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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.

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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

blog - nature space - stars

Metaphors of Stars, Meteors and Outer Space

Space exploration has been in the news lately.  The European Space Agency has done the impossible by landing a space probe on the surface of the comet known as 67P traveling at more than 40,000 miles per hour.  Humans have always been interested in space exploration.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we have a few political metaphors based on our knowledge and experience with the objects in the night sky.

blog - nature space - starsstar

Everyone has seen stars in the night sky.  Metaphorically a star is someone who is famous in his or her field, as in being a movie star, or a rising star in politics.

Example:  At the 2004 Democratic convention, many people thought Barack Obama was a rising star in American politics.  Few people would have believed he would be elected president four years later.


The word stellar is the adjective form of star almost always used metaphorically.  A person who is stellar is doing an excellent job in his or her occupation.  When someone is not doing a good job, we may say that his or her performance is less than stellar.

Example:  Due to the less-than-stellar performance of the United States Congress in the past ten years, their approval rating has dropped to less than 10%.

blog - nature space - stratosphere Endeavour_silhouette_STS-130stratosphere

The stratosphere is the layer of the earth’s atmosphere approximately between six and thirty miles above the earth’s surface.  In common terms, we may speak of something that is incredibly large in size or quantity to be in the stratosphere.

Example:  As the national debt increases every year, critics of government spending complain that we must do something before the debit goes into the stratosphere.

blog - nature space - BlackHoleblack hole

A black hole is a region of space that absorbs all light and energy around it.  Metaphorically, a black hole is something that takes up all the time, money or energy of a project or process.

Example:  Critics of the War in Afghanistan complained that it had been a black hole of government spending with no sign of victory in sight.

meteoric rise

A meteor is a small piece of space debris that enters the earth’s atmosphere and quickly burns up as it falls toward earth (a meteor that lands on earth being called a meteorite).  A meteor is also called a shooting star because it travels so quickly, one can hardly see it before it is gone.  Metaphorically, something that is meteoric happens very quickly.  We may talk of the sudden success or fame of a person by saying it is a meteoric rise.

Example:  Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from state senator to president surprised everyone except perhaps some of his closest colleagues.

blog - nature space - Leonid_Meteorshooting star

As mentioned, a shooting star is another name for a meteor that quickly streaks across the sky and usually burns out before reaching the earth’s surface.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claimed his shooting star would soon burn out after facing the harsh realities of being the president of the United States.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Next time:  Metaphors in Immigration Discussions

blog - elections - Waves_in_pacifica_1

The Republican Wave of 2014

Wow!  I was planning to share a few common metaphors used to describe elections in my post this week.  Instead I found myself struggling to keep up with the brutal, hyperbolic metaphors used to describe the domination of the elections by the Republicans last week.   These metaphors are derived from our collective experiences of physical attacks, war and natural disasters.

First a few metaphors we hear about elections not related to the common metaphors of horse racing as discussed in the previous post.

Games and Sports

blog - elections - Poker_chipshigh stakes

In a poker game or other gambling games, the amount of money that is risked is called the stakes.  The stakes can be high or low depending on the game. In politics, any deal or negotiation between political parties or businesses may be referred to as a high stakes game.

Example: The 2014 midterm elections were a high stakes game for the U.S. economy.

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

In basketball, the game begins by the referee throwing the ball straight up in the air.  This is called the toss up.  The player who can reach and control the ball after the toss up will win the ball for his or her team.  In common terms, any competition or election that might be one by any player or team may be called a toss up.

Example: Many governors’ races were toss-ups but most were won by Republicans.


blog - elections - Swing stateswing state

Swings are popular games on a school playground.  A child on a swing can push and pull on the chains until the swing goes back and forth going higher and higher in the air. Metaphorically, anything that can move back and forth in two directions might be described as swinging.  In politics, a swing state is one in which the voters could elect either Republicans or Democrats depending on the candidates in each election.  Importantly, the very notion of a swing state implies that there are only two principal parties in United States politics since swings only move in two directions; third-party candidates have difficulty raising money for campaigns, being invited to debates, and winning state or national elections.

Example: In 2014, Republicans won many midterm elections in red states, blue states and swing states.



