Monthly Archives: January 2013

President Obama’s 2nd Inaugural Address – “Our journey is not complete.”

President Obama’s 2nd inaugural address this week was a brilliant example of using metaphors and rhetorical strategies to persuade his audience towards a viewpoint of working together to achieve common goals.  The dominant metaphor used in the speech was a journey metaphor.  However, there were also many other examples of metaphorical expressions including those from the concepts of family, metals and containers.

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President Obama began the speech using a literal theme of working together.  He used the rhetorical strategy of repeating a well-known phrase throughout the speech.  He used the famous phrase, “we the people” from the constitution to rhetorically unite the work of the government with the work of the common people. Here are two examples.

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”

He went on to repeat the phrase two more times in the speech. Moreover, he used the word together at the start of a new sentence three times in succession to reemphasize the idea of people being united together as one country with a common purpose.

He extended the idea of a national community by using a few metaphors of family.  He referred to gay and lesbian citizens as “our gay brothers and sisters” as if everyone in the United States belonged to one family.  In one other example of a family metaphor, he argued that we as a people inherit our country from those who have bravely fought for it, and that we must maintain peace in our times as an obligation to them.  The metaphorical expressions are in boldface type.

“… we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”

He used two other conceptual metaphors worth mentioning, the strength of metals and container metaphors.

Bravery and strength are often compared to the strength of metal in metaphorical expressions.  In talking about the strength of the American people, perhaps referring to our reaction to terrorist attacks and gun violence, he stated:

“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience.”

In referring to the armed forces, he compared the bravery of military personnel to a sword being hardened by high heat in the forging process.

“Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage.”

President Obama also used two container metaphors to show his optimism for the future of the United States.  We often conceptualize abstract ideas as being in boxes.  We may consider a situation as being boxed in, for example, or limited by some imaginary physical constraints.  In talking about America, however, he spoke of the country being limitless, endless and without boundaries as in the section below.

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands:  youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

The most significant metaphor used in the address – the one noted most frequently in the news this week – was the journey metaphor used throughout the speech.  This is not surprising.  In my analyses of previous inaugural addresses, the idea of a country being on a journey is a very common one.   For example, in his 1997 inaugural address, Bill Clinton said, “Yes, let us build our bridge. A bridge wide enough and strong enough for every American to cross over to a blessed land of new promise.”

President Obama spoke often of a journey and crossing a bridge.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.

In one powerful section, he combined the idea of a community of people with people walking together on a journey through history.  He mentioned three historic events in civil rights progress: 1) Seneca Falls, which was the site of a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York city in 1848; 2) Selma, which was the site of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965; and 3) Stonewall, which referred to the Stonewall Inn, the site of early gay rights protests in New York city in 1969.  The listing of these places also provided a nice example of alliteration as a rhetorical device.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

Note too that he uses three other journey metaphors in that section:  “the star that guides us still,” those “who left footprints along this great Mall,” and referring back to a line in Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by saying that “we cannot walk alone.”

President Obama concluded the speech with several powerful repetitions of the phrase, “our journey is not complete,” urging Americans to work together to solve the country’s problems.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.

Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.  Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

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In the final sentence of his speech, he switches from the idea of a road journey to a nautical journey metaphor, referring to the work of the government following a course as if on a ship.  Again, he is emphasizing that the government and the people need to work together.


“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”

Although some conservative pundits criticized the president’s address for being partisan, most television commentators and American people