Tag Archives: obama

blog - ACA - rocket

Launching Campaigns before Running

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

blog - ACA - rocket

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

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


Horse Racing

blog - horse - out of the gateout of the gate

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

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

run for office

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

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

running mate

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

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

blog - horse - front runnerfront runner

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

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

fast track

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

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

inside track

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

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

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

outside chance

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

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

blog - horse - photo finishneck and neck

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

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

home stretch

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

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


blog - war - revolutionprimary battles

Battles are the names of the primary engagements between armies in a war. Metaphorically, battles can also be fought verbally between people or groups. The notion of battle is commonly used in politics.

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

battle cry

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

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

battleground states

The land where battles are fought are called battlegrounds. In politics, states in which voters may vote for either Democrats or Republicans are called battleground states when candidates fight for the votes for their party.

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

battle lines are drawn

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

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

MAP - war - arms trainingcombat

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

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


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

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


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

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

Starting Vehicles


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

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

kick into gear, put in high gear

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

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

shift gears

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

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

blog - vehicles - Shift_stickstuck in neutral

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

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


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

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


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

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

blog - vehicles - Disk_brakeput the brakes on

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

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


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

Next time: Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Video

blog - war - Cannon_Fire

Politics on Blast!

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

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

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

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

blog - war - blast

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

stick to your guns

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

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

smoking gun

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

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

blog - war - colt revolveryoung guns

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

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

turn their guns on

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

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

blog - war - triggertrigger

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

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

trigger a recession

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

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

trigger happy

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

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

fire a campaign manager

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

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

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

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

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

surefire way

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

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

blog - war - target 2target demographic

With guns as well as bows and arrows, people practice shooting their weapons by aiming at a target a long distance away. The literal target has been changed to mean a metaphorical goal in a process or project. In politics, candidates and elected officials try to please their constituents who may vote for them.   A specific group of people in a certain area with certain political views is called a demographic.   Trying to please this group of people is called targeting the demographic.

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

call the shots

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

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

blog - war - Berdan_Sharps_riflea long shot

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

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

big shot

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

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

straight shooter

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

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

shoot back, fire back

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

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

blog - war - Firing_squad_1867circular firing squad

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

bang for the buck

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

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

blog - war - Cannon_Firecannon fodder

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

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


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

Next time: Launching Campaigns before Running.

blog - shapes - Winding_road

Straight Talk: Metaphors of Lines

Our world is full of objects of different sizes and shapes. Man-made objects are neatly categorized into shapes of one, two or three dimensions. Many metaphors in English are based on our visual experiences with these objects. To follow up with my post last week on circles and spheres, today I will be sharing metaphors based on our collective experiences with points and lines.

good shape, bad shape

We use the concept of shape to describe programs or policies that have no physical form. The word shape has been used metaphorically to mean the condition or status of something.

Example: The U.S. economy was in bad shape during the Great Depression.

This shack is in bad shape...

This shack is in bad shape…


We can also use the word shape as a verb to describe forming policies or programs.

Example: Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped shape progressive Democratic policies in the 1930s.




A point is the smallest of shapes with virtually no dimensions.

the point

The idea of a point of an object is commonly used metaphorically to mean the goal or purpose of an argument, discussion, policy or program.

Example: Presidential candidates must be sure to get to the point when they need to quickly answer a moderator’s question.

blog - shape - Five_point_stencil_illustrationtalking points

Talking points are the main issues that are addressed in a news broadcast.

Example: Critics of mainstream media political coverage claim that the talking points are made by the station managers and are not really the events of the day.




party line

A line is a two-dimensional object from one point to another. The concept of a line is used metaphorically to indicate a wide range of meanings in politics. In one sense, the lines of a text come to represent the policies described in that text. Thus the party line indicates the goals and policies of a political party as described in its documents.

Example: Mitt Romney was chosen as the Republican candidate for the 2012 election because of his record upholding the Republican party line.

voting along party lines

In another sense, party lines indicate the dividing line between Republican and Democratic members of Congress or the Senate. If all Republicans, for instance, vote for Republican-sponsored bills, we say that they are voting along party lines.

Example: Sadly, Democrats and Republicans do not agree on many important issues. Bills in Congress are often voted down on party lines with no real solutions offered.

blog - shape - Vertical-Linelay it all on the line

The concept of a line is also used to mean the imaginary dividing point between what is safe and what is risky. The phrase to lay it all on the line means that one risks everything by doing a certain action.

Example: A presidential candidate must lay it all on the line and work tirelessly for months to win an election.

over the line, cross the line

There is an additional metaphor using the concept of an imaginary line between what is decent and what is in bad taste. If an action or statement is in bad taste, we may say that it is over the line or it crosses the line.

Example: Some Americans complain that negative TV ads with personal attacks on a candidate during a presidential campaign are over the line.

110401-N-HC601-027blur the line

When something is blurry, it is not clear to the eye. When we blur a line metaphorically, we make a dividing line between two concepts, groups of people, or political parties unclear.

Example: Some conservative Democrats blur the line between liberals and conservatives.

straight answers

When a line is drawn directly from one point to another, we say that the line is straight. Describing something that is straight implies that it is true, clear and direct. Giving straight answers indicates that they are true and direct.

Example: Most American voters appreciate presidential candidates who give straight answers to reporters.

blog - shapes - Straight_linestraightforward

Similarly, the word straightforward means that something is direct and clear.

Example: At first, Bill Clinton did not give any straightforward answers when he was asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

straight month

Events that occur in temporal succession may be described as being straight, as in the fifth straight month of economic recovery.

Example: Politicians like to see when unemployment figures drop for three or four straight months.

blog - shapes - Spool_of_stringa string of problems

A string can be pulled in the shape of a straight line. Metaphorically, a string of something can indicate a long line of similar events in succession such as a string of problems.

Example: Barack Obama faced a string of economic problems as soon as he was inaugurated in 2009.

winning streak

A streak is a long, thin mark made by a pen or paintbrush. Similar to the idea of a line or a string, a streak indicates a long succession of similar events. A winning streak is a series of successes in a certain endeavor.

Example: John McCain has had a long winning streak in the elections for the U.S. Senate.

cross purposes

As mentioned earlier, a line can represent an imaginary division between ideas or policies. The idea of crossing a line indicates changing one’s mind or breaking with standard policies or procedures. Doing something at cross purposes means that two people or groups of people are working in opposite directions or with opposite goals.

Example: Cutting federal budgets and laying off workers at a time when we need more jobs may be working at cross purposes.

blog - shapes - Morgan_crossover_2crossover appeal

When one line crosses another, we may say that it is a crossover. Figuratively, anything that changes from one position to another may be called a crossover. Political candidates who can appeal to two or more interest groups may be described as having crossover appeal.

Example: Barack Obama may have won the election in 2008 because of his crossover appeal to minority and women voters.


To split something means to divide it into two parts along a line. One can split something physically like a branch or any number of ideas or groups of people.

Example: In 2010, the rise of the Tea Party split the Republican Party into two camps of moderate and conservative politicians.

crooked, crook

A line that is not straight is crooked. In one of the most common metaphors, we can say that a person or person that is not honest is being crooked.

Example: Richard Nixon famously said, “I’m not a crook,” but then resigned from the presidency to avoid being impeached.

blog - shapes - Winding_roadwry, awry

Wry is an old word meaning that an object was crooked, bent or twisted. If a person has a wry sense of humor, he or she has a way of twisting the meanings of words. If another form of the word, we say that a process has gone awry if it has not gone as planned.

