next time:  Metaphors of Plants and Trees

President Obama’s State of the Union Address

Hi folks!  Sorry for the delay in getting out a new post.  Sometimes my teaching schedule prevents me from having enough free time to write these lengthy analyses.  Just in time for Presidents’ Day weekend, I offer a brief summary of the metaphors in President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address.

The speech was an inspiring call to action for Congress and the American people to make progress to solve our nation’s problems.  It was not rhetorically flourishing, but it did have a fair number of interesting political metaphors.  There were three conceptual metaphors that seemed to be central to his message:  sports, motion, and personification, all designed to invoke unity between the president and the American people.   The examples are taken directly from the speech; italics are mine.


Most Americans are familiar with our popular sports of football, baseball and basketball.  It is very common for politicians to speak of the government and people working together as a sports team.  President Obama uses several sports metaphors to suggest the importance of working together with common strategies for success.

the playbook

The book of strategies used by the coaching staff to win a game is called the playbook.

Example:  Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit, where already 150 universities, businesses, nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education

blog - sports - footballstanding on the sidelines

In football, the coaches stand on the side or sidelines of the field while the athletes play in the middle of the field.  Being on the sidelines metaphorically indicates that a person or group is not directly involved in an important activity.

Example:  Listen, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines; and neither — neither should we. We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.

the game

Most sporting competitions are called games (although in other sports they may be called matches (tennis) or tournaments (golf)).  Coaches always put their best players in the game to increase the odds of winning the competition. In this case, President Obama described a woman who lost her job a week after she and her husband bought their first home.

Example:  Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance.  Give them that chance. Give them the chance. They need our help right now, but more important, this country needs them in the game. That’s why I’ve been asking CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot at new jobs, a new chance to support their families. And in fact, this week many will come to the White House to make that commitment real.

a full team

In some cases, athletes get injured and cannot play on the team.  If there are many injuries the coaches may not even have enough players to play a game. This is referred to as having a full team.

Example:  Tonight I ask every business leader in America to join us and do the same because we are stronger when America fields a full team.



As mentioned in other blog posts about speeches and writings, politicians often invoke metaphors of motion or journeys to indicate how a group or government is making progress.  In the President’s State of the Union Address, he uses many such metaphors to explain how his policies are helping the country make progress in important areas.


When an animal or person is trapped, it means that they cannot move or escape.  Being trapped metaphorically indicates the opposite of a journey in that it means that a person or group cannot move forward or make progress towards a goal.

Example:  We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.


When an engine is not working properly, it may stall and die.  Similarly, when an airplane loses speed and lift, it stops moving forward and falls toward the earth.  Metaphorically, a lack of progress toward a goal may also be described as being stalled.

Example:  Upward mobility has stalled.


Even worse in terms of progress than an engine stalling is putting it in reverse and going in an opposite direction. However, when something bad is happening, it is good to reverse the trend to stop the negative effects of the action.  In this example, President Obama laments the high number of Americans who are still unemployed.

Example:  So our job is to reverse these trends.

blog - journey - derailmentderail

We often use journey metaphors specific to certain kinds of transportation.  Trains must stay on the rails to be able to move forward.  If they fall off the railroad tracks, this is known as a derailment.  Metaphorically, when progress towards a goal is interrupted or broken, we may say that it is derailed.  In this case, President Obama is talking about the success of imposing sanctions on Iran.

Example:  The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.

stay on track

Similarly, forward progress can be made metaphorically if the actions of a group stay on track.

Example:  And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.


We also talk about a quick beginning to a journey metaphorically compared to the launch of a rocket.

Example:  We also have the chance, right now, to beat other countries in the race for the next wave of high-tech manufacturing jobs. And my administration’s launched two hubs for high-tech manufacturing in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Youngstown, Ohio, where we’ve connected businesses to research universities that can help America lead the world in advanced technologies. Tonight, I’m announcing we’ll launch six more this year.


When a rocket is launched, it travels along a path through the air called a trajectory.  Figuratively, a person or group making progress toward a goal may be described as being on a correct upward trajectory.

Example:  That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.

get on board

Another way of speaking of starting a journey to describe as a person getting on a ship, known as getting on board (the word board itself an example of synecdoche as the piece of wood indicates the platform used to allow people to walk onto the ship). In this case, President Obama talked about asking the government to raise the minimum wage for American workers.

Example:  Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board.

America does not stand still/take steps

A journey always begins with the first few steps.  A person cannot stand still and expect to go anywhere. Metaphorically, standing still indicates that no progress is being made towards a goal.  A person needs to start moving and take the first steps to begin the journey.

Example:  But America does not stand still, and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.