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

Example:  The 2014 midterm elections turned into a battle for the control of the U.S. senate.

A reenactment of the Battle of Hastings in 1066

A reenactment of the Battle of Hastings in 1066

battleground states

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

Example:  Senate races in the battleground states of New Hampshire and North Carolina were closely watched by television commentators on the night of the midterm elections.

common ground

The land where battles are fought between two armies is called the common ground.  In an argument, the points on which both sides can agree may also be called the common ground.

Example:  After the election, both Republicans and Democrats talked about finding common ground to work together for the next two years.

Fighting and boxing


In a fight, the two opponents can hit each other with great force, also known as beating one’s opponent.  In sports and politics, the winning team or candidates may also be described as beating their opponents.

Example:  The Republicans beat the Democrats in many elections for the House of Representatives, the Senate and state governor’s positions.

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

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


Another way to describe a person beating another person is to say that one drubs or gives a drubbing to another.  In politics, candidates who lose elections by a large margin may be described as getting a drubbing.

Example:  The Republicans gave the Democrats a severe drubbing in the 2014 midterm election.


A more hyperbolic term used to describe a loss in an election is a slaughter.  The term slaughter was originally used to describe the process of killing and butchering a farm animal.  In more common usage, a mass killing of animals or people may also be called a slaughter, as in a military battle with many casualties.  In politics, when many different candidates from one party lose their elections, these defeats may be collectively described as a slaughter.

Example:  Some cynical television commentators described the Democrats’ losses last week as a slaughter.

blog - elections - Blood_lettingbloodbath/bloodletting

Similar to the notion of a slaughter, a bloodbath is an event in which many people are killed, as if there is so much blood one is bathing in it.  This term is usually reserved to describe horrific battle scenes in a war.  However, it may also be used to describe a series of tremendous losses by one political party.  Oddly, the term bloodletting has a similar meaning despite having quite a different literal meaning.  In the Middle Ages, doctors believed that draining people of their “bad blood” would cure them of their illnesses.  This process was known as bloodletting.  Metaphorically, the term bloodletting can also be used to describe a great loss by one political party.

Example:  The Republicans gained six Senate seats in the midterm election bloodbath.

Natural Disasters

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

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

tremors/earthquakes/seismic shift

Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the earth’s crust or continental plates.  These events may also be called seismic shifts. Tremors are smaller quakes that happen before or after a major earthquake.  Metaphorically, earthquakes, seismic shifts and tremors can describe important events that happen in an organization that change the normal course of activities.

Example:  It was an earthquake for the Democrats last Tuesday night when they lost so many seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

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

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



A landslide is similar to an avalanche, but usually indicates a great deal of land and mud falling rapidly down a hill.  Metaphorically, a landslide is a large amount of something that happens quickly and forcefully.

Example:  Republican Governor John Kasich was reelected in a landslide victory winning 64% of the vote.


blog - elections - Waves_in_pacifica_1


A wave is a movement of water coming into a shore.  Metaphorically, any strong movement in a process or actions may be called a wave.  The most common metaphor used to describe the Republican victories last week was a wave.

Example:  The 2014 midterm elections were described as a Republican wave of victories over Democratic candidates.


A tide is the movement of the ocean going out and coming in based on the moon’s gravitational pull.  The term tide is used in a wide variety of metaphors indicating a powerful force such as a strong wave coming in to a shore.  These metaphors include the phrases the tide of war, turning the tide, or turning back the tide.

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

A wave crashes ashore in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand

A wave crashes ashore in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand


A tsunami is a huge ocean wave that devastates coastal communities as happened in Indonesia and Thailand in 2004 and in Japan in 2011.  Metaphorically, the word tsunami is used similarly to the term flood indicating a large amount of something happening quickly.

Example:  The Republican tsunami in the midterm elections surprised everyone on the television news shows.


The term rout is derived from an old French word meaning a strong battlefield win during a war.  Metaphorically a rout is a strong victory in sports or politics.

Example:  President Obama was forced to admit that the midterm elections were a rout for the Republicans against the Democrats.


