Tag Archives: war

Launching Campaigns before Running

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

blog - ACA - rocket

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

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


Horse Racing

blog - horse - out of the gateout of the gate

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

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

run for office

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

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

running mate

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

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

blog - horse - front runnerfront runner

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

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

fast track

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

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

inside track

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

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

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

outside chance

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

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

blog - horse - photo finishneck and neck

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

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

home stretch

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

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


blog - war - revolutionprimary battles

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

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

battle cry

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

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

battleground states

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

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

battle lines are drawn

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

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

MAP - war - arms trainingcombat

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

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


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

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


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

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

Starting Vehicles


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

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

kick into gear, put in high gear

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

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

shift gears

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

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

blog - vehicles - Shift_stickstuck in neutral

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

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


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

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


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

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

blog - vehicles - Disk_brakeput the brakes on

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

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


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

Next time: Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Video

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

President Obama and the ISIS Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

blog - nature - river damcut off, stem the flow

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

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

blog - education - erasererase

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

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

blog - machines - counterweightcounterweight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog - personification - seizeposition/seize

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

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

dragged into

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

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


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

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

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

blog - personification - handshakehelping

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

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

at home

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

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

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

blog - personification - home

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

Next time:  More metaphors of the ISIS crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial Day War Metaphors

I have never served in the military (although I was in the Peace Corps many years ago).  However, my grandfather was a pilot in World War I (!) and my oldest brother was in the Navy during the Vietnam War.  I have the utmost respect for those military personnel and their families who have sacrificed so much for their country.

I have covered war metaphors extensively in previous posts. However, on this Memorial Day, I would like to add a few more examples of metaphors based on experiences of military personnel after the end of a war.

After the War

win its share of battles

Presidential elections are often referred to as battles, but candidates must earn the greatest number of votes in each state.  Each candidate must win the most popular and electoral votes to win the election.   Thus, after an election, commentators may claim that one party or the other won its share of battles in an election.

Example:  In 2008, John McCain won his share of battles, but he was not able to win the presidential election.

The First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War, July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War                                      July 21, 1861

take-no-prisoners style

During a war, enemy soldiers may be captured and held as prisoners of war.  However, in some extreme battles, all soldiers are killed and no prisoners are taken.  This is referred to as a take-no-prisoners style of war.  Metaphorically, a politician who makes no concessions and fights for what he or she wants may also be described as having a take-no-prisoner style of governing.

Example:  Some Republican Congresspersons have a take-no-prisoner style of writing policies for immigration reform.

badge of honor, badge of shame

After a war, military personnel who have been very heroic may be given medals or badges for their bravery.  These may be referred to as badges of honor.  Metaphorically, someone who does something good for his or her community may earn a badge of honor.  Someone who does something embarrassing may be labeled with a badge of shame.

Example:  Although critics of Barack Obama claim his policies in support of the middle class are bad for the country.  However, he stated that he wears the title of culture warrior as a badge of honor.

The U.S. Medal of Honor
The U.S. Army Medal of Honor

war stories

People who have fought in a war will have many scary stories of their experiences.  These are simply called war stories.  People involved in politics may also have stories of their experiences in elections or government service.  These stories may also be referred to as war stories.

Example:  John McCain has many war stories from his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and as a U.S. Congressman for several decades.

Next time:  TBA


President Johnson’s War on Poverty

President Johnson’s War on Poverty

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty, first proposed in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. The civil rights movements of the 1960s highlighted the appalling degree of poverty that many Americans were living in at the time.  President Johnson named his efforts solve this problem his War on Poverty.  Although some modern critics claim that this program was a failure (see Republican Representative Paul Ryan’s recent comments at http://www.politico.com/story/2014/01/paul-ryan-war-on-poverty-failed-102001.html) others note how much the program has reduced poverty for millions of Americans, especially children and the elderly (see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/opinion/kristof-progress-in-the-war-on-poverty.html?_r=0).