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race to the top/big strides

Some journeys are competitions between people or groups.  These competitions are known as races.  A winner is sometimes considered the person at the top of the winners’ podium so that a competition may be described as being a race to the top.  One of President Obama’s programs to improve public education in the United States is called the Race to the Top.  In an extended metaphorical passage, Obama also describes the necessary progress as making big steps or strides toward solving the problem.

Example:  Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy — problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math.

Example:  So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children.

speed up/picking up speed

Once a journey or race has begun, a person may need to increase speed to win the race.  This may be known as speeding up or picking up speed. 

Example:  But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.

Example:  With the economy picking up speed, companies say they intend to hire more people this year.

get by/get ahead

In a race, the person who speeds up the most may get ahead of the competitors.  In cases of evenly matched competitors, one person may struggle to pass or get by another competitor. Metaphorically, just barely making progress toward a goal may be described as getting by, while making a great deal of progress could be referred to as getting ahead.

Example:  The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead.

Race to the finishin the lead

A person who gets ahead of his or her competitors may be described as being in the lead.  Metaphorically, being in the lead indicates that the person is moving ahead towards a common goal.

Example:  With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role.

move this nation forward

Advancing one’s position in a race may also be described as moving forward.  Figuratively, any progress towards a goal may be referred to as moving forward.  In a common political metaphor, we can talk about moving this nation forward.  In this example, President Obama talked about making sure that all moms make sure their children get health insurance.

Example:  After all, that — that’s the spirit that has always moved this nation forward.


Despite the best efforts to advance on a journey, sometimes a person loses his or her footing and may stumble or fall.  Metaphorically, stumbling indicates that there is a break in the progress towards a goal.  Towards the end of his speech President Obama admits that the journey towards progress is not always easy, but they will persevere.

Example:  Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.

Personification – Metonymy

this chamber speaks

Personification is a rhetorical or poetic device that allows a writer to compare an idea or action to a person. Personification can take many different forms.  In one type known as metonymy, the actions of people in a place are represented by a person.  In this case, the building where Congress meets, known as the chamber, is described as a person who can speak.

Example:  Tonight this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.

Personification – Synecdoche

war footing

In another type of personification called synecdoche, the words for parts of the human body can be used to represent the actions done by those parts.  In this case, having a footing on something indicates that a person or country has a strong position for acting or moving forward.

Example:  So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners, America must move off a permanent war footing.

into the wrong hands

Similarly, the terms hands is used figuratively to represent the work done by the people with those hands, as in the famous military phrase, “all hands on deck.”  In this case, saying something falls into the wrong hands indicates that dangerous materials are in the possession of criminals or terrorists.

Example:  American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.

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Personification – Body Position

More commonly, the use of personification involves the description of businesses or governments as people using their eyes, arms, hands, backs and shoulders to get things done.


People see accurately by focusing their eyes on a certain object.  Metaphorically, being focused means that a person or group is working together towards a common goal.

Example:  And let’s pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.


To see an object precisely, one’s eyes must be clear of obstructions.  Figuratively, being clear-eyed or seeing something clearly indicates that the goal is precisely determined.

Example:  These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away.

reaching out/ reach their potential

People can use their arms and hands to reach out and touch other objects or people.  Collectively, groups or governments can metaphorically reach out to people or other groups as well.

Example:  And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

seize this opportunity/ stand ready

We can also grab or seize an object with our hands.  Figuratively, we can seize an opportunity.  We can also stand ready to perform an action after seizing an opportunity (more on standing metaphors to follow).

Example:  If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.

standing up/weakened/strengthen

Another common metaphor of body position is standing up.  When a person stands up, he or she is in a position to attack or defend oneself in a battle.  Thus standing up means to act in a position of power or protection.  Also, we may also speak of groups, governments or even programs as being strong or weak as a person. Certain actions may strengthen or weaken a program.

Example:  Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote.  Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened, but conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it.

Example:  Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day.

blog - body - standing upwe stand for

We can also describe a position of power or authority as standing for something.

Example:  On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.

drain our strength

Another way of describing weakness is by saying that it drains a person’s strength, or metaphorically a government’s power to accomplish its goals.

Example:  We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

backed/backed by pressure

The back of a person or animal is one of the strongest parts of a body.  People can use their backs to apply pressure or force to move objects.  Metaphorically, backing someone or something means that a person or group is supporting a project.

Example:  American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.  And we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.

Example:  And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade.

at their side

People who work together may be physically close to each other or work side by side.  We can also say that one person who supports another is at their side.

Example:  As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in the difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.

shoulder to the wheel of progress

As mentioned, we can conceive of a journey as the movement of a vehicle.  In a common metaphor we can speak of the wheel of progress as if movement towards a goal can be described as a turning wheel.  In a sort of double metaphor, President Obama talks about using our collective shoulders to physically move objects or make progress towards a goal.