                  One final example is one of the strangest of all political metaphors…

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

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


Shellac is a type of furniture varnish or protective coating.  It is famous for being long lasting because it is thick and requires many coats to apply it to the furniture.  Treating furniture in this way is called giving it a shellacking.  Metaphorically, to give a person a shellacking means that they are treated very roughly by someone else.

Example:  The Republicans gave the Democrats a clear shellacking in the 2014 midterm elections.

Next time:  Metaphors vs. Slang and Analogies

blog - supernatural - Skeleton_Jack-O-Lantern

Metaphors of Halloween!

In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I thought I would share a few metaphors of the supernatural.  These metaphors are fascinating for a simple reason.  Most conceptual metaphors are created by comparing a physical object or human experience to an abstract concept.  For example, we can understand describing a cold-hearted person as being a “block of ice” because we have all had the experience of feeling the cold temperature of a piece of ice.  We can also understand personification such as describing the United States as a “strong nation” because we have the personal experiences of human strength.  However, how can we explain metaphors such as having “a ghost of a chance” or being “spellbound” when ghosts and witches’ spells are not physically real?  Clearly, we can create conceptual metaphors simply by having a common human experience with phenomena even if they are not real.

Ghosts and Spirits

Most of us learn about the supernatural through children’s stories – ghosts, goblins, fairies and bogeymen.  Despite the fact these beings are not real, they become part of consciousness and they have been used to create metaphors we can apply to everyday life.

guiding spirit

Some people believe that when people die their spirits live on after them in another world, and that these spirits can guide us in our life on earth.  Metaphorically, a guiding spirit can be anything that influences or inspires someone to take certain actions.

Example:  Barack Obama has been the guiding spirit behind many African-Americans getting more involved in politics since he was elected president.

blog - supernatural - Medieval_ghostghost of a chance

Ghosts are thought to be spirits who remain on earth.  Ghosts do not have physical bodies so they are transparent with almost nothing visible to the eye.  Metaphorically, we can say that something has a ghost of a chance when it has a very slim chance of being true.

Example:  When Barack Obama first ran for president, he was an unknown state senator from Illinois and some people thought he only had a ghost of a chance of becoming the first African-American president.   But, of course, he proved them all wrong.

blog - supernatural - haunted househaunt

Sometimes malevolent ghosts will scare or haunt the living.  Metaphorically, anything in the past that has a negative effect on a person’s life in the present may be described as a haunting.

Example:  George W. Bush proclaimed victory in the War in Iraq after only a few weeks of fighting.  His victory banner on an aircraft carrier came back to haunt him later as the war dragged on for years.


A ghostwriter is someone, usually a professional writer, who helps a celebrity or politician write a book usually without credit.

Example:  Ted Sorenson was the ghostwriter for John F. Kennedy for the book Profiles in Courage which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.


A phantom is another word for a ghost or spirit.  Figuratively, a phantom is something that we think is real but may not really exist.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama complained that his phantom economic recovery was not really creating any new jobs in the first years of his presidency.

Magicians, Witches and Wizards

blog - supernatural - magicianmagic

There have been many stories of magicians and witches throughout history.  Although witches may be only a part of folklore, there are modern-day magicians who work solely for entertainment.  Thus, magic has two meanings in English, the supernatural powers that can influence everyday life, or complex tricks and optical illusions created to entertain an audience.  In politics, we may speak of magic to describe something that happens without normal cause-and-effect relationships.

Example:  Some cynics believe that it is only by magic that the U.S. government can ever really balance its budget.

magic wand

In some ancient legends and stories, magicians carry a magic stick or wand that can be used to create new realities.  In common terms, a magic wand can be used metaphorically as an instrument that has the power to solve impossible problems.

Example:  Many Americans wish that the president had a magic wand he could use to eliminate poverty and all social problems in the United States.


To vanish means to disappear suddenly.  In a magic act, a magician can make something vanish with a wave of a magic wand or a simple phrase.  In politics, something can also appear to vanish because of changing perceptions or lack of media coverage.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claim that the hope he inspired during his campaign vanished soon after he took office and ran into many bureaucratic obstacles to getting things done in Washington.