Two months after his State of the Union address, President Johnson delivered a special message to Congress offering more details of his plan on March 16, 1964.  Out of curiosity I read through this speech to see what political metaphors he used in addition to the obvious war metaphors.  I was not surprised to find that he used a great deal of political metaphors in the speech, but I was intrigued that he used a complex array of four different conceptual metaphors to explain his program.  Using the format of Lakoff and Johnson, I can summarize these metaphors as follows: 1) POVERTY IS A PART OF NATURE; 2) POVERTY IS A PRISON; 3) LEAVING POVERTY IS A JOURNEY; and 4) POVERTY IS A ENEMY OF WAR.  I will categorize several metaphors below using excerpts from President Johnson’s speech as examples.  Italics are mine.  You can read the entire speech at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1964johnson-warpoverty.html.



We often compare people or processes to parts of nature.  The word source is commonly used to indicate the origin of some process or phenomenon.  Its origins, however, lie in a French word meaning to be the source of natural spring water.  Thus, talking about the source of poverty is using a metaphor of nature.

Example:  … through a new Community Action program we intend to strike at poverty at its source – in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside among the very young and the impoverished old.

blog - nature - rootsdeeply rooted

When we compare something to a tree, we are speaking of its strength, age or durability, e.g., saying someone is “as strong as an oak.”   A tree has roots that go deep underground to give it stability and strength in strong winds or high waters.  Saying that a problem is deeply rooted indicates that it has been around for many years and will be very difficult to solve.

Example:  We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many.


Johnson compares being in poverty to being in a jail or prison.  People who are very poor often do not have the means to get a better job (or any job) due to a lack of resources, medical disabilities or financial difficulties.


If one is being forced to live in confined quarters, sometimes the only means of getting out of that situation is by escaping.

Example:  [The war on poverty] will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.

break out of

Another way of describing an escape is to say that a person is breaking out of prison.

Example:  … we intend to create new opportunities for certain hard-hit groups to break out of the pattern of poverty.

blog - journey - open dooropen door

In some situations, merely getting help opening a door can provide the escape that is needed.  Sometimes a tool such as a lever is needed to pry open the door.

Example:  It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside.

carry out their plans

Although some people may not consider this to be a metaphor, the phrase carry out takes a physical process and turns it into a metaphorical action.  For example, a person can literally carry out a box from an office, or carry out plans to achieve a goal.

Example:  It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty-and help them to carry out their plans.


show the way

Once a person begins a journey, sometimes a local expert may need to show that person the best road or direction to travel.

Example:  But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens.


Distances on long roads or highways are sometimes indicated by stone markers along the side of the road. The markers that indicate the distance of one mile are called milestones.  In metaphorical terms, a milestone is the observance of a significant amount of progress made in a long process.

Example:  It can be a milestone in our one-hundred eighty-year search for a better life for our people.

blog - journey - barrierbarriers

            In some cases, roads are blocked by barriers because of construction or dangerous road conditions.  Metaphorically, any impediment to making progress towards a certain goal may be described as a barrier.

Example:  [The war on poverty] will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.

charts a new course

When the captain of a ship begins a long journey, he or she must chart the course towards their destination. Metaphorically, starting a new program or process may also be described as charting a new course.  Additionally, the idea of having a new course indicates that the approach being taken is different from previous approaches.

Example:  The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done.  It charts a new course.


Finally, and most importantly, Johnson compares the entire approach to eliminate poverty in the United States to a war against a strong enemy.  I have written about war metaphors in previous posts, although I am not sure of the exact origin of these types of metaphors.  In 1964, President Johnson would have been speaking only a generation after World War II, and in the middle of the Vietnam War.  Perhaps war metaphors would not be unexpected in that time of history.  His approach to solving the problem of poverty is to relate it to a war.  He repeats the phrase war on poverty six times during the speech.

war on poverty

Example:  Therefore this bill creates, in the Executive Office of the President, a new Office of Economic Opportunity. Its Director will be my personal Chief of Staff for the War against poverty. I intend to appoint Sargent Shriver to this post. . . .