Example:  But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

feet planted/eyes cast towards tomorrow/ within our reach

President Obama ends his speech by combining three metaphors of journeys and personification.  He speaks of the country’s attempts to improve the lives of its citizens, and refers to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg who was seriously injured in battle but has been an inspiration to many people in his recovery.  President Obama describes the readiness of the country to move forward as having our feet planted, while our eyes are fixed on the future, and our goals within our reach.

Example:  The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach. Believe it.

In sum, as commander in chief, the president naturally needs to inspire and motivate American citizens to work with him and Congress to solve our problems.  A State of the Union address is the perfect way to achieve this goal. I believe President Obama and his speech writers deliberately used metaphors of sports, journeys and personification to relate his messages of unity and progress to the American people.

Next time:  Metaphors of Silver and Gold

Obamacare Part 3: “Rollout,” “Bugs” and other Metaphors in the Media

Hello again!  In the last of my three-part series on the language of Obamacare, I will analyze several metaphors used by the national media to describe the Affordable Care Act.


A rollout is a term used to describe the process of bringing an aircraft out of a hanger for a flight or launch.   Metaphorically, the delivery of a new product or government program may also be called a rollout.

Example:  Many Americans were frustrated that the rollout of Obamacare was filled with glitches.


When a rocket takes off towards space, this is known as a launch.  Metaphorically, starting a new program may also be called a launch.

Example:  Critics of Obamacare claim that the website should not have been launched before all the software problems were resolved.

blog - ACA - rocket


Rockets shoot towards space at incredible speeds.  In a compound word metaphor, to say that something skyrockets indicates that it is increasing at a great rate of speed.  In politics and economics, skyrocketing usually refers to quickly increasing prices of some commodity.

Example:  Some experts believe that Obamacare will result in skyrocketing prices for insurance policies.


Prices of items in a store are often indicated on a sticker attached to the item.  More expensive items such as cars and trucks also have stickers on the windows of the vehicles indicating the prices.  When one is surprised at a high price of an item, we may say that the person is suffering from sticker shock, such as when gas prices go up at your local gas station.  In politics, government programs with unexpectedly high costs may be described as causing sticker shock among politicians or consumers.

Example:  Although many critics of Obamacare claim that consumers will have sticker shock when they see the prices of their new policies, other experts maintain that the cost of policies will actually go down.

cap costs

The word cap has its origins in the same word as cape, meaning a covering, especially for the head.  Later the term was used to indicate any item that is used to cover the top of something.  Thus we have caps for pens, or caps for oil wells.  Metaphorically we can also have salary caps for professional sports teams or efforts to cap rising costs of some government program.

Example:  Supporters of Obamacare contend that it will work to cap out-of-pocket health care costs.


Government programs are often compared to machines.  When they work well, no one complains; however, when something goes wrong, we may say that the program is broken.

Example:  President Obama maintains that he created the Affordable Care Act because the previous health care system with millions of uninsured Americans was completely broken.


In keeping with the idea of a program as a machine, we may also that the system needs to be fixed or repaired.

Example: It was clear from the early days of Obamacare that the website needed to be fixed although the necessary repairs would take several weeks.

blog - ACA - bugsbugs

            The word bug is another word for insect. As a verb, it means to annoy people in the same way that an insect annoys someone at an outdoor gathering.  As a noun it can mean problems in a system that are also very annoying or difficult to fix.

Example:  When the Obamacare website did not work very well, software experts scrambled to fix all of the bugs as soon as possible.

shut down the website

When a machine is working properly, mechanics may need to turn it off or shut it down to make the necessary repairs.  Metaphorically, we may also say we need to shut down a government program.

Example:  When the Affordable Care Act website was first launched with many bugs, the government decided to shut it down every night to make the necessary repairs.  Hopefully, it will be running smoothly soon.

Next time: Metaphors are for the Birds!

More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 1.

Due to the high level of interest in my last posting on the government shutdown, I have looked further into the discussions in the national media.  This week I discovered an excellent article on the shutdown in the latest Time magazine -  Scherer, Michael and Altman, Alex, “Loss Leaders: The Fever Never Broke.  Cooler Heads Have Not Prevailed.  And the Next Self-Inflicted Crisis May be Worse than the Last.”  Time, October 14, 2013, pp. 20-26.  This article proved to be a treasure trove of political metaphors related to the shutdown.  I will describe these metaphors in two separate posts.  Today I will analyze a few metaphors from the categories of nature, games, machines and medicine.


Descriptions of politics often include metaphors of animals or nature.

lemmings with suicide vests

Lemmings are small arctic rodents that are noted for jumping off cliffs to their deaths.  This claim, however, is only a myth (due in part to a staged Disney documentary in the 1950s! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDqlZjpSJCc).  And yet, people who are thought to deliberately fail to achieve their goals are metaphorically referred to as lemmings.