Example: In 2008, John McCain hoped that his choice of Sarah Palin his running mate, but his plans went awry as Barack Obama surged in the polls before the election.

flat economy

In contrast to a straight line which has a positive connotation, a flat line has a negative connotation. Lines used in graphs that are slanted upwards indicate improvements in sales or economic growth. Lines that are flat indicate no growth or improvement. Therefore, the concept of a flat line can be used metaphorically to mean a lack of growth.

Example: After the 2008 economic crisis, the economy was very flat for many years.

flat tax

The idea of flat can also be used to describe a situation that does not change. Thus a flat tax is a tax that is paid at the same rate no matter the amount of income that one has.

Example: Some Americans believe that we should have a flat tax. In the current system, many wealthy individuals get lower tax rates because of loopholes.

blog - shapes - flat highwayflatly

The concept of a flat line has one positive connotation in that it can be used as an adjective, flatly, meaning that there is no uncertainty about a statement that is being made.

Example: Most politicians flatly deny that they have committed any wrongdoing, even if they are found guilty of misdemeanors later.


As you can see, we can create a wide variety of metaphors based on the simplest of shapes. These examples provide further evidence that we create conceptual metaphors based on common experiences with our world. It is interesting how we develop abstract meanings of words and phrases in English that parallel the physical appearance of shapes. For example, straight meaning “honest,” while crooked meaning “dishonest.” It is a tribute to the complexity of the human mind that we can create and understand these metaphorical expressions with ease. I hope my blog posts can help English language learners further understand these wonderful expressions.

Next time: Squares and Rectangles

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention

More on Metaphors of the Theater

The presentation of the Academy Awards last week inspired me to share a post of metaphors based on acting. Today I would like to continue in the same theme, sharing a few more metaphors based on the physical settings and events held in theaters around the world.

The Baden Baden Theater in Germany

The Baden Baden Theater in Germany

political theater

The modern forms of campaigning and governing easily allow comparisons to theatrical productions. Metaphorically, American politics is sometimes known as political theater, especially when it appears that politicians give speeches or vote on bills in Congress that seem only for show, not for substantive governmental policy decisions.

Example: In Barack Obama’s first few years as president, Democrats accused Republicans of engaging in political theater when they seemed to filibuster or block all Democratic bills in Congress.

The 2015 Miss America contestants

The 2015 Miss America contestants

beauty contest

Beauty contests are popular competitions to determine who is the most beautiful among a large group of women. Since all presidential candidates must be handsome men or attractive women, critics complain that our modern elections are nothing more than beauty contests.

Example: Democratic and Republican primaries often seem to be beauty contests instead of discussions of the most important issues of the day.

blog - theater - Chicago_Theater marqueeup in lights

A theater or movie house will normally put the name of the current show along with famous actors’ names on a large electric board called a marquee. The name is usually above the doors of the building and well lit, thus we say that each name is up in lights. Metaphorically, a person who becomes famous will have his or her name up in lights.

Example: One wonders if some members of Congress really ran for office for public service or simply to have their name up in lights.

blog - theater - red_carpetred carpet

For the opening of some important movies or plays, a long roll of red carpeting was traditionally laid out in front of the building. The famous actors, directors and producers would then walk on this red carpet to be cheered by adoring fans. Metaphorically, rolling out the red carpet means that someone is providing an exceptionally warm welcome to someone important.

Example: Critics complain that too many Senators and members of Congress roll out the red carpet for lobbyists from large corporations and expect them to pass laws in their favor.

usher in

Spectators at a play or movie can be shown to their seats by helpers known as ushers. We say that these spectators are ushered into the theater. Figuratively, when a new policy or program is being introduced, we may say that it is being ushered in.

Example: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 ushered in a new era of corporate contributions to political candidates.


The word fanfare carries many meanings. It originally meant loud talking or chattering. Later it came to mean a loud, showy display or introductory music played by trumpets. In politics, an important vote, decision or event may be covered widely in the newspapers, magazines, and television and radio shows. This may also be described as being part of a great fanfare.

Example: In August, 2012, Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate with great fanfare.

center stage

In some large theaters there are more than one stage. There is a large stage in the middle and one or two stages on the sides. Traditionally the most important part of the play is performed on the center stage. Metaphorically, something being on center stage means that it is the most important part of a process or situation.

Example: High unemployment seemed to take center stage in the 2012 presidential elections.

A staging of "Twelfth Night" at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

A staging of “Twelfth Night” at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

front and center

At certain times in a play or musical, important scenes are performed at the front part of the center stage. This is known as being front and center. Figuratively, someone or something that is seen as being very important at the time may be described as being front and center.

Example: Republican policies towards women’s health care were front and center on the minds of women voters in 2012.

stage, staging

Putting on a live theater production is sometimes called staging a performance. In politics, when candidates arrange a speech, interview or debate to be on national television, we may also refer to this as staging an event.

Example: Many presidential candidates are good at staging town hall meetings to talk to local people about the issues.

international stage, world stage

When celebrities or politicians become world famous, we say that they are figuratively playing on an international or world stage.

Example: When Barack Obama picked Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State in 2008, she became an important player on the world stage of diplomacy.

backstage maneuvering

When a play is being performed, many stagehands or assistants are busy behind the curtain getting the actors and sets ready for the next scene. This might be called backstage maneuvering. Metaphorically, any meetings or decisions that are made in secret may be referred to as backstage maneuvering.

Example: Often bills are passed in Congress after hours of backstage maneuvering by leading members of Congressional committees.

behind the scenes

Another way of describing the work of stage hands during a play is say it is behind-the-scenes work. In politics, many deals are made behind the scenes as well.

Example: Tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden was accomplished with many behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering and strategies by the Obama administration.

blog - theater - backdrop Scenic_Designagainst the backdrop

In a play or movie set, there is often a painted scene to indicate a particular place. This painted scene is known as a backdrop. The actors in the play or movie act out their lines in front of or against the backdrop. Figuratively, any action in politics or culture can take place against a backdrop of a particular place or situation.

Example: Presidential candidates often give speeches about reducing unemployment against a backdrop of closed factories in Midwestern towns.

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention


Theaters normally have strong lights that they can point anywhere on the stage. If a light is used to illuminate one small scene, this is called shining a spotlight on the scene. Metaphorically, being in the spotlight means being the center of attention.

Example: During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s tax records were in the spotlight for many months.

raise the curtain

When a play is about to begin, the theater raises the main curtain so the audience can see the actors and the sets. Metaphorically, raising the curtain on something means to begin a process, or to reveal information that was not announced previously.

Example: Speakers at national conventions often raise the curtain on new Democratic or Republican policies.

The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York

The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York

lower the curtain

When a play or musical is concluded in a theater, the curtain is lowered. Figuratively, lowering the curtain indicates the end of a process or program.

Example: Many Americans were glad when the U.S. government was able to lower the curtain on the War in Iraq in 2011.


It is hard to believe that there are so many comparisons made between politics and theater performances. It reminds us how much our politicians must be very gifted at public speaking, back room deals and acting out parts for the benefit of campaign donors and voters. One wonders how much our politicians truly want to help American citizens or how much they want to be in the spotlight…

Next time: Casting a Net for Terrorists

Mask of the Greek god Zeus

And the Oscar Goes to…

Metaphors of Theater and Drama

There have been many comparisons made between politics and live theater, television or movies.   Candidates for pubic office must be attractive public figures, good entertainers and crowd pleasers. In 1960, Richard Nixon famously refused to wear makeup for a nationally televised debate, and he was perceived as losing the debate to John F. Kennedy wearing makeup and looking tanned and healthy. Modern politicians must be even more aware of their presence on television in interviews and debates.

blog - theater - Kennedy_Nixon_debate

With the Oscars on TV this weekend, I thought I would share a few metaphors based on acting in films and theaters.