Opponents in a war are commonly called enemies.  Any social problem in a metaphorical war may be referred to as an enemy.

Example:  What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy.


When a government goes to war, it needs soldiers to fight it.  Its leaders can then recruit people or enlist volunteers to become soldiers or other military personnel.

Example:  … I ask for the authority to recruit and train skilled volunteers for the war against poverty.

enlist volunteers

Example:  It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.

Example:  A new national job Corps will build toward an enlistment of 100,000 young men. They will be drawn from those whose background, health and education make them least fit for useful work. . .

test our weapons

Countries that go to war are often developing new guns, tanks, bombs and other weapons to give them an advantage in a war.  However, new technology must be tested in the filed to make sure that it works properly.  This process may be called testing the weapons.  Metaphorically, trying out new approaches to solving old problems may be called testing weapons as well.

Example:  It will also give us the chance to test our weapons, to try our energy and ideas and imagination for the many battles yet to come.


A quick and strong military action against an enemy may be called a strike.  A forceful government action against a social or economic problem may also be referred to as a strike.

Example:  It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.

Up you goattack

A strong military maneuver in a war is known as an attack.  In politics, the term attack is commonly used metaphorically to indicate any strong verbal message or executive decision.

Example:  It will give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment, under my direction, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a national headquarters for the war against poverty.


A dominant military force may completely conquer another nation, as the Spanish conquistadors did to many Central and South American cultures in the 16th century.  In Johnson’s speech he refers to winning the war against poverty as being a process of conquering it.

Example:  Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

driven from the land

In some cases, a losing army or an invading force may be pushed off of a section of land as a result of a large battle.  This may be described as an army being driven from the land.  Metaphorically, solving a large social problem may also be described as it being driven from the land.

Example:  It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. Were this so we would have conquered poverty long ago.


            Winning a war requires winning many battles.  The idea of a military battle is often used metaphorically to indicate any struggle to solve a difficult problem.

Example:  It will also give us the chance to test our weapons, to try our energy and ideas and imagination for the many battles yet to come.

The Battle of New Orleans - Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)
The Battle of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)


Ultimately, defeating enemies in a war must result in a victory.   Metaphorically, any social problem that can be solved by government action may be described as a victory.

Example:  It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.


In sum, I believe that President Johnson’s powerful use of the metaphors of nature, prison, journeys and war helped persuade Congress to enact his War on Poverty.  Sadly, many American today still live in poverty.  Perhaps more powerful speeches are needed to get our current Congress to act?

Next time:  Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

Metaphors of Fire!

The notions of lighting, burning and extinguishing fires are often used metaphorically in business, politics and everyday life.  In these cold days of December, I thought it would be appropriate to describe some metaphors that might warm up my readers.  Enjoy!

light a fire under someone

When one is cold, lighting a fire brings warmth and comfort. Metaphorically, when one is inactive, lighting a fire under someone means they are to become more active or quick in whatever they are doing.

Example: The nomination of Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 lit a fire under Democratic supporters who carried him to victory in the November election.


Another way of saying light a fire is to ignite it.  In popular terms, one can also ignite a problem or a controversy.

Example:  In the early 1970s, the problems for President Nixon were ignited by the break in by his aides at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.


blog - fire - ignitespark

Fires are often started by a single spark from a match or a nearby fire.  Metaphorically, something which stimulates a person or activity to increase speed is called a spark.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate was the spark that ignited the Republican Party to try to win the election.


The word incense comes from Latin meaning to start on fire.  In popular terms, to be incensed means to be very angry.

Example:  During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was incensed when the generals in the army did not win battles and the war dragged on and on.


As with the word incense, the word fume is old word for fire.  To fume at someone or something means to be very angry.

Example:  Supporters of Sarah Palin fumed when comedians made fun of her on national television.


A fire burns with bright flames.  In modern slang, to flame someone means to insult them or say bad things about them, usually on the Internet or on television.