Magicians can also make objects materialize or appear suddenly.  In politics, people, funding or programs can materialize suddenly without prior warning from the media.  The term materialized can also be used negatively to describe something that was expected to happen but did not.

Example:  Much of the job growth that Barack Obama promised did not materialize in the first few years of his presidency.

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, 1502.  Note that the person in front is having his wallet stolen as the magician performs a trick of balls and cups.

“The Conjurer” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1502. Note that the person in front is having his wallet stolen as the magician performs a trick of balls and cups.

trick, tricky

A trick is something done to deceive someone, as a magician does with a magic trick. The adjective form, tricky, can also indicate something that is complicated.

Example:  It is always a tricky problem to write tax laws that are fair to both the rich and the poor in the United States.


The word wizard is derived from the same root word meaning wise.  Thus a wizard in ancient legends was a wise man, usually at the service of powerful people.  In modern times, a wizard is anyone who has extraordinary skills in a certain area such as computers.

Example:  Presidential candidates need to have campaign strategy wizards in order to win the election.

A painting of Merlin from the Middle Ages

A painting of Merlin from the Middle Ages


Merlin was a very powerful wizard in the medieval stories of King Arthur. In modern English, someone can be referred to as a Merlin if he seems to have the ability to do things that no one else can.

Example:  After helping several Republican candidates win important offices, Karl Rove is sometimes called the Merlin of campaign strategy.



Witches and wizards are thought to put people under spells or some magical power that controls the lives of those people.  A person under such a spell is then spellbound. Metaphorically, someone can be spellbound if he or she seems to be under the powerful influence of someone else.

Example:  Many young Americans were spellbound by Barack Obama’s powerful speeches when he first ran for president in 2008.


Witches are thought to have the power of enchanting people, i.e., putting them under spells for good or bad purposes.  In common terms, people can be enchanted by something or someone if they are very excited and interested in them.  Conversely, when people are disappointed in something or someone, we can say that they are disenchanted.

Example:  Despite Barack Obama’s initial popularity, many liberals became disenchanted with him when he was unable to push through a more progressive agenda through Congress.

Fairies, Pixies and Unicorns

A 1910 painting of the king and queen of the fairies

A 1910 painting of the king and queen of the fairies

airy-fairy nonsense

Fairies are mystical creatures thought to live in forests that help people.  People who believe in fairies are ridiculed for believing in nonsense or something made out of thin air.   In a modern reduplicated phrase, something that is considered to be wildly impossible may be called airy-fairy nonsense.

Example:  Supporters of oil-based energy sources think that running the country on solar panels and windmills is a bunch of airy-fairy nonsense.

pixie dust

Pixies are also small mythical creatures.  It is said that they possess magical dust they can sprinkle on people to put them under spells or improve their fortunes.  In modern terms, people accused of sprinkling pixie dust on someone or something indicates that they are not truly aware of reality and are trying to solve problems by magical means.

Example:  Critics of liberal social programs believe that it takes more than pixie dust to get people off of welfare.

"The Gentle and Pensive Maiden has the Power to Tame the Unicorn" Domenico Zampieri, 1602

“The Gentle and Pensive Maiden has the Power to Tame the Unicorn” by Domenico Zampieri, 1602


Unicorns are imaginary horses with one spiral horn growing from its head.  Unicorns, along with fairies and pixies are symbolic of imaginary creatures with no basis in reality.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama often portray him riding a white unicorn symbolizing his attempts to implement radical social changes in the United States.

Psychics and Fortune Tellers

blog - supernatural - Glaskugel_CrystalBallcrystal ball

In popular folklore, women known as psychics or fortune tellers can predict the future.  One method of doing this is by seeing visions in a crystal ball.  Metaphorically, a mention of a crystal ball is a criticism of someone pretending to be able to see the future with no actual evidence.

Example:  Campaign strategists always hope they can look into their crystal balls and see their candidate winning the election.

blog - supernatural - Tea_leaf_reading


tea leaves

Fortune tellers are also believed to tell the future by reading patterns in tea leaves.  Figuratively, reading tea leaves indicates that someone is trying to predict the future.

Example:  In the close 2012 presidential election, no one reading the tea leaves could tell if Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would be the next president.