Example:  “Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, compared members of his own party to ‘lemmings with suicide vests’” (p. 22).

blog - animals - lemming

a gaggle of presidential appointees

A group of geese is commonly known as a gaggle.  The term gaggle is also used metaphorically to describe a group of people who are similar in appearance or opinions.

Example:  “… Senate Majority leader Harry Reid threatened to blow up Senate rules if Republicans did not allow the confirmation of a gaggle of presidential appointees” (p. 25).

sapping Obamacare

Some trees ooze a liquid from their trunk called sap which can be used to make special products such as maple syrup or even rubber. In the belief that this leaking of sap weakens the tree, the verb sap carries the meaning of weakening something or someone of their stores of energy.

Example:  “The House passed a series of budget resolutions, each one aimed at sapping Obamacare” (p. 25).


The word brink originally referred to a type of cliff or edge of a riverbank.  Metaphorically, being on the brink of something means that a person is about to make an important decision or is facing an impending disaster.  The metaphorical usage originated with discussions of avoiding nuclear war.   The action of negotiating a settlement on an important issue is also known as brinkmanship.

Example:  “At the White House, Obama’s aides studied the polls and saw in Boehner’s brinkmanship an exercise in self-harm” (p. 23).

blog - animals - salamandergerrymander

Technically, the term gerrymander is not a metaphor, but is actually a neologism (newly created word).  However, I thought I would include it here because of its fanciful history.   As the story goes, Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts in 1812, redrew district boundaries in his state to benefit his own party. One new district was so contorted it looked like a salamander.  A local newspaper editor named this process gerrymandering.

Example:  “…after multiple rounds of ornate gerrymandering, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, fewer than 1 in 5 is truly competitive on Election Day” (p. 22).


            As mentioned in the previous post, political actions are often compared to children’s games, board games or sports.

a bystander to the game

In some cases, metaphors are so common that we use them in speech and writing as if they are literal words and phrases.  Note the example below:

Example:  “…the President – who is elected by the entire country – seemed content to be a bystander to the game” (p. 23).

the endgame

When a game of chess is completed, this is simply called the end of the game or the endgame.  In common terms, an endgame has come to mean the objective or primary goal of a policy or approach to solving a problem.

Example:  “’No one I have talked to on either side of the aisle knows what the endgame is,’ explains Representative Dan Lipinski” (p. 25).


            The inner workings of government policies are sometimes compared to machines.


A mechanism is a part of a machine that controls a certain function, as in a spring that keeps the time in a watch.  Metaphorically, a mechanism is something that controls the function of something in a process.

Example:  “Congress created the debt ceiling in 1917 as a mechanism to restrain borrowing and must authorize any increase in its limit.”

blog - machines - hot buttonhot button issues

Most machines have buttons that must be pushed on and off to control various functions.  Some emergency or shut off buttons are painted red and may be known as hot buttons.  Metaphorically emotionally charged topics such as immigration or abortion may be referred to as hot button issues. In the following example, Scherer and Altman describe the power of some conservative political groups.

Example:  “[Heritage Action] pushed hot button issues, published rankings to praise the orthodox, and used their clout to punish signs of squishiness” (p. 24).

machinery engaged/no reverse gear

Some machines such as internal combustion engines must have gears that are engaged to work and propel a vehicle.  Engines often work with transmissions that are built with gears to control the speed.  In a complex metaphorical passage, Scherer and Altman compare the Republican plan for the shutdown as a machine.

Example:  “But the machinery was engaged and it seemed to have no reverse gear” (p. 24).


            In some cases, government policies, processes or negotiations are compared to people who are ill and need medical attention.  This is a form of personification or anthropomorphism.

feverish stalemate

The Time magazine authors compare the shutdown to a person with a high fever as they state that “the fever never broke ” (p. 21).  In an unusual mixture of medical and game metaphors, they also describe the shutdown as a stalemate but also as a person who has a fever.

Example:  “A decisive re-election would break the feverish stalemate in Washington…” (p. 23).

soothe financial markets

People who are suffering from illnesses may need to be soothed by family members or medical staff before they can heal.  Metaphorically, political or economic problems can also be soothed by politicians. In their discussion of conservative groups, Scherer and Altman use this metaphor as well.

Example:  “Conservative outfits like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action for America weren’t interested in cutting deals to soothe financial markets” (p. 24).

blog - medicine - soothe


Paralysis is a severe injury resulting in a person losing function of muscles in his or her body.  In common terms, any system, program or government operation which no longer functions properly may be described as suffering from paralysis or is paralyzed.

Example:  “… the power of minority rule, refined by the politics of safe seats, paralyzes the body politic indefinitely” (p. 25).

dead on arrival

When a person has a heart attack or is in a serious accident, in some cases the person dies before he or she can get medical attention at a hospital.  In these instances, the person is described as being dead on arrival.  In politics, government programs or policies that are not approved by Congress may also be described as being dead on arrival.