Example:  Radio announcers with a Democratic or Republican agenda sometimes flame the members of the opposite political party on their radio shows.

fan the flames

When a fire is dying, one may need to use a fan or piece of paper to get the fire to burn brightly again.  This process is called fanning the flames.  In popular terms, to fan the flames means to make some argument even more controversial.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks in New York City, any rumor about Osama bin Laden fanned the flames of worries about another terrorist attack.

blaze a trail

Another word for burn is blaze.  To blaze a trail means to do something no one else had ever done, providing more opportunities for people to follow.

Example:  When Barack Obama became the first African-American president in the history of the United States, many Americans agreed he was blazing a trail for other African-Americans to become involved in politics.

blog - fire - fire

flare up

When a fire is burning low, it may burn brighter suddenly if it gets more fuel or oxygen.  This is called flaring up.  In popular terms, a controversy or military action may flare up if it suddenly becomes worse or more intense.

Example:  The war in Afghanistan flared up many times during the 1990s which led to more and more American involvement in the area.

fire up

Similar to flare up, to fire up something means to increase its intensity as when a flame increases its heat.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin fired up the Republican base with her electrifying speeches.

fiery speech

A good speaker can make a speech with a great deal of passion and energy.  In popular terms, this kind of oration is called a fiery speech.

Example:  During World War II, General George Patton was famous was giving fiery speeches to his troops to get them to defeat the Nazi armies.


As we all know, it is very painful to be burned by a flame or fire. In popular terms, to be burned means to be hurt politically by a particular event or controversy.  Additionally there is a saying that “if you play with fire, you can get your fingers burned.”

Example:  In 2013, Barack Obama was burned by the failed rollout of his Affordable Care Act.

burn out

When a fire dies, it is said to burn out.  When a person works too hard at his or her job, he or she can also be said to burn out.

Example:  Presidential candidates must endure a grueling schedule of endless campaign rallies and fundraiser.  It is amazing that they do not get burned out and become exhausted.

flame out

The phrase flame out derives from the event of a jet engine ceasing to work and the flames stopped coming out of the exhaust.  In popular terms, a person can flame out when he or she tries very hard to achieve something but then fails under public view.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was suspected of flaming out if he did not win the November election.

blog - fire - burn outextinguish

When one voluntarily tries to put out a fire, this is called extinguishing the flames.  Metaphorically, one can also extinguish problems in society or emotions in people such as passion or hope.

Example:  When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, it extinguished the hopes of many American women of having the first female president.

Next time:  Food and Drink for the Holidays!

More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 2.

More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 2.

Today, as Congress is in the process of ending the government shutdown, I continue Part 2 of my analysis of political metaphors about the shutdown from a recent Time magazine article –  Scherer, Michael and Altman, Alex, “Loss Leaders: The Fever Never Broke.  Cooler Heads Have Not Prevailed.  And the Next Self-Inflicted Crisis May be Worse than the Last.”  Time, October 14, 2013, pp. 20-26.  In this post, I will analyze a few metaphors from the categories of journeys and war.


            Many political processes are compared to people going on a journey.

pave the way

Modern roads are paved with asphalt to make them smooth.  New roads must be paved before people can travel on them.  Metaphorically, one needs to pave the way to start a new project.

Example: “Heritage Action and the others paved the way for the ambitious junior Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, a slick and silver-tongued rookie who appears to have noticed that Obama once had those same credentials” (p. 24). 


While on a journey along a road or highway, roadblocks can literally block the continuous progress on a journey or metaphorically block the progress of a program.

Example:  “In late July, Heritage began promoting a plan backed by Cruz to turn the approaching budget crisis into a roadblock for Obamacare” (p. 24).



Some obstacles in the road are very small and can simply be avoided by walking around them.  We can call this action sidestepping the obstacle.  In common terms, we also say that one can sidestep a problem or an issue by not dealing with it directly.