When a movie or play producer is planning a new show, he or she must ask actors and actresses to try out for the parts in the show. These tryouts are called auditions. Figuratively, a person who wants to run for office may need to audition for the role.

Example: Mitt Romney spent many years auditioning for president of the United States before he was finally nominated by the Republican Party in 2012.

blog - theater - Ronald_Reagan_in_Dark_Victory_trailer

Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming our 40th president

play a role, a part to play

If an actor wins the approval of the producer, he or she will be hired to play a role in the show. This may also be called having a part to play in the production. Metaphorically, anyone involved in a large process for a company or government may be said of playing a role in that process.

Example: John F. Kennedy played a large role in shaping progressive policies in the United States before he was assassinated in 1963.

starring role

The lead actor or actress in a show is considered to have the starring role. Figuratively, the most important person in an organization may be considered as having the starring role in the process.

Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. had a starring role in the creation of civil rights for all minorities in the 1960s.

bit part

A small role in a movie or play may be called a bit part. In politics, someone who has a minor job to do in a larger process may be considered as having a bit part.

Example: During the Obama presidency, Michelle Obama played a bit part in highlighting the problems of obesity in the United States.

America’s role

In addition to people metaphorically playing roles in society, countries can also play roles on the international stage. We can say that America has a role in many international negotiations and policy making.

Example: Some Americans concerned about the national budget believe that America’s role as the policeman of the world should be reduced and the money saved to solve problems at home.

U.S. Capitol at DuskWashington’s role

Similarly, Washington D.C. can have a role in the affairs of American citizens and even state policies.

Example: During hard economic times, state governors often hope that Washington’s role in providing funding to social programs will increase.

a key role

An important role in a play or movie may be called a key role. In politics, important leaders or significant events may be described as having a key role in determining policies and programs.

Example: The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York played a key role in increasing funding for the war on terror.

take a cue

When an actor forgets a line during a play, there is a person there who can give him or her a hint as to what the line should be. This called giving or taking a cue. Metaphorically, taking a cue from someone means that one person is following in the same line of thinking or behavior as another person.

Example: Republicans in the 1990s seemed to take a cue from Ronald Reagan and held firm ground on their policies.

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922


The word soliloquy refers to a Greek word meaning “talking to oneself.” In a theatrical production, a soliloquy is given by an actor reciting lines alone on the stage such as Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech. In politics, a speech reflecting on personal history or national problems may be called a soliloquy as well.

Example: In 2011, President Obama visited many cities and gave soliloquys on the importance of revising the national health care system.



In the earliest theatrical productions of ancient Greece, actors wore masks to represent different characters or emotions. These masks also hid the faces of the actors. Metaphorically, anything that is hidden from view may be described as being masked.

Example: Critics of government spending claim that certain accounting practices mask the true amount of the national deficit.

Mask of the Greek god Zeus

Mask of the Greek god Zeus


Unmask means to review a mask that a person is wearing. A performer who is unmasked has his true identity revealed. In modern terms, any information that is revealed to the public may be described as being unmasked.

Example: Good investigative reporters often unmask the inner workings of the American government.

bow out

At the end of a performance, the audience usually applauds and the actors or singers will take bows before leaving the stage. This is also called bowing out of the performance. Metaphorically, any time a person or group of people discontinue an activity, this may be called bowing out as well.

Example: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich hoped to become the Republican nominee for the president in 2012, but he had to bow out of the primary after low polling results.


Once again, we can see how we create metaphors from every aspect of American life.  Metaphors of acting correspond to the roles that politicians play in American government. How much are our politicians acting when they give a speech?

Next time: More Theater Metaphors

blog - wild - bear

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Metaphors of Wild Animals

As explained in previous posts, we often create metaphors based on the behavior or appearance of animals. In those posts, I shared how pets and farm animals are the source of metaphors in politics. Today I would like to share a few examples of how we create conceptual metaphors based on our experiences with wild animals. As I mentioned previously, it makes sense that we create metaphors based on common experiences with household pets and domestic farm animals.   However, we also create metaphors based on the appearance and behavior of wild animals, most of which the average person has never seen except in zoos, or in books, magazines, television programs or films. It is indicative of the power of the human mind that we can create figurative language based on experiences we have only had second hand. With that in mind, imagine how these metaphors were created…

lion, lionize

The lion is a ferocious African animal largely considered to be the “king of the jungle.” Rarely, a government leader will also be referred to as a lion because of his strength and wisdom.

Example: Both Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were lionized by their citizens.

Male Lion on Rock


A lion is said to roar when it is angry. Some politicians also roar if they have a strong voice and argue their points well in debates. Some feminists also that women should roar to gain more civil rights in American society, partially inspired by singer Helen Reddy’s song, “I am Woman” with the chorus, “Hear Me Roar.”

Example: During the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton was said to roar for women’s rights in America.

blog - wild - gorilla800-pound gorilla

A gorilla is a huge, powerful animal. There is a saying that to ignore a problem is like not seeing an 800-pound gorilla.

Example: The national deficit has been the 800-pound gorilla for the Obama administration.


blog -wild - tigertoothless tiger

The tiger is another ferocious animal. However, without its teeth, it is pretty harmless. In politics, a government agency that does not enforce any laws is considered a toothless tiger.

Example: The Environmental Protection Agency may be called a toothless tiger if it does not shut down companies that pollute our land, water and air.


A bear is a big powerful animal. Bears also hibernate or sleep most of the winter. When they wake up in the spring, they are thought to be hungry and dangerous. In world politics, Russia has been referred to as the sleeping bear.

Example: After the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world watched to see if the sleeping bear would wake up and become a more dominant force in global politics.

blog - wild - bearbear market

                  When the stock market is on a downward trend and losing money for investors, this is called a bear market, comparing the movement of the market to the activity of a bear when it is asleep in the winter. (Compare to bull market explained in a previous post.)

Example: It is best not to invest money in a bear market; wait until the economy is growing faster during a bull market.


A lair is a place where a large animal lives and sleeps. It is considered dangerous to go into a lair if you are not sure what animal is in there. In metaphorical terms, a lair is a place where dangerous people live or conduct terrorist operations.

Example: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the whole world wondered what lair in Pakistan or Afghanistan Osama bin Laden had retreated to.

blog - wild - rabbitswarrens, warren-like

Small animals such as rabbits live in underground tunnels called warrens. There are many twists and turns and different parts of a warren. Sometimes government office buildings are compared to warrens.

Example: Thousands of government employees work in the warren-like offices of the Pentagon.

release, let go

When a wild animal is trapped, it is dangerous to release it or let it go, similar to unleashing a dog (see above). In political terms, prisoners and especially terrorist prisoners, are compared to wild animals.

Example: There has been great fear that if the terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are let go, they will go back to being terrorists again.

breakaway, break out

Also, if wild animals are kept in cages or pens and accidentally escape they can be dangerous to people around them. People, small groups and even small countries are thought to also break away if they do not remain within their normal boundaries.

Example: In 2008, Russia invaded the small province of South Ossetia and was referred to as a breakaway region when it tried to show its independence from Georgia.

Example: Riots broke out in many cities in 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

blog -wild - horse running

on the loose, running wild, run amok

After a wild animal escapes, it is thought to be on the loose, running wild or running amok. In politics, people, groups or policies can be thought to do the same.

Example: Some say that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by the free market system running wild without regulation.


A wild animal can be controlled or tamed by people with a lot of patience and training. In popular terms, one might speak of a political system that is out of control.