Psychics believe that everyone has a field of energy surrounding their bodies.  This energy field is called an aura.  Metaphorically, an aura is a person’s perceived popularity and strength of character in a certain field.

Example:  Although wildly popular in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to lose some of his aura after failing to get some of his policies enacted by Congress.



Many monsters and scary creatures are also described in the literature of the supernatural.  One such creature is known as the bogeyman, a monster who scares children or harms people.  Figuratively, a bogeyman is something or someone that threatens to cause harm to someone else.

Example:  For many Americans, Osama bin Laden was a real life bogeyman and they were glad when he was finally caught and killed.

silver bullet

Some legends tell of supernatural monsters called werewolves which are half man, half wolf creatures.  The only way they can be killed is by shooting them with a silver bullet.  Metaphorically, a silver bullet is any action that can automatically solve a difficult problem.

Example:  When gas prices rise seemingly out of anyone’s control, government experts claim that the oil supplies are so complicated that there is no silver bullet to keeping the prices down.

A set of scarecrows in a field in Japan

A set of scarecrows in a field in Japan

spook, scare off

Spook is an old word meaning to scare or frighten someone.  In modern terms, a person can be spooked or scared off by any action that causes them to hesitate in doing a normal activity.

Example:  The economic crisis of 2008 scared off many Wall Street traders from investing in the stock market.

blog - supernatural - Skeleton_Jack-O-Lantern

Next time:  Election Metaphors

blog - personification - handshake

President Obama and the ISIS Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

blog - nature - river damcut off, stem the flow

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

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

blog - education - erasererase

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

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

blog - machines - counterweightcounterweight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog - personification - seizeposition/seize

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

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

dragged into

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

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


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

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

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

blog - personification - handshakehelping

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

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

at home

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

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

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

blog - personification - home

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

Next time:  More metaphors of the ISIS crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

blog - review - charteris black

Book Review: Politicians and Rhetoric by Jonathan Charteris-Black

To continue my short series of book reviews, I would like to share a few comments on an amazing book entitled Politicians and Rhetoric:  The Persuasive Power of Metaphor, 2nd Edition by Jonathan Charteris-Black (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).    Charteris-Black is a professor of linguistics at the University of the West of England in Bristol, England.

blog - review - charteris blackThe book consists of twelve chapters.  The first two chapters provide an excellent summary of the importance of understanding metaphors in the art of rhetoric, persuasion, and speech making used by all successful politicians.  The next nine chapters consist of incredibly insightful analyses of how certain political leaders have used metaphors in their speeches.  These politicians include four giants of British politics: Winston Churchill, Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair along with five American leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  The final chapter provides an analysis of the nexus of myth, metaphor and political leadership.

In each chapter, Charteris-Black analyzes the speeches of the politician with a specific theme that characterizes their particular rhetoric.  For example, he discusses Winston Churchill in terms of the heroic myth, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the messianic myth, Ronald Reagan and the romantic myth, Margaret Thatcher and the myth of Boudicca, George Bush and the rhetoric of moral accounting and Barack Obama and the myth of the American Dream.  Each person’s speeches are analyzed in the historical context and particular political environment.  He explains how we can understand the rhetoric of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher in terms of myths of heroes or past warriors.  Churchill had to rally British citizens to make sacrifices for the war effort and had to persuade the Americans to become their allies.  He was successful at doing this by using metaphors of journeys and heroes. Thatcher tapped into the myth of Boudicca, the 1st century Celtic queen who led an uprising against the Roman army.  Thatcher used metaphors of conflict as in the concept that political opponents are enemies to get the British to rally around her as Boudicca did centuries earlier. Charteris-Black also provides insightful analyses of the speeches of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all in the context of difficult political climates.

By far the most fascinating chapter for me was the section on Martin Luther King, Jr. Having analyzed his speeches myself, I was in awe of the depth of analysis that Charteris-Black presented in this book.  He analyzed his speeches in terms of the Messianic myth, journey metaphors, landscape metaphors and in the context of the segregation and non-violence of the 1960s.  This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. (BTW, my most popular blog posts are concerned with Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches.  All of the students reading this blog with assignments on MLK speeches would be well advised to buy this book!)