Example: “Speaker Boehner and his top lieutenant, Eric Cantor of Virginia, preferred to sidestep a shutdown, fearful that it would boomerang on the GOP” (p. 25).

Michigan 106 Mile markermarker on the road

Countries around the world routinely put markers on the sides of roads and highways indicating miles, exits or important points of interest nearby.  People use these markers to measure the distance travelled on their journeys.  Metaphorically, road markers indicate the amount of progress being made towards a collective goal.

Example:  “The sad news is that the shutdown may be just another marker on the road from bad to worse, where the power of minority rule, refined by the politics of safe seats, paralyzes the body politic indefinitely” (p. 25).


            In my research, I discovered that metaphors derived from actions of war are the most common of all political metaphors.  This fact is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of politics in the United States.  As with the term game, the metaphorical term war is used to describe politics as if it is a literal term.  In the following excerpt from the article, Scherer and Altman use a series of war metaphors.  In one case, the term skirmish originally meant a fight with a sword.  In modern language it describes any type of physical or verbal fight.  Also, when a gun or cannon is fired, gunpowder explodes and blasts the bullet or shell from the barrel.  Metaphorically, a blast is any type of sudden or powerful burst of information.

daily messaging war / skirmish of email blasts

Example:  “…each faction busies itself with the daily messaging war, an unending skirmish of e-mail blasts, tweets, viral videos and cable-news sound bites, making the eternal case that someone else is to blame” (p. 26).

top lieutenant

The hierarchies of political organizations are often compared to military ranks.  To repeat an earlier example…

Example:  “Speaker Boehner and his top lieutenant, Eric Cantor of Virginia, preferred to sidestep a shutdown, fearful that it would boomerang on the GOP” (p. 25).

First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492, 1862 : Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín.
First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492, 1862 : Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín.

stake their flag

In the early days of global exploration, European explorers would claim lands for their home countries by putting or staking their flag on the beach of the “new” country (of course ignoring the native peoples who already lived there). Thus staking a flag meant claiming ownership of that land for the home country.  Metaphorically, staking a flag indicated claiming ownership or commitment to a particular policy.

Example:  Speaking of some conservative Republican groups, “Sidling further and further toward the far flank, they eventually stake their flag on zealotry” (p. 23).

blow up Senate rules

Explosive devices were originally invented as weapons of war.  Bombs and cannon balls were used to blow up enemy infrastructure.  Metaphorically, to change something completely may be described as blowing it up. Repeating an earlier example…

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

self-inflicted wound/ shoot the party in the foot

In some cases, soldiers may shoot themselves in order for them to be removed from the battlefield.  As in the subtitle of the Time article, the authors describe the shutdown as a Republican “self-inflicted crisis.”  Also, to shoot oneself in the foot metaphorically means to deliberately harm oneself or create obstacles to one’s own progress.

Example:  “…Boehner allowed the hardcores to shoot the party in the foot rather than provoking them into setting it on fire” (p. 25).

blog - war - triggerpull the nuclear trigger/ a civil war within the party

Shooting a gun requires a person to pull the trigger.  Metaphorically, pulling a trigger means to begin a new process or set an action in motion.  In nuclear weapon, the device that ignites the bomb is known as the nuclear trigger.  Also, a civil war literally means a war between two factions within one country.  In politics, we can also see a metaphorical civil war between two factions of one political party.

Example:  Quoting Republican Congressman Peter King speaking of John Boehner, “’When does he decide to basically pull the nuclear trigger and start a civil war within the Republican Party?’” (p. 25).

the next battle

Political arguments are often compared to battles.

Example:  “Even as the shutdown begins to take its toll, the next battle is looming. On October 17th, Congress must pass a bill to lift the federal debt limit or risk economic calamity” (p. 23).

Battle of Chattanooga--Gen. Thomas' charge near Orchard Knob, Nov. 24, 1863, Kurz & Allison, 1888.
Battle of Chattanooga–Gen. Thomas’ charge near Orchard Knob, Nov. 24, 1863, Kurz & Allison, 1888.

destructive combat

The fighting in a war is known as combat.  Political arguments are also commonly referred to as combat.