Example: When President Obama took office in January, 2009, many people wondered if he could tame the Wall Street executives who were running amok with investors’ money.

blog - wild - Leopard_killprey upon, predatory

Some wild animals are predatory, meaning they prey upon or kill smaller animals for food. Some financial institutions are considered predatory if they attack ordinary people and try to get their money unfairly.

Example: Some say that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by predatory bank lenders who let people buy houses they could not afford.

go for the jugular

Some wild animals kill other animals by biting the jugular vein in the neck which carries a great deal of blood to the head. An animal will surely die if its jugular vein is cut. In politics, someone who goes for the jugular is very aggressive and wants to have victory at any price.

Example: During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain was often accused of going for Barack Obama’s jugular in speeches when he tried to link Obama to terrorists.


Many wild animals can be very angry or ferocious when they are attacking or being attacked. In American politics, some candidates attack each other with ferocity as they try to win the election.

Example: Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were accused of attacking each other with ferocity during the 2012 presidential campaign.

gnaw at

A small animal eats food by gnawing at it in small bites. When a person who is bothered by some problem, one might say that the problem is gnawing at the person.

Example: The problem of slavery gnawed at President Abraham Lincoln until he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing the slaves.

blog - wild - squirrelsquirrel away

Squirrels are known for saving nuts and other foods to eat during the winter. People are also known to squirrel away money or important papers they might need later.

Example: Everyone should squirrel away some money in their savings accounts in case they have emergency expenses.

blog - wild - zebra stripesstripes

Some animals, such as zebras, have distinctive stripes. Metaphorically, a person’s stripes indicate his or her personality or values. In political terms, some elected officials may have the same stripes as someone in a particular party.

Example: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are definitely politicians of a different stripe.

blog - wild - leopard spotsspots

Other animals have distinctive spots. There is a saying that “a leopard cannot change its spots”: meaning a person does not change his or her position on something important.

Example: In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain claimed he was not like George W. Bush but some people said, since McCain was also Republican, he was not going to change his spots.


Some reptiles remove or shed their skin as they grow. The American economy is said to shed or lose jobs.

Example: The country cannot afford to shed more jobs when there is such high unemployment already.


Snakes and reptiles creep or move slowly, especially when they are about to attack. Some policies and attitudes can also creep into the American culture.

Example: The influence of evangelical Christians began to creep into the U.S. government in the 1980s.

blog - wild - viper fangs


Snakes bite with long teeth called fangs. If a snake is defanged, the teeth are taken out and the snake can no longer bite anyone. In politics, an organization can be defanged if its power is take away.

Example: Some say that the corporate lobbyists have defanged the Environmental Protection Agency.


As we can see, humans can create figurative language based on indirect experiences with animals most of us have never seen in the wild. It is also interesting that we use the more dangerous and violent behaviors of animals to create metaphors in our politics. What does this say about our political system!?

Next time: Describing Presidential Candidates


“Good News People” – the 2015 State of the Union Address

As you know, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union (SOTU) Address last week. It has been a challenge analyzing it for its rhetorical power and metaphorical content. State of the Union speeches are especially difficult to study because they cover such a broad range of topics. Having just studied a brilliant speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. singularly focused on the topic of voting rights, I found it bizarre to study the SOTU this time – by my count, President Obama touched on 72 different topics – everything from Cuba to Russia, Ebola, immigrants, community colleges, black neighborhoods, Wall Street and missions to Mars. Most college students would not get a passing grade from their professors on such a rambling paper – “…and your thesis statement is what exactly?”

Nonetheless, there were some interesting rhetorical and metaphorical techniques used by Obama and his speechwriters. As I have mentioned in previous posts, good speeches contain the three elements of logos (logic), ethos (ethics) and pathos (emotions) as originally discovered by the ancient Greeks. Just briefly, President Obama repeatedly explained the logic of celebrating the improved economic conditions such as lower unemployment rates, higher stock markets, and better health care. He also touched on the ethical imperative to fight terrorists around the world, improve race relations within our police departments, and work harder to help our young people go to college. However, he more commonly appealed to our sense of pathos, describing the fear inspired by recent terrorist attacks, mentioning particular tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City, and highlighting the struggle of a young couple named Rebekah and Ben, who “bounced back” to improve their lives after the economic recession of 2008.

As for the metaphor usage, I first looked to see if I could find any overarching theme to the speech. As any beginning music student knows, one can usually tell the key signature of a musical piece by looking at its last note (major or minor keys, or different modes, are another story). One can also tell the major theme of a speech by looking at the last paragraph. Here is the last major paragraph of the SOTU speech:

“My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)

I think there are several core metaphorical themes present in the last paragraph that create the tone and message for the entire speech. The first is that the United States is a family. It is common in political speeches for the orator to use personification of his or her country, e.g., “America at its strongest.” However, the entire country can also be personified as a family. The second metaphorical theme is that this family has been through some rough times but is doing better now. This implies the metaphor of a journey, a collective journey of the government working for the people. Finally, the story of this family on the journey is told as a metaphor of literature, as a narrative. There are several other sets of metaphors including those of buildings, vision and team sports. In total, President Obama delivered a speech using several complex metaphors to reassure the citizens of the United States as the ability of the country to recover from hard times. Even though he gave powerful evidence that the country recovered amazingly well from the recession in 2008, weak audience response prompted him to quip, “This is good news, people.”

Here are a few examples of conceptual metaphors used in the speech. As always, the quotations are taken directly from the speech; the italics are mine.


We are all familiar with stories – everything from simple bedtime stories we heard as children to complex plots in novels and films. Every story has someone who narrates the events – someone who provides the narrative. In the State of the Union Address, President Obama refers to the economic and social conditions as part of a collective story. He infers that he is the person who will write the story, working together with everyone in the country. He specifically refers to the turning a page to start the speech, and beginning a new chapter as he ends the speech. In the middle he refers to the story of the young couple as our story.

blog - SOTU 15 - Shakespeare First_Folio_VA

Example: “But tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. “

Example: “America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story.”

Example: “A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter together — and let’s start the work right now.” (Applause.)


There are several intersecting types of personification used in the speech. For one, terrorism is described as a person who can touch the people in the United States. In correlation with this metaphor is another idea that the country is our home, so the geographical boundaries are called our shores.

blog - SOTU 15 - touch Hands_of_God_and_Adam

Example: “We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.”

Terrorism is also described as a strong person who can physically move, or drag another individual to a new location or draw a person into a new situation. At the same time, the United States is personified as a person who is standing up and getting stronger.

Example: “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?”

Example: “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” (Applause.)

Example: “When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.”

Example: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. (Applause.) We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”

Example: “And it has been your resilience, your effort that has made it possible for our country to emerge stronger.”

Countries can also be personified as people who partner with others to achieve a goal. Others strong countries may be described as being bullies to other countries.

blog - SOTU 15 - partners Lennon-McCartney

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one of the best songwriting partnerships in history


Example: “Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

Example: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.” (Applause.)

In a final example, an economic recovery is also personified as someone who can touch people’s lives.

Example: “Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives.”


Another set of metaphors correlates nicely with the idea of the country as a family. In this case President Obama compares the country of people as being on the same team who must either write fair rules that everyone agrees upon or play by the same rules. Teams must also up their game to be competitive and win the next contest.