My only criticisms of the book consist of a few editorial oversights.  Although the author provides excellent appendices on his corpuses, a list of conceptual metaphors analyzed in the book, and a general index, cited authors are not included in any of the indices, a strange fact given the excellence of the scholarship throughout the book.  Also, there is an inconsistent use of italics in examples of metaphors.  In most cases, the conceptual metaphors being analyzed are italicized in quotations from the corpus while in other cases there are no italics. More substantively, in the chapter on Margaret Thatcher, Charteris-Black compares her to Boudica but never gives a background on the Celtic warrior, nor does he make explicit how Thatcher compared to Boudica.  Perhaps British readers are more familiar with both Thatcher and Boudica but Americans may have to do a bit of research to understand the relationship between the two as I had to do.

Finally, I also found it odd that Charteris-Black uses a theory of metaphor analysis called blending theory without citing any references for its origin.  I assume he is referring to the theories proposed by Fauconnier and Turner (2002) or the nice summary of the theory in Koveces (2004) but he does not mention either.  Despite this omission, he makes great use of blending theory and, while although a bit cumbersome to explain, promises to be a very useful way to explain metaphors.  No one quite understands how citizens understand political metaphors, using blended theory may be a way to fine tune our analyses of metaphor usage.

Overall, Politicians and Rhetoric is a great addition to our study of metaphors in politics.  Charteris-Black shows a masterful understanding of classical and modern rhetoric, metaphor analysis and current political machinations of skilled orators. It is essential reading for any student of English, linguistics, or political science.

Next time:  Obama and the ISIS Crisis

blog - weather - lightning

A Perfect Storm! Metaphors of Weather

Everyone pays attention to the weather.  It is important to know how hot or cold it will be, calm or stormy, rainy or dry every day before we leave the house so that the weather does not interfere with our jobs or time with family of friends.  This summer, the weather has been in the news a great deal as people across the country experience heat waves, droughts, rainstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes.  Our collective experiences with weather allow us to create conceptual metaphors about weather.  In politics, we can find metaphors about weather to describe how politicians survive adverse conditions in their political careers.


The term weather describes all the types of sun, wind, rain, snow, etc., that we experience on earth.  Metaphorically, the term weather can also be used as a verb indicating one’s ability to tolerate a bad situation.

Example:  George W. Bush had to weather many controversies during his presidency including the 9/11 attack, the first terrorist attack on American soil since the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.


The word climate describes the general weather conditions in a certain geographic area. We may also speak of the climate of a certain situation in terms of danger, difficulty or possible success.

Example:  After the 2008 economic crisis, many Americans faced a climate of high unemployment and high foreclosure rates on homes.

blog - weather - Rain_on_ocean_beachrain money

Rain is a very common weather phenomenon all around the world as water falls from the sky in millions of droplets.  The word rain is also a verb and can be used metaphorically to indicate something that occurs very fast and in great quantities.  When a government distributes a great deal of money to an organization, we may say that is it raining money.

Example:  Critics of U.S. defense spending in the billions of dollars claim that the government should stop raining money on defense contractors when we already have the biggest armies and navies in the world.

rain check

Often when it rains, outdoor activities must be cancelled.  In the early days of baseball, spectators could get a ticket to use another time if the game they had paid for was rained out.  This was called a rain check.  In common terms, any time we decide to do something at a later date, we may say that we are taking a rain check.

Example:  U.S. presidents are often invited to economic and political meetings with other world leaders in other countries.  In some cases, if the president is busy, he or she will have to take a rain check and meet with them some other time.

rain on the parade

A parade is a popular summer activity in many cities and towns for different holidays or special occasions.  However, it is difficult to conduct and enjoy a parade if there is heavy rain.  In a popular expression, a something that happens to disrupt or ruin another activity may be described as raining on the parade.

Example:  Although Hillary Clinton wanted to become the first female president in 2008, Barack Obama rained on her parade and won the Democratic nomination instead.

get wind of

Wind is also another common weather phenomenon.  Although the concept of wind can be used to describe a destructive force in a bad storm, the term wind can also be used metaphorically to indicate something that comes on its own to bring news.  In one expression, learning of new information can be described as getting wind of something. 