Example:  “Voters will have to wait another year to decide at the voting booth who wins this unseemly and destructive combat” (p. 26).


President Obama’s Speech on Syria

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

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

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

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

blog - war - Safety_Pin

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

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

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

MAP - campaign Obama

A country is also described as being a strong person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blog - war - posture

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





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

blog - war - British_Policeman

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


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


Next time:  Back to School – Metaphors of Education

Mired in gridlock – Metaphors of swamps

We often hear that politicians are mired in gridlock in Washington.  We probably don’t give this phrase another thought, but it is actually a strange metaphor, comparing the lack of progress in negotiations to the slowness of moving through mud or swampland.  As I have noted many times in this blog, it is common for English speakers to create metaphors based on personal experience.  Although we may not have all had the frustration of walking through a swamp, we can easily understand the difficulty of walking through mud after a hard rain.  Here a few political metaphors based on swamps.

blog - mired - swamp


Many areas of the earth are covered in a mixture of water and soil in areas known as swamps, bogs, marshes or wetlands.  Some of these terms are used metaphorically to indicate the difficulty in getting out of complicated situations.  In one case, we say we are swamped with work if we cannot keep up with all the tasks that we are required to do at a certain time.

Example:  In July 2011, President Obama asked Americans to call their members of Congress if they wanted to make a suggestion on how to reduce the national deficit.  As a result, the phones of many Senators and Congresspersons were swamped with calls for several days.

bogged down

A bog is a type of marsh, a large area covered in water that is difficult to cross.  In a similar sense, a person who cannot make good progress in a situation may be described as being bogged down. 

Example:  Much to the dismay of American voters, progress in Congress is often bogged down by disagreements between Democrats and Republicans.


A mire is another word for bog or swamp.  Metaphorically, a person who is mired in something cannot make progress in a certain situation.

Example:  American politics is commonly mired in ideological differences between liberals and conservatives.


A quagmire is another old world meaning a bog or marsh.  In common terms, a quagmire is any difficult situation that is almost impossible to get out of.

Soldiers from 25th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, recover a tractor trailer from a mire pit during the Vehicle Recovery Course Sept. 28, 2011, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The training is designed to challenge unit mechanics and prepare them for rainy season conditions in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of 125th Stryker Brigade Combat Team) - http://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/6254338960/
Soldiers from 25th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, recover a tractor trailer from a mire pit during the Vehicle Recovery Course Sept. 28, 2011, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The training is designed to challenge unit mechanics and prepare them for rainy season conditions in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of 125th Stryker Brigade Combat Team) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/6254338960/

Example:  After the difficulties during the War in Vietnam, many Americans felt in 2003 that the War in Iraq would be another quagmire that would cost millions of dollars and many lives.


Quicksand is an especially dangerous mixture of water and sand that traps a person.  The more one moves to get out, the more trapped one becomes.  People die every year from being trapped in quicksand.  Metaphorically, quicksand refers to any situation that looks safe but is actually a trap or a dangerous situation that one cannot escape from easily.

Example:  During the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that sprang up in 2011, most Americans were against any military involvement in those areas claiming it would be quicksand for our troops.


Next time:  Metaphors from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

Defensive Tactics in War and Politics

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

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

under attack

When two armies are fighting in a battle, the army on the offensive will be shooting guns or missiles at the other army.  The second army is said to be under attack. In politics, candidates running for office or elected officials may be described as being under attack if they are constantly criticized for their views or behavior.

Example:  George W. Bush was constantly under attack from Democrats while he was in office.  Later, his Democratic successor, Barack Obama, was always under attack from Republicans.

outflanked by

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

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


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

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


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

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

give ground

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

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

defend his turf

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

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

front lines 

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

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

in the trenches

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

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

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

new line of defense

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

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

fight a losing battle

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

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

return fire

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

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

ward off

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

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

rally the troops

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

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

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