Using a strange metaphor, Obama spoke of leveling the playing field. This unusual phrase apparently derives from a problem in early 20th century high school and college football fields. If the school did not have the money to properly create a flat field, the team playing from the high end of the field would have an advantage of being able to run downhill, while the downhill team would have the disadvantage of trying to move the ball uphill. Eventually, teams complained enough that the school literally had to level the playing field. (Thanks to the folks at wordwizard.com for the research on this one!) These days this metaphorical phrase indicates a situation where the rules are fair for all sides in a political or economic competition.

The 1916 Army-Navy football game at the Polo Grounds in New York City

The 1916 Army-Navy football game at the Polo Grounds in New York City

Example: “That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Example: “But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field.

Example: “Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense.”

blog - SOTU 15 - Spielzug_Playbook

Example: “In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”

Example: “And in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game.”


President Obama also used many metaphors of building the country as if it were a construction project. In related metaphors, he also spoke of developing strong policies as if he were anchoring a building in a firm foundation or even on bedrock. He also spoke of parts of buildings such as platforms and pillars that are used to construct a strong, sturdy building; these terms here used to describe Internet systems and strong leadership skills.


Example: “You are the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.”

Example: “Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming.”

Example: “And that’s why the third part of middle-class economics is all about building the most competitive economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire.”

Example: “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community — (applause) — and help folks build the fastest networks so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

Example: “We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.”

Example: “But the job is not yet done, and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”

blog - SOTU 15 - pillars ParthenonExample: “And there’s one last pillar of our leadership, and that’s the example of our values.”

Example: “I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home — a state of small towns, rich farmland, one of the world’s great cities; a microcosm of the country where Democrats and Republicans and Independents, good people of every ethnicity and every faith, share certain bedrock values.”

Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. And that’s what they deserve.”

blog - SOTU 15 - Foundation-M2325Example: “Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America. We have laid a new foundation.”



Another powerful set of metaphors used by the president are those of vision. Even though he spoke of the power of stationary buildings, he also spoke of having a vision of the future. He began by speaking of having a better focus on what he wanted to do as president, and then looked beyond the past and present to a more outward vision of goals in the future.

Example: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals, and focus more on the values at stake in the choices before us.”

Example: “Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”

Example: “Third, we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”

A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon

A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon

Example: “Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, naïve, that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.”

Example: “If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, I ask you to join me in the work at hand.”


Finally, President Obama talked about the future of the country as if we were all on a journey together. Journey metaphors are very common in political speeches, those in previous State of the Union Addresses or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” In this case, the president used several different types of journey metaphors. These included metaphors from walking: taking steps, stepping up, and making strides; driving: going down the road, keeping the pace and staying ahead of the curve; using boats: propelled forward, or run onto the rocks; using trains: derail dreams and paying full freight; and general metaphors of movement: move on and move forward. As you can see below, President Obama mixes and matches these different metaphors to great effect.

Example: “At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years. (Applause.) This is good news, people.” (Laughter and applause.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExample: “As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of “small steps.” These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”

Example: “And as a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend. Already, we’ve made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care.”

Example: “In Beijing, we made a historic announcement: The United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution. And China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that this year the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Example: “Second, to make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills.” (Applause.)

blog - SOTU 15 - curve of the roadExample: “Let’s stay ahead of the curve. (Applause.) And I want to work with this Congress to make sure those already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.” (Applause.)

Example: “Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another? Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”

The SS Princess May run up on the rocks near Skagway, Alaska in 1910

The SS Princess May run up on the rocks near Skagway, Alaska in 1910

Example: “Where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments. As Americans, we don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes as long as everybody else does, too. But for far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight.”

Example: “As Americans, we cherish our civil liberties, and we need to uphold that commitment if we want maximum cooperation from other countries and industry in our fight against terrorist networks. So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.”

People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

Example: “That’s a better politics. That’s how we start rebuilding trust. That’s how we move this country forward.”


In sum, President Obama delivered an hour-long speech covering a wide range of political, economic and international issues.   His use of metaphors helped convey his message of the country going through some hard times, but emerging stronger and more hopeful of the future. He told his message as if it were a national story, and used personification of terrorism to increase the emotional response from the audience. He also used personification of the United States to indicate its strength and ability to stand up to adversity. He increased the sense of the people’s involvement with the government by talking of the United States as being on the same sports teams and everyone playing by fair rules. He used metaphors of constructing buildings to describe the work of creating new policies and programs for United States’ citizens. He then used metaphors of vision to describe how he was focusing on the past and present but looking forward to the future. Finally, after laying the foundation and looking beyond, he took us on a journey with several different vehicles. As mentioned, political speeches often use journey metaphors to convey the message of the speaker that the country is not stuck in the past or present but moving forward, putting hard times in the past and looking towards brighter days in the future.

Next time: Another look at Animal Metaphors

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

MLK: “Give us the Ballot” Speech

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

On May 17, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd of about 20,000 people at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The topic of the speech was voting rights. Although all American citizens were granted the right to vote in the 14th Amendment from 1868 (five years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), the Jim Crow laws of the American South (with literacy tests and poll taxes) often obstructed African-Americans from actually being able to vote well into the 1960s. The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP and other civil rights leaders forced the legislation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited state and local governments from interfering with the voting rights of minorities anywhere in the United States. This movement also resulted in the marches and riots of Selma, Alabama in 1965, now prominently portrayed in a recent movie simply entitled Selma.

blog - MLK ballot - MLK_and_Lyndon_Johnson_2

Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Lyndon Johnson in 1966


The “Give Us the Ballot” speech from 1957 was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to obtain increased voting rights for all minorities. The speech was given three years to the day after the historic Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, (May 17, 1954), prohibiting racial segregation in public schools, overturning the infamous “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson decision from 1896. Some quotations listed below refer to the judicial decision three years earlier. Interestingly, the speech was two years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and six years before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The 22 minute speech can be read here at the website created by Stanford University to archive Dr. King’s speeches. If you have time, I encourage you to listen to the amazingly clear audio recording of the speech. It sounds like it was recorded just yesterday. You can hear the power in emotion in King’s voice as he delivers another brilliant speech. You can also hear the crowd responding with “Yes!” or “Amen!” at certain points in the speech. Unfortunately, the last two minutes of the speech are cut off in the recording at this website. You can hear the powerful conclusion to the speech here on YouTube (audio only).

As for the political metaphors in this speech, they are not as rich or colorful as in “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail” but are still used with brilliant precision and for powerful effect. One particularly clever metaphor is derived from medicine and concludes a section complaining about the weakness of the American government. I quote it here in its entirety to give you a flavor of the speech.

“This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. (Oh yes) The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.” [laughter]

Here is a brief summary of a few notable metaphors from the speech. As always, the quotations are taken directly from the speech. I have italicized the metaphors being studied. Let me know if you have any questions about any of these metaphors.

synecdoche: ballot, benches

The speech cannot be analyzed without a brief mention of two types of figurative language, synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) and metonymy (meh-TAH-nuh-me). Technically these are not metaphors, but I will provide illustrations of them since several of them are featured prominently while one is used in the title of the speech. When Dr. King says, “Give us the ballot” he is not only referring to a physical ballot (the piece of paper), he is also referring to the abstract process of voting. When a part of something is used to describe a whole, this is an example of synecdoche, as in “all hands on deck” in which the hands refer to the sailors doing the work.

blog - MLK ballot - voting_booth

Example: “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

In another example, Dr. King refers to “the benches of the South.” Again he is not simply referring to wooden furniture but to the work of the Supreme Court justices who traditionally sat on wooden benches to hear court cases.