Example:  “And while immigration reform would clear the Senate, it was already dead on arrival in the House” (p. 24).

Next time:  Shutdown Metaphors of Journeys and Wars

Special Edition: Shutdown Metaphors

This is one blog that I was hoping I would not need to write.  Unfortunately, our dysfunctional Congress has succeeded in shutting down the government.  If you are confused by all the metaphors used by politicians and journalists in the past few weeks, here is a short guide to some of the most common ones, grouped by conceptual metaphor category.



The word shut originally meant to throw a bolt across a door to keep it closed.  The compound word shutdown was originally used to describe the shutting of doors of a factory, but later it was also used by extension to describe the stopping of an engine from running.   Metaphorically, the term shutdown is now also used to describe the stopping of the U.S. government as either a building with doors that are bolted shut or as a machine that is no longer running.

Example:  Some experts blame the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party on the 2013 government shutdown.

blog - house - bolt

Start / Stop Switch








close their doors

Given the history of the word shutdown, it is not surprising that we also use a metaphorical phrase that the government is closing its doors when there is a shutdown.

Example:  When the government closes its doors, many government agencies and national parks are also closed.

debt ceiling

The limit of the amount of debt that the U.S. government can borrow is known as the debt ceiling, as if the debt is a physical amount of cash in a small room that cannot grow higher than the ceiling of that room.

Example:  The U.S. government raised the debt ceiling for many decades without controversy, but it has become an issue of budget negotiations in the past few years.


who will blink first?

A game that is popular among children and young adults is the staring game.  Two people face each other and stare as long as they can at the other person. The first person who blinks loses the game.

Example:  During the political negotiations prior to the shutdown, many people wondered if House Speaker John Boehner would be the one to blink first.


In a game of chess, the object of the game is to capture the king of the opposing player.  This is known as checkmate.  In an older form of the game, the winning move was decided when the opposing player could not move any more, a situation known as a stalemate.  Today a stalemate is any situation in which two opposing sides cannot come to an agreement on a particular matter.

Example:  The shutdown occurred because the Republicans and Democrats were at a stalemate on budget issues.

blog - games - checkmate


Ping-pong is a popular game in which two players hit a small ball back and forth across a net on a small wooden table.  English speakers sometimes use this  back-and-forth movement to describe fast-changing negotiations or disagreements between two groups of people.

Example:  Prior to the shutdown, Democrats and Republicans ping-ponged different bills back and forth that could have avoided the shutdown.



The term piecemeal is an Old English expression meaning the fixed time to eat a meal.  However, the term now indicates doing something in small measured steps instead of in one large effort.

Example:  The American people have been frustrated with the Congress since they try to solve budget problems piecemeal instead of passing comprehensive legislation.

blog - food - cherry picking

cherry pick

Cherries are fruit that grow on tress in small bunches.  Sometimes they ripen at different rates, so that one has to be careful to pick only the ripe cherries and not those that are still green.  This process of careful cherry-picking is used to describe processes in the government that only apply to one or two problems instead of solving a crisis in a holistic manner.

Example: After the shutdown began, some members of Congress began to cherry pick some government agencies that they wanted to remain open.


cash flow

Money has long been considered metaphorically as a flowing liquid.  Note the term currency that is derived from the motion of water flowing in a current.  During this most recent budget crisis, the government shutdown meant that it would not pay its employees.  In effect, the cash would stop flowing.

Example:  Unfortunately for many federal employees, their paychecks would be terminated since there would not be any government cash flow during the shutdown.

blog - nature - multnomah falls

freeze payments

Water freezes at a certain low temperature. We can also say that money which stops flowing is frozen.  We can speak of frozen assets or frozen payments.

Example:  During the shutdown, the U.S. government froze payments on most of its expenditures.


hold hostage

Disturbingly, some of the actions of our members of Congress have been compared to criminal behavior.  For instance, when someone holds another person against his or her will for an extended period of time, this is known as holding the person hostage.  In the latest failed negotiations in Congress, the Democrats accused the Republicans of holding the country hostage by refusing to compromise on the implementation of Obamacare.

Example:  Critics of the Tea Party claim that they are holding the nation hostage so they prevent the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.

a gun to the head

Even more serious is the metaphor of a person holding a gun to someone’s head as if they are about to shoot that person.   Some Democrats have complained that the negotiating tactics of the House Republicans are tantamount to holding a gun to their heads until they agree to their demands.

Example:  Prior to the 2013 government shutdown, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not agree to Republican demands with a gun to his head.


no end in sight

Finally, an unusual journey metaphor illustrates the pessimism of finding an easy solution to the shutdown dilemma.  On a long journey, we cannot always see our destination in our field of vision so that it is literally not in sight.  Moreover, during a long journey through a tunnel, we may not be able to see the end of the tunnel.  Combining these two experiences results in the metaphor of having no end in sight, meaning that there is no immediate solution to an ongoing problem.