Example:  In the early 1970s, Americans slowly got wind of the trouble in the Nixon White House as reports came out about the Watergate scandal.

blog - weather - windfallwindfall

Sometimes in a storm, strong winds break off branches of trees and knock them to the ground.  These downed branches are called a windfall.  In metaphorical terms, a windfall is a great quantity of something that happens unexpectedly.

Example:  Politicians in Washington D.C. often argue about whether or not there should be a windfall profits tax on people and businesses.

swirling rumors

In most cases, wind causes the air currents to swirl around in many different directions.  In some situations, we may also talk about rumors or gossip swirling around a certain person or situation.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential election, there were many rumors swirling around that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would switch roles of Secretary of State and Vice President if Barack Obama was reelected.

cloudy skies

In contrast to the metaphor of sunny skies indicating a successful or positive situation, a situation described as having cloudy skies would be unsuccessful or in danger of failure.

Example:  There were cloudy skies over Wisconsin in 2012 as the voters there tried but failed to recall Governor Scott Walker.

blog - weather - Mammatus-storm-clouds_San-Antonioblack cloud hanging over

Rain and violent rainstorms often fall from dark or black clouds.  A black cloud hanging over an area usually indicates rain and bad weather is on the way.  Black clouds therefore indicate a bad or dangerous situation.

Example:  In 2011, presidential candidate Rick Perry claimed that the national debt was a black cloud hanging over America.

clouded judgment

One cannot see the sky clearly when there are many clouds.  Similarly, we say that when a person cannot think clearly or make good decisions, he or she is suffering from clouded judgment, usually because of bias towards one opinion or another.

Example:  Some critics of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for vice president in 2007 claim that his desire to be a maverick clouded his judgment of how to choose the best person for the job.

stormy weather

Rain, wind, or snow may come in the form of storms that can be dangerous or cause property damage.  Therefore, people are wary of stormy weather.  In politics, stormy weather indicates arguments or controversy in a specific situation.

Example:  There is always stormy weather in Congress when controversial bills come up for a vote.


The concept of a wind and rain or snow in a storm is used to describe when a person tries to come up with many ideas at the same time.  This is known as brainstorming.

Example:  In 2010, President Obama met with many corporate leaders in New York to brainstorm on how to get more people back to work.

blog - weather - Storm_over_Miami_Beachperfect storm

In the study of weather, the worst possible storm occurs when different weather patterns come together at the same time resulting in terrific wind speeds and precipitation.  These storms are called perfect storms.  In politics, a perfect storm occurs when different bad situations happen at the same time to produce a disaster.

Example:  Incumbent candidates sometimes lose elections when there is a perfect storm of economic, legislative and administrative problems working against them.

storm back

The concept of a storm is also used to describe the energy in a person in a great effort to do something.  The idea of storming back indicates a person aggressively returns to accomplish a goal left unfinished at a previous time.

Example:  After losing the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, Mitt Romney stormed back and won it in 2012.

storm out

When a person is angry and leaves a meeting with great annoyance, we might say that he or she stormed out of the meeting.

Example:  Reportedly President Obama stormed out of a meeting on debt ceiling negotiations in 2011 frustrated at the lack of progress that was being made to solve the problems.

blog - weather - lightninglightning round

Lightning is a discharge of energy from the clouds to the ground at super fast speeds.  The concept of lightning is used to describe anything that happens very fast.  In game shows, a series of questions that must be answered very quickly is called a lightning round.  In politics, a set of fast questions in a debate may also be called a lightning round.

Example:  Presidential candidates must have quick answers ready for all sorts of controversial issues if they come up in lightning rounds in debates.

distant thunder

Thunder creates loud noises that can be heard from miles away.  Normally when we hear thunder we know that a storm is on its way.  The concept of distant thunder metaphorically indicates that some sort of trouble is on its way.

Example:  The economic collapse of 2007 caught many people by surprise, even though some said they could hear the distant thunder for several years.