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”

metonymy/toponymy: Washington

            Metonymy occurs when the name of a person or place is used to indicate the work that the people do, or the work that is done at that location as in the famous phrase from the Cold War, “The White House is talking to the Kremlin.” This is similar to personification but is a more specific type of figurative language. In this case, Dr. King speaks of looking to Washington, meaning the work of the American government done in Washington D.C. (Technically, when a name of a specific place is used, this is called a toponym.)

blog - MILK ballot - Wash DCExample: “If the executive and legislative branches of the government were as concerned about the protection of our citizenship rights as the federal courts have been, then the transition from a segregated to an integrated society would be infinitely smoother. But we so often look to Washington in vain for this concern.”

personification: silent, bones, sing

In the more familiar usage of personification, we find that objects are described with human qualities. In these cases, a branch of government is described as being silent, nations have bones, and stars are singing. Note that the last two examples are taken from the Bible, as Dr. King uses a powerful rhetorical strategy appealing to the faith of his audience members. The last example is the final line of the speech.

Example: “In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the executive branch of the government is all too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the desperate need for civil rights legislation, the legislative branch of the government is all too stagnant and hypocritical.”

Example: “‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ [Matthew 26:52] (Yeah, Lord) And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations (Yeah) that failed to follow this command. (All right) We must follow nonviolence and love.” (Yes, Lord)

Example: “When that happens, ‘the morning stars will sing together (Yes sir), and the sons of God will shout for joy.’’’ [Job 38:7] (Yes sir, All right) [applause] (Yes, That’s wonderful, All right)

taste: bitter, rancor, tang

We also find metaphors of taste in this speech. One of the most common examples is a reference to feeling bitter. Some readers may think of this as a dead metaphor, but using the word bitter to describe the feeling of being cheated or treated unfairly was originally derived from the particular bitter taste of some foods. The word rancor is also derived from a Latin word meaning something with a foul taste or smell. In one other instance, Dr. King speaks of the tang of being human. The word tang can literally describe the sharp, stinging taste of particular foods or metaphorically the sharp emotions of a difficult life. Interestingly, he contrasts two senses in one sentences, taste and sight, comparing the tang of being human with the glow of being divine.

A bitter ale

A bitter ale

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.” (That’s right)

Example: “We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter.”

Example: “Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.”



medicine: high blood pressure, anemia, injections, veins

blog - MLK ballot - Sphygmomanometer           In the clever example listed above, Dr. King contrasts high blood pressure to anemia (low iron content in the blood) using common medical terms to illustrate a problem. In another example, he describes the work of civil rights leaders changing society as people injecting new meaning into the veins of civilization.

Example: “These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.”


blog - MLK ballot - Injection_Syringe_01Example: “If you will do that with dignity (Say it), when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, ‘There lived a great people. (Yes sir, Yes) A people with “fleecy locks and black complexion,’” but a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization (Yes); a people which stood up with dignity and honor and saved Western civilization in her darkest hour.”

standing, rising

Political speeches often contain metaphors of body position, i.e., those that relate how we use our bodies to strong or weak language. For example, a person lying down has little or no power to fend off an attack or go on the offensive. A person must rise up from a lying or sitting position to take action. Metaphorically, standing up or rising up indicate a person or group taking a strong stance for or against something. In the speech, Dr. King that notes that some states protested the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling, describing them as rising up in defiance. In other points of the speech he encourages the audience members to stand up for justice and he cites a quote about truth rising again by the 19th century Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant from his 1839 poem “Battlefield.”

Example: “Many states have risen up in open defiance.”

Example: “There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”

Example: “Stand up for justice.”

nature: hilltops and mountains

Dr. King’s speeches often used imagery from nature, some descriptions or phrases borrowed from the Bible. In his other speeches, he used the analogy of the challenge of achieving civil rights for everyone as climbing over hilltops and mountains. Note that here too there is an example of personification when he speaks of the Red Sea standing up.

The San Gabriel Mountains of California

The San Gabriel Mountains of California

Example: “Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. (Yes) And even after you’ve crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil (Yes) and gigantic mountains of opposition.”

day and night

Dr. King also often used pairs of contrasting elements in nature for rhetorical effect. In metaphorical imagery, goodness, hope, and truth are associated with the daytime, while evil, despair and lies are associated with the night.   Similarly, the time of midnight may be associated with the worst of the bad qualities of the nighttime. Dr. King often described the process of achieving civil rights as going from the night to the day.

Example: “For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity.”

Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England

Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England

Example: “There is the danger that those of us who have been forced so long to stand amid the tragic midnight of oppression—those of us who have been trampled over, those of us who have been kicked about—there is the danger that we will become bitter.”

light and dark

As with the comparison of day and night, we can also speak of light and dark with similar metaphorical associations. Light is always associated with hope and goodness. Here again he is referring to the landmark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

Example: “It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom.”

hot and cold

Another set of contrasting metaphorical terms consists of hot and cold, with the medium state of lukewarm used as well. The metaphorical concept of hot implies passion, energy and enthusiasm, while cold implies lethargy and inaction. Here Dr. King is lamenting the fact that liberalism of the late 1950s is not very supportive of the right to vote.

blog - MLK ballot - hot and cold faucetExample: “It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.’”

open and closed/containers

Yet another contrast is derived from the metaphorical concept of containers. We speak of many abstract states and processes as if they are inside or outside of a container, such as in “falling in love” or being “out of fashion.” We can also talk about states being open or closed. A person’s mind is metaphorically conceived as a box, so that one be open-minded or close-minded, if one is open to new ideas or not. We can also speak of events or processes that are emerging, as if they are animals or insects coming out of an enclosed space or container. Here he talks about an emerging new order and emerging freedom.

blog - MLK ballot - container boxExample: “It is unfortunate that at this time the leadership of the white South stems from the close-minded reactionaries. These persons gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas and by deliberately appealing to the deepest hate responses within the human mind. It is my firm belief that this close-minded, reactionary, recalcitrant group constitutes a numerical minority. There are in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.”

Example: “But if we will become bitter and indulge in hate campaigns, the old, the new order which is emerging will be nothing but a duplication of the old order.” (Yeah, That’s all right)

A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

Example: “We must not seek to use our emerging freedom and our growing power to do the same thing to the white minority that has been done to us for so many centuries.”


Many political speeches contain journey metaphors. Rhetorically, a good speaker will invite comparisons of the process under discussion to a physical journey. Thus we can talk about the “road to the White House” or “roadblocks in the way of progress.” Here Dr. King speaks mostly of the speed of the journey of civil rights. Many black leaders at the time were often told to slow down and not force the governments to change their laws so quickly. Dr. King often showed an impatience with this attitude that shows up in this speech as well in a section of the speech I quoted earlier.   Dr. King also uses a metaphor of the warning signal. Literally this type of signal might be used on a roadway or shipping lane to warn travellers of some type of danger ahead. Metaphorically, a warning signal is any event that would warn a person or group of something bad that might happen in the future.   There is also an interesting type of metaphor based on our experiences of meeting people in a walkway or road. We must be careful not to collide with each other. Metaphorically, we can meet ideas or values along the way. Dr. King speaks of “meeting hate with love.” Finally, Dr. King exhorts his audience towards the end of the speech to continue the journey, e.g., keep moving and keep going.

Example: “It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: ‘Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.’”

Example: “We must meet hate with love. (Yeah) We must meet physical force with soul force.”

blog - MLK ballot - warning signalExample: “There is another warning signal.”

Example: “Keep moving. (Go on ahead) Let nothing slow you up. (Go on ahead) Move on with dignity and honor and respectability.”