Example:  As the shutdown continued for several days, journalists reported that there was no end in sight.

blog - journey - tunnel

President Obama’s Speech on Syria

This past week President Obama gave a speech on the situation in Syria.  The speech was very serious in its tone and he spoke bluntly with many literal phrases.  However, it also contained a moderate amount of metaphors.

Past presidential speeches have contained journey metaphors as President Obama described present and future policies.  This time the journey metaphors were few and far between perhaps indicating that the future of the situation in Syria is completely unknown.  As diplomatic and military options seem to change every day, there is less certainty about U.S. government plans and policies.

Nonetheless, the speech contains several metaphors worth noting.  In one case, President Obama describes a light military strike as being a pinprick.  This is an interesting comparison of something that causes a small amount of pain to military bombing.  I am not sure what the opposite of a pinprick would be in this case.

“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

blog - war - Safety_Pin

The speech also contained a variety of fascinating examples of another common rhetorical device used by politicians talking about war – using personification to describe countries as people.  Here are a few examples.

We often speak of countries standing up or standing against military actions of other countries.  Here President Obama talks about responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran…”

MAP - campaign Obama

A country is also described as being a strong person.

“I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

In a slightly different use of personification, body parts of people in the government are described metaphorically as being collective parts of the government or the military.  Technically this is an example of what is called synecdoche, described more fully in an earlier post. A common example of synecdoche used in war discussions, boots on the ground is again repeated here.

“This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

“My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Later in the speech, President Obama repeats the metaphors of heavy burdens on world leaders.

“The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.”

People can also be described as being pushed or pulled in a certain direction, although their bodies, of course, are not literally being pushed or pulled.

“The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.”

Governments and groups of people can also be described as having a posture or a body position indicating a certain political view.

blog - war - posture

“Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight I give thanks again to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.”





Finally, in a classic political metaphor of personification, the United States is compared to being a policeman, as if other countries around the world are committing crimes and need to be arrested.

blog - war - British_Policeman

“And several people wrote to me, we should not be the world’s policeman.”


Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors in the discussion of the situation in Syria.


Next time:  Back to School – Metaphors of Education

Defensive Tactics in War and Politics

To complete my series of discussions of war metaphors in politics, I now consider metaphors derived from defensive tactics.  In a bit of rare good timing, just today President Obama used one of these metaphors in a speech about the possibilities of Al Qaeda attacks on Americans around the world: “The United States is never going to retreat from the world,” the president told a crowd of Marines at Camp Pendleton in California. “We don’t get terrorized.” (http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/07/19916375-obama-us-will-not-retreat-from-abroad-we-dont-get-terrorized). Of course, the notion of retreating is derived from the practice of an army withdrawing from a forward position when they are being defeated in a battle.  Here are a few more examples of metaphors of defensive war tactics used in political discourse.

Retreat from Long Island: Washington leads the Continental Army in a retreat across the East River into Manhattan, August 27, 1776 -  engraving by James Charles Armytage from painting by Michael Angelo Wageman, 1897.

Retreat from Long Island:  Washington leads the Continental Army in a retreat across the East River into Manhattan, August 27, 1776 – engraving by James Charles Armytage from a painting by Michael Angelo Wageman, 1897.

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 or behavior.

Example:  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.

outflanked by

The flank is the fleshy side of an animal used for meat.  It may also mean the side of something.  In military terms, the flank is one side of the army’s forces.  To be outflanked means that the opposing army has come around one side and is attacking the other force directly.  A political party that has been defeated in a certain situation by the clever actions of the other party may be described as being outflanked.

Example:  In Barack Obama’s first years in office, he was outflanked by a Republican controlled Congress on many occasions.


The word maneuver literally means the work of the hands.  In military procedures, a maneuver is an action that moves a group of troops or equipment in a certain direction to gain advantage in a war.  A losing army may be described as being outmaneuvered by the opposing army.  In politics, a losing politician or political party may be described as being outmaneuvered by their opponents.

Example:  Although many critics of Barack Obama believed that he was not born in the United States, he outmaneuvered them by producing his birth certificate from the state of Hawaii.


When a military force is losing a battle, they may have to return to their base instead of moving forward.  This is called making a retreat.  In politics, a candidate in an election campaign may have to give up and drop out of the race.  This may also be called making a retreat.  Also, any time a politician goes back to any earlier position, it may be called a retreat.

Example:  When Barack Obama was elected, he promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison.  However, he later changed his mind and his retreat on this position angered many of his liberal supporters.

give ground

As mentioned, the land fought over in a battle is called gaining or losing ground.  In other words, a losing army may give ground to the enemy.  In politics, a person who loses an important argument may be described as someone giving ground to his or her opponent.

