Tag Archives: obama

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention

More on Metaphors of the Theater

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

The Baden Baden Theater in Germany

The Baden Baden Theater in Germany

political theater

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

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

The 2015 Miss America contestants

The 2015 Miss America contestants

beauty contest

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

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

blog - theater - Chicago_Theater marqueeup in lights

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

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

blog - theater - red_carpetred carpet

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

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

usher in

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

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


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

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

center stage

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

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

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

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

front and center

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

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

stage, staging

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

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

international stage, world stage

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

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

backstage maneuvering

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

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

behind the scenes

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

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

blog - theater - backdrop Scenic_Designagainst the backdrop

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

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

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention


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

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

raise the curtain

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

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

The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York

The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York

lower the curtain

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

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


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

Next time: Casting a Net for Terrorists

Mask of the Greek god Zeus

And the Oscar Goes to…

Metaphors of Theater and Drama

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

blog - theater - Kennedy_Nixon_debate

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


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

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

blog - theater - Ronald_Reagan_in_Dark_Victory_trailer

Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming our 40th president

play a role, a part to play

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

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

starring role

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

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

bit part

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

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

America’s role

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

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

U.S. Capitol at DuskWashington’s role

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

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

a key role

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

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

take a cue

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

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

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922


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

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



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

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

Mask of the Greek god Zeus

Mask of the Greek god Zeus


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

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

bow out

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

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


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

Next time: More Theater Metaphors

blog - wild - bear

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Metaphors of Wild Animals

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

lion, lionize

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

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

Male Lion on Rock


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

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

blog - wild - gorilla800-pound gorilla

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

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


blog -wild - tigertoothless tiger

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

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


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

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

blog - wild - bearbear market

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

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


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

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

blog - wild - rabbitswarrens, warren-like

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

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

release, let go

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

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

breakaway, break out

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

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

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

blog -wild - horse running

on the loose, running wild, run amok

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

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


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

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

blog - wild - Leopard_killprey upon, predatory

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

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

go for the jugular

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

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


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

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

gnaw at

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

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

blog - wild - squirrelsquirrel away

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

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

blog - wild - zebra stripesstripes

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

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

blog - wild - leopard spotsspots

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

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


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

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


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

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

blog - wild - viper fangs


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

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


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

Next time: Describing Presidential Candidates


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

blog - SOTU 15 - Shakespeare First_Folio_VA

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

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

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


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

blog - SOTU 15 - touch Hands_of_God_and_Adam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog - SOTU 15 - partners Lennon-McCartney

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog - SOTU 15 - Spielzug_Playbook

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon

A view of the majestic Mt. Hood in Oregon

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

People marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965

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


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

Next time: Another look at Animal Metaphors

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

MLK: “Give us the Ballot” Speech

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

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

blog - MLK ballot - MLK_and_Lyndon_Johnson_2

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


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

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

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

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

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

synecdoche: ballot, benches

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

blog - MLK ballot - voting_booth

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

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

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

metonymy/toponymy: Washington

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

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

personification: silent, bones, sing

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

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

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

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

taste: bitter, rancor, tang

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

A bitter ale

A bitter ale

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

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

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



medicine: high blood pressure, anemia, injections, veins

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

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


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

standing, rising

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

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

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

Example: “Stand up for justice.”

nature: hilltops and mountains

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

The San Gabriel Mountains of California

The San Gabriel Mountains of California

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

day and night

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

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

Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England

Daybreak on Bodmin Moor in England

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

light and dark

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

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

The Louisbourg Lighthouse in Nova Scotia, Canada

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

hot and cold

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

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

open and closed/containers

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

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

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

A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

A monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

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


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

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

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

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

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

A track runner at the University of Wisconsin

A track runner at the University of Wisconsin

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


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

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

Next Week: The State of the Union Address

blog - animals - goat

Metaphors of Farm Animals

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

Cows and Oxen

blog - animals - Cow_female_black_whitecow

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The famous bull sculpture on New York's Wall Street

The famous bull sculpture on New York’s Wall Street

bull market

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

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


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

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

beef and beef up

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

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


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

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

blog - animals - cattle branding vintagebrand

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

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


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

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

fence mending

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

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

blog - animals - earmarkearmark

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

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

dig in heels

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

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


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

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

blog - animals - yokeyoke

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

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


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

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

Sheep, Goats, and Pigs

A shepherd with his flock in Romania

A shepherd with his flock in Romania


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

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

tending the flock

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

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


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

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

stray far

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

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

blog - animals - goatscapegoat

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

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

hog tie

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

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


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

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

Next time:  Metaphors of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

blog - immigration - Pathway_at_Udayagiri_Park

More Metaphors on Immigration

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

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


Containers/Light and Dark

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

blog - immigration - Lobster_traptrap

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

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

come out

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcome out of the shadows

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

blog - immigration - ripped jeanstear apart

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


ripping children from their parents

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

Houses and Machines


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

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

blog - immigration - broken pistonbroken

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

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



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

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

Games and Rules

blog - immigration - play by the rulesplay by the rules

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

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

blog - immigration - straight lineright/straight

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

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

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

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


pathway to citizenship

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

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

blog - immigration - Pathway_at_Udayagiri_Park

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

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

Next time:  Metaphors of Physical Forces in Economics

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