A track runner at the University of Wisconsin

A track runner at the University of Wisconsin

Example: “Keep going today. (Yes sir) Keep moving amid every obstacle. (Yes sir) Keep moving amid every mountain of opposition.” (Yes sir, Yeah)


Dr. King’s speech “Give us the Ballot” is a wonderful example of his amazing oratorical skills and brilliant use of metaphors. He would continue to polish his skills leading up to his tour de force “I Have a Dream” speech six years later. I hope you have found these metaphors interesting. For further reading, I always strongly recommend the works of Jonathan Charteris-Black who has written masterful analyses of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. See my review of his book on Politicians and Rhetoric here. You may also check out my previous analyses of “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I hope we all work a little bit every day to help Dr. King realize his dream of civil rights for all Americans and for people all over the world.

This coming week, President Obama is scheduled to deliver another State of the Union address. I will be working on that next! Stay tuned…

Next Week: The State of the Union Address

blog - animals - goat

Metaphors of Farm Animals

Greetings!  As promised, today I have a few more examples of metaphors derived from animals.  This time I look at cows, oxen, sheep, goats and pigs.  Believe it or not, they do indeed exist!  Previously I wrote a short blog on cows and beef, but today I offer a more complete list.  Note that most of these terms originated in the history of farming and ranching, some from our English-speaking ancestors in Great Britain, others from our own experience in the western United States. As mentioned last time, these metaphors illustrate the close relationship between humans and animals for work, companionship or food.  Please let me know if you have any questions about these fascinating metaphors.

Cows and Oxen

blog - animals - Cow_female_black_whitecow

Cows are animals that can be easily grouped or herded into specific places.  People can be cowed if they do not stand up for what they believe in.

Example:  President Obama does not seem to be cowed by the efforts of the powerful lobbyists to change policies to benefit their corporations.


A young cow that is found without a brand is said to be a maverick, named after a rancher named Maverick who often did not brand his cows.  In political terms, a maverick is someone who is very independent of political parties.

Example:  John McCain is known as being a maverick for opposing policies of any party that he does not agree with.

blog - animals - Texas_longhorn_cattle_bull_grazingbull, bull sessions, bully and the bully pulpit

A bull is a male cow.  The term bull or bully can have many meanings in politics.  Bulls can be very strong and aggressive.  Thus, to bully people means to act aggressively towards them and get them to do what the bully wants them to do.  The word bully is also an old expression meaning, “Great! Exciting!”  The phrase bully pulpit was first used to describe the speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, 1901-1909.  A pulpit is the place in a church where the priest or pastor gives his sermon to the congregation.  Politicians are sometimes described as having a bully pulpit when they tend to lecture and tell the Congress or the American people what to do.  Bull feces can be called bullshit, (a swear word in English), sometimes shortened to just bull.  This term in turn can be used to describe something that has no value, so to talk bull means to speak without telling the truth.  Conversations with lots of bull can be called bull sessions.

Example:  The American people become frustrated if politicians only engage in bull sessions and do not get anything done.

Example:  A good political leader does not bully his colleagues.  Rather, he needs to work with them cooperatively.

Example:  A strong president trying to pass new laws must sometimes use the bully pulpit to get his ideas across.

The famous bull sculpture on New York's Wall Street

The famous bull sculpture on New York’s Wall Street

bull market

When the stock market is on an upward trend and investors are very confident in investing money, this is called a bull market, comparing the market to the strength and power of a bull.  (Compare to a bear market below.)

Example:  It is always good to invest money in a bull market; this is when investors make the most money.


The word drive has many meanings, most commonly today used to mean operate a car or truck.  However, ranchers would often drive their animals to get them to where they wanted them to go, as in a cattle drive.  In general, to drive means to propel something forward.

Example:  The collapse of the banking system drove the economy further into a recession.

beef and beef up

The meat of a cow is called beef.  The size and weight of a cow has allowed the word beef to be used to indicate strength and importance.  The word beef can be used to mean a complaint, as in “What’s your beef?”  One can also use the expression, beef up, meaning to make something stronger.

Example:  Congress is trying to beef up the laws to protect children from abusive parents.


Workers on a farm or ranch who catch and control the animals are said to wrangle with them.  In politics, when people argue or fight, this may be called wrangling as well.

Example:  Most Americans get tired of politicians wrangling over policies instead of getting things done and helping the people.

blog - animals - cattle branding vintagebrand

Rancher must put a mark or brand on the skin of their cows so that they are not stolen by other ranchers.  This same word is used to indicate the names of companies or political policies.

Example:  Some Democrats say Barack Obama has introduced a new brand of politics with his emphasis on helping the poor and middle class.


A stampede occurs when an entire herd of animals runs in the same direction without being controlled by anyone.  In political terms, members of Congress may be stampeded by other politicians who try to pass bills or make laws without giving everyone a chance to study the policies.

Example:  Some critics said that the Patriot Act of 2001, designed to increase anti-terrorism policies of the U.S. government, was stampeded through Congress without many members realizing what the bill actually meant.

fence mending

Ranchers must separate their animals from other ranchers’ animals with strong fences.  If a fence is broken, the animals can run away and cause trouble for the other ranchers.  Thus, one must constantly mend or fix the fences to keep the animals safe and avoid problems with neighbors.  In politics, fence mending means that two politicians who disagreed on something must talk it over and reach a new agreement.

Example:  Republicans are Democrats are always in the process of mending fences to get bills passed in Congress.

blog - animals - earmarkearmark

A rancher with hundreds of cows must mark each one to indicate the gender and age of each animal.  Usually a tag with this information is attached to the ear of each cow, thus called an earmark.  In political terms, an earmark is money secretly put in a bill by a member of Congress to pay for a project in his or her home district, without the rest of Congress knowing that it is part of the bill.

Example:  In 2005, Alaskan senator Ted Stevens famously tried to use an earmark to build a bridge costing $400 million that would be used by only 50 people.

dig in heels

When a rancher is trying to control and stop a large animal from running away, he needs to dig in his heels, or get a firm footing on the ground, or else the animal will get away.   In political terms, someone who does not change his or her position on a policy is said to dig in his heels.

Example:  In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary dug in their heels to try to get a new health care system for America, but Congress did not approve their plans.


A harness is a set of strong leather straps used by the rider or driver to control strong work animals such as horses or oxen.  In popular terms, people speak of being able to harness sources of energy such as the wind or solar power or even harness the will or energy of the American people.

Example:  A good president can harness the energy of all the members of Congress to pass laws to help the American people.

blog - animals - yokeyoke

A yoke is similar to a harness in that it is used to control a strong animal although it is usually larger and made of wood.  In political terms, sometimes people without power are said to be under the yoke of a bad government or unfair policies.

Example:  For hundreds of years, African-Americans suffered under the yoke of slavery.


Animals, like people, need to be fed every day.  Hungry animals eat a lot of food when they can get it.  In politics, journalists like to get many news stories every day to publish in their newspapers and magazines, or television and radio programs.  This process is sometimes called feeding the beast.

Example:  The White House Press Secretary is always feeding news stories to the press.

Sheep, Goats, and Pigs

A shepherd with his flock in Romania

A shepherd with his flock in Romania


A fold is a name for a group of animals on a farm, especially for sheep.  Farmers like to keep the sheep together in the fold.  If an animal runs away or is lost, the farmers try to get it back in the fold.  In politics, someone who strays from the values or policies of a political party or religious group is asked to come back to the fold.

Example:  Members of Congress who lean too far to the left or right may be asked to come back to the fold of their parties and not be too extreme.

tending the flock

A group of sheep is called a flock, similar to a fold or flock of birds (see above).  To tend the flock means to take care of all the sheep in that group.  In politics, tending the flock means to take care of the needs of a politician’s constituents or followers.