Example:  In 2011, many Republican Congressmen refused to give ground on the discussion of ending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

defend his turf

Another way of saying that an army is defending the ground is to say defending the turf.  Turf is also a term commonly used in football where two teams also fight for ground on the football field.  In politics, a person who must defend his or her position in an argument may be described as defending his or her turf.  Also, a presidential candidate who does not win the most votes in his or her own state in an election may be described as failing to defend his or her home turf.

Example:  In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore was not able to defend his home turf in Tennessee as the majority of votes in that state went to George W. Bush.

front lines 

In war, the place where the armies meet to fight each other is called the front line.  It can be used literally in terms of battles in war, or metaphorically in battles of political policies.

Example:  President Lyndon Baines Johnson put himself on the front lines of the war on poverty in 1964.

in the trenches

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

Example:  Although John McCain fought deep in the trenches for the presidency in 2008, he was not able to win the election.

Cheshire Regiment of the British Army in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, July, 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of WW I

Cheshire Regiment of the British Army in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, July, 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of WW I

new line of defense

After an army gives ground in a war, they must start again from a new position.  This position can be called a new line of defense. In politics, a new way of making an argument may be called a new line of defense.  In common terms, a new way of preventing a problem from happening may be referred to as a new line of defense.

Example:  When the unemployment rate goes higher and higher, the new line of defense is to extend unemployment benefits to people out of work.

fight a losing battle

In a very common metaphor, political arguments are referred to as battles.  When a politician is losing an argument with his or her opponents, we may say that this person if fighting a losing battle.

Example:  Gun control advocates often complain that they seem to be fighting a losing battle since Congress always seems to fail to pass gun control laws.

return fire

Shooting a gun may also be called firing a gun.  When an army is being shot at, they usually shoot back.  This may be called returning fire. In politics, responding to a criticism by making a counter argument is called returning fire.

Example:  In the 2011 Republican primary, Mitt Romney returned fire after being criticized by Newt Gingrich.

ward off

The term ward originally meant a guard or sentry in a military situation.  To ward off someone meant to fight off an intruder.  In common terms, to ward off something means to prevent something bad from happening.

Example:  Congress is always trying to ward off increasing the national debt by passing legislation to reduce government spending.

rally the troops

When a military force is losing a battle, the soldiers may need to be inspired to keep on fighting. This is called rallying the troops.  In common terms, any group of workers or voters that need to be inspired may be described as rallying the troops.

Example:  Barack Obama had to rally the troops in order to get support from his political base to win re-election in 2012.

Next time:  Sharp tones:  Metaphors of tools in political rhetoric

Metaphors of Battles

In my last post, I described how language used to describe preparing for war is also used metaphorically to describe preparing for political campaigns.  Today I would like to share how words and phrases used to describe military battles are used to describe political elections.  Here are a few examples.

primary 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.

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)

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.


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.

Next time:  Offensive Tactics in War and Politics


Grilling and other Cooking Metaphors

Congressional hearings have become very controversial and contentious.  President Obama’s nominees for cabinet positions must answer over 1000 questions by Republican lawmakers.  Governmental officials involved in scandals must answer hundreds of questions as well.   This practice of intense questioning is often referred to as grilling the officials.  This is a common metaphor based on our experiences with cooking food on a barbecue or hot grill.  Here is a little more information on grilling and other cooking metaphors.

blog - Grilled_steaks_turned_by_grill_tongs_in_Czech_Republic

grill someone

Meat can be cooked on a hot barbecue grill.  The grill must be very hot to cook the meat safely.  In metaphorical terms, to grill someone means to ask them very tough questions which make them uncomfortable as if they are on a hot grill.

Example: In every presidential debate, the moderator grills the candidates to find out their views on important issues.


When meat is cooked on hot grill, it makes a popping noise called sizzling.  In metaphorical terms, when something is exciting or eventful, we can also say that it sizzles.

Example: During the 2008 presidential election, the newspapers and television stations were sizzling with anticipation of having the first African-American being election president of the United States.


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

Example: John McCain was skewered by some liberal critics for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate when she had very little international political experience.  Conservative critics, however, skewered Barack Obama for the same reason.

stir up, whip up

Some recipes require that one stir up or whip up a liquid batter before the food is cooked.  Metaphorically, to whip up something means to create something out of nothing or very little.  In politics there may be positive or negative meanings for either of these phrases.  In a positive sense, a candidate or politician may need to whip up a new policy or program to satisfy the public.  In a negative sense, an event or a person may stir up trouble, such as anti-American sentiments, or criticism against his or her opponent.

Example: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 whipped up fear and criticisms of people from the Middle East.