Next time: I Didn’t See That Coming!  Metaphors of Time

blog - height - rock bottom

Low, Short, Under and at the Bottom

To finish off my series on metaphors of height, here is a final set of examples derived from the concept of being at the bottom of a container, being under something, or being lower or shorter than something else.  In all cases, these metaphors carry a negative connotation in comparison to objects that are higher or taller than others. In politics, these “lower-class” metaphors are used to describe bad economic trends, disappointing political events or other negative aspects of governance.

blog - height - rock bottom


rock bottom

As with the concepts of top, we have metaphors of being at the bottom of something.  One way to describe being at the lowest point is to say we have hit rock bottom, as if we have sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Example:  President Obama’s popularity seemed to hit rock bottom when the Democrats lost so many elections during the 2010 midterm elections.


blog - height - low on the scalelow on the scale/lower down the scale

The word low describes the position of being towards the bottom of a place.  A scale is a tool for measuring the weight or height of something.  Metaphorically, being on the low end of a scale means that the person or thing has a lower value, such as lower income, or does not have much importance relative to other items measured on the same scale.


Example:  Tax cuts often help wealthy Americans, but they do not always help those people lower down the scale.

low profile

As explained earlier, a profile is a side view of a person. Contrary to a high profile, a low profile indicates lack of visibility or importance in a certain situation.

Example:  After stepping down as president in 2009, George W. Bush kept a low profile until he released his book Decision Points in late 2010.

low moment

A low moment is a time when someone or group of people is unsuccessful, defeated or emotionally depressed.

Example:  The low moment for George W. Bush’s presidency was when we were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.


blog - height - shortfall archeryshortfalls

In contrast to the positive connotations of someone being tall, someone or something that is short indicates a lack or deficiency in something.  A shortfall is a quantity of something that is lower than expected. This term originally derives from the sport of archery when an archer shoots an arrow but it falls to the ground short of the target.

Example:  After the economic collapse of 2008, many local governments experienced budget shortfalls and had to make serious budget cuts.

short selling

Short selling is a rather complex financial transaction.  In real estate, a homeowner may need to sell a house even though the price paid for the house is less than the amount that the homeowner owes to the bank.  If the bank buys the house back from the homeowner in this case, this is called short-selling because the value of the house has fallen short of the mortgage value.  With investments, a person may borrow a stock from an investment firm with the expectation that the value will go down but the person can make a profit if the stock price rises.   This is also called short selling by the brokerage firm.

Example:  Some economists claim that the short selling of mortgages and investments and Wall Street partially led to the collapse of the economy in 2008.


When a person applies for a job, the company puts his or her name on a list of the top people to be considered.  To be near the top of the list is sometimes called being shortlisted.

Example:  Whenever there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president makes a shortlist of possible judges to fill the seat, and then chooses one to be confirmed by the Senate.



As with the word low, the concept of under implies something negative or lacking in importance.  The people who work at the lower levels of a company or government are sometimes called the underlings.

Example:  In an election campaign, the candidate makes all the speeches, but the underlings do a lot of work behind the scenes organizing each event.

blog - height - undercoverundercover

In military and police departments around the world, most officers wear uniforms and are well known to the local people.  However, some officers work in secret and do not want their identities known so that they can catch criminals more easily.  These agents are called undercover officers.  More broadly, any person or action that is hidden from public view is considered undercover.

Example:  As Commander-in-Chief, a U.S. president must sometimes authorize undercover military operations to ensure national security.


Literally to undercut something means to make a low cut into an object such as a piece of wood so that the higher portion remains above the lower portion.  Metaphorically, undercutting refers to such things as offering lower prices than a competitor, or more abstractly, to reduce the effectiveness of another person’s actions or reputation.

Example:  High unemployment ratings undercut President Obama’s plan for economic recovery in 2009 and 2010.


The term underwrite is a word dating back to the 15th century describing signing one’s name to a legal insurance document promising to pay losses if any occur on the policy.  In modern terms, to underwrite something means to take on financial responsibility for a large project.

Example:  With the stimulus plan of 2009, President Obama decided to underwrite the recovery of many banks and large corporations that were close to bankruptcy.

Next time: A Perfect Storm!  Metaphors of Weather