Example:  Presidential candidates must always tend their flocks if they want to get everyone’s vote in the election.


A wether is an old name for a ram or male sheep.  A bell was hung on the neck of the dominant wether in a flock so that the other sheep would follow him, making it easier for the shepherds to herd the flock.  In modern times, a bellwether is something that is an indicator of other things to come.

Example:  The many home foreclosures in the summer of 2008 was a bellwether for the troubling economic problems that soon developed throughout the country.

stray far

Animals on a farm or ranch such as cows, sheep or goats, cannot go far from the ranch or else they will be lost or killed.  To stray means that the animals go away from the farm; ranchers hope that they do not stray far. In political terms, to stray far means that the person is getting away from the policies or values of his or her party.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney tried not to stray far from the values of his conservative Republican party but lost the election to Barack Obama.

blog - animals - goatscapegoat

In ancient Jewish culture, a goat was symbolically given all of the sins of the community and sent into the wilderness, thus relieving everyone of their sins.  The animal was referred to as a scapegoat. Today, a scapegoat is someone who is blamed for the mistakes of other people.

Example:  During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Michael Brown, the director of the federal emergency services, was made the scapegoat of all that went wrong in trying to help the people in the floods.

hog tie

When a farmer needs to catch a hog, or large pig, the workers tie rope around his legs very tightly so that the hog cannot move.  This is referred to a hog tie.  In popular terms, to hog-tie people is to prevent them from doing something they want to do.

Example:  Members of Congress sometimes hog-tie the president when he tries to pass a bill they don’t like by constantly voting it down.


Once again, we can see many examples of how we create metaphors based on every day experiences.  Our close relationships with animals have given us some of our most colorful metaphors.

Next weekend marks the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.  I am working on an analysis of another one of his brilliant speeches.  Stay tuned!

Next time:  Metaphors of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

blog - immigration - Pathway_at_Udayagiri_Park

More Metaphors on Immigration

Hello!  Sorry for my delayed posts the past couple weeks.  This is the end of the quarter at my college.  I have been swamped with lesson plans and committee meetings, mired in tests and grading and behind on my paperwork.  I have also been trying to keep up with my family obligations and stay on top of paying bills and other household chores. — Isn’t it amazing how many metaphors we use in every day speech?

Back to the blog, I would like to offer a belated analysis of President Obama’s speech on immigration a few weeks ago.  At first glance, it may seem that there were not many political metaphors in the speech.  However, there were quite a few metaphors that reveal how politicians – and most Americans – think about immigration issues and government policies in general.  All of the quotations today are from the speech itself.  Italics are mine.  You can read the entire speech here at:


Containers/Light and Dark

President Obama took pains to describe how immigrants felt if they did not yet have green cards or their citizenship.  Whether or not they came here illegally or had been born to illegal immigrant parents, these immigrants were described as being locked in containers or trapped in cages.  Here are a few examples:

blog - immigration - Lobster_traptrap

In a common hunting metaphor, one way to capture and kill a wild animal is to set a trap for it.  A person can leave a trap baited with food, and when the animal enters the cage to eat the food, the animal is trapped.  In common terms, when someone is caught in a trap, he or she is not able to exit from a situation. In terms of the immigration debate, President Obama refers to immigrants not being trapped by their past, but who can create a new future for themselves. The implication is that illegal immigrants in the U.S. today are indeed trapped by their circumstances.

Example:  “For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.”

come out

            When a container is filled with solid or liquid materials, it is a common experience to see these materials coming out of the container when it is used. To say something or someone is coming out, it indicates that it or they are being released from a confining situation.

Example: “…students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcome out of the shadows

A shadow is caused by something or someone blocking sunlight. In English the word shadow can have two meanings.  For one, someone in another person’s shadow is trying to be as good as that person who came before him or her.  Secondly, someone working in the shadows is thought to be doing something bad or illegal.  To say that someone is coming out of the shadows implies the person has been doing something immoral or illegal.  President Obama used this expression in several different ways.

Example: In describing the immigration activist Astrid Silva,  “…she mostly lived in the shadows – until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported.”

Example: “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows…”

Example:  After describing the benefits of his new executive order:  “…you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation.  You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”


            Social situations are sometimes described metaphorically as fabric as if they are part of a piece of cloth.  While fabric can be used as clothing which can be a strong, protective covering, it can also be something that is weak and can be torn or ripped apart.  Metaphorically we see all of these conditions described in political situations.


Clothing is made out of material or fabric.  The concept of fabric can also be used to describe something very broad that is held together by many threads running in different directions.

Example:  “I know that some worry immigration will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs, or stick it to middle-class families at a time when they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal for over a decade.”

blog - immigration - ripped jeanstear apart

Example:  “And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.”


ripping children from their parents

Example:  “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms?  Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?”

Houses and Machines


We commonly describe the creation of something abstract as if it is something physical we are building.  This usage can apply literally to buildings, machines or any physical object, while metaphorically the verb to build can apply to any abstract process or social relationship.

Example:  “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.”  [Note the use of the river metaphor here stem the flow, discussed in an earlier post.]

blog - immigration - broken pistonbroken

Fragile objects and machines can be described as broken if they are no longer intact or do not function properly.  Once a machine is broken, someone must make the effort to fix it.  President Obama described our immigration program as being broken and needing to be fixed.

Example:  “But today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.”



Example:  “When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system.”

Example:  “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate.” 

Games and Rules

blog - immigration - play by the rulesplay by the rules

Whenever a game is played, the participants must agree to set of rules to avoid arguments and controversies during the game.  Anyone who cheats or does not follow the rules is not respected and usually not asked to play the game after that point.  In politics, candidates, government officials and businesses must play by the rules of their particular state or government with respect for the other people involved.  In discussions of immigration, people from other countries must play by the rules in order to obtain citizenship.

Example:  “Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules.”

blog - immigration - straight lineright/straight

            Just as in the concept of playing by the rules in a game, we can also describe being right or straight in one’s behavior.  This common metaphor is derived from our experiences with shapes and lines.  When a line is drawn directly from one point to another, we say that the line is straight.  Describing something that is straight implies that it is true, clear and direct.  The word right also has its origins in describing a straight line.  President Obama often referred to proper behavior by illegal immigrants is by being straight or right with the law while referring to honest behavior as simply being straight as well.

Example:  “And let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.”

Example:  “You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

Example:  “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?”


pathway to citizenship

A path is a small, narrow road.  Metaphorically, we speak of a path as being a process or a way to achieve a goal.  There is also a similar term pathway that is yet another word indicating a manner of doing something.  The process of becoming an American citizen is often described as being a pathway to citizenship.

Example:   “I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense. It would have doubled the number of border patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line.”

blog - immigration - Pathway_at_Udayagiri_Park

In summary, even though there were not many metaphors in President Obama’s speech on immigration, there were a few examples that reveal how we think about these important issues. Most of us know that illegal immigrants are living in the shadows while liberals and conservatives seem to disagree on whether or not they should come out of the shadows and become citizens or if they should be deported. We also compare our immigration system to a broken machine that needs to be fixed as if it is an old car engine.  But to fix this machine the immigrants must play by the rules as if it is a football game, and be right with the law as if they are walking on a straight line.  If the immigrants succeed they can be on a pathway or journey to becoming American citizens.

Most of us believe that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, add a valuable amount of diversity and hard work to the fabric of our economy and our society.  My own ancestors come from Ireland, France and Sweden.  I think most of us – unless we are Native Americans – can trace our heritage back to other countries.  Let us celebrate our diversity!

Next time:  Metaphors of Physical Forces in Economics