Some dishes require that one cooks the food on low heat for a long time.  This is called simmering.  In metaphorical terms, one can have a long-simmering problem meaning that the issue has been slowly getting worse for many months or years.

Example:  The wars between Israel and Palestine have been caused by long-simmering disputes over land.

boils down to

MAP - boil down

When one makes a soup from scratch, one may need to boil it so that it some of it evaporates and the soup can retain strong flavor from its meat and vegetables.  In this case, one case that the soup is boiled down to its basic ingredients.  In popular terms, we say that something complicated boils down to a few simple ideas.

Example: The differences between Democrats and Republicans often boil down to differences in the role of government in the lives of everyday people.


cook the books

In a business setting, the records for profits and losses are sometimes called the books. This idea is found in the terms bookkeeping.  However, if a company’s accountants are not honest about their financial records, we may say that they are cooking the books.

Example: Some critics of Barack Obama claimed that he was cooking the books with the good unemployment figures that came out just before the 2012 election.

recipe for a disaster

Many people follow recipes when cooking to make sure they have the correct quantities of each ingredient.  In popular terms, one might also have a recipe for a disaster, meaning a certain situation has all the characteristics necessary to cause something bad to happen.

Example: In 2003, some liberals complained that invading Iraq was a recipe for a disaster.  The long, bloody war that followed may have proved them right.

from scratch

If one makes a dinner or dessert without using a package or box from the store, we say that one is cooking from scratch, meaning starting from nothing.  In popular terms, to start something from scratch means that one is beginning a new project without using previous plans or successful projects.

Example: Politicians must sometimes start from scratch when developing economic plans for a fast-changing financial system.

Next time:  Leaks and other Metaphors of Liquids

Metaphorical Floors, Walls and Ceilings

We are all familiar with the floors and ceilings inside a house.  The concept of a ceiling is often used metaphorically as the upper limit of a process, while the floor is considered the lower limit of something.  The process of cleaning floors also lends itself to additional metaphors such as sweeping elections.

wall to wall

Some homes and offices have carpeting that covers the entire floor.  This is sometimes called wall-to-wall carpeting.  Metaphorically, anything that is wall to wall is considered to be very thorough of complete.  In politics, this phrase is sometimes used to describe television coverage of elections.

Example: Most cable news shows on TV have wall-to-wall coverage of presidential elections.


Wallpaper is a type of patterned wall covering used in many homes.  These wall coverings must cover an entire section of wall.  Metaphorically, the term wallpaper has two meanings.  One meaning of wallpaper is a photograph used as a background on a computer or a cellphone.  The other meaning is to completely cover something as in when many TV journalists are hired to report on a political event.

Example: In 2008, many types of Obama wallpapers were popular for home computers.

Example: During the Democratic and Republican conventions prior to a presidential election, these events are wallpapered with reporters from all over the world.


debt ceiling

The ceiling is the top of a room.  Metaphorically, a ceiling is an abstract limit to progress in a certain situation such as for taxes, the national debt, or success of minorities in business and government.

Example:) As the national debt has increased in the last few decades, members of Congress often debate whether they should raise the ceiling on the debt and borrow more money to pay for government programs.

glass ceiling

A glass ceiling is a term specifically used to describe the limits of minorities achieving important positions in business or government.

Example: When Hillary Clinton decided to run for president, many American women hoped she would break the glass ceiling and become the first female president.

call on the carpet

In a strange metaphor of unknown origin, to call someone on the carpet means to reprimand or punish someone for some action.  The original meaning probably arose from the fact that the boss of a company had the nicest office in the building, and to be on the carpet meant to be in the presence of the rich and powerful.

Example: During a high-tension presidential campaign, a candidate’s spokesperson must say the right words every day or else he or she may be called on the carpet by the candidate.

floor price/price floor

Being the opposite of a ceiling, the floor is the lowest part of a room.  Metaphorically, it can mean the lowest limit of a price or process.  It can used as floor price or price floor with the same meaning.

Example: Oil companies must adjust their profits if the floor price of gasoline drops more than they expect.



Everyone is familiar with using a broom to sweep a floor clean of dirt.  The action of sweeping is commonly used metaphorically to describe something that is done completely in one direction, as in a sports team winning all the games in a series called sweeping their opponent.  In politics, if a candidate gains the most votes in many areas, we might say that he or she has swept the areas.

Example: Republican candidates are popular in the American Midwest and in the South.  In fact, Republicans usually sweep many of the states in these areas.

sweeping bill/victory/changes

In another sense of sweep, one can use the term as an adjective to describe a complete action such as a sweeping victory, sweeping changes or a sweeping bill passed in Congress.

Example: The health care reform bill in 2010 did not bring sweeping changes but it did provide benefits for many Americans with limited health insurance.


Next time:  Whac-a-Mole!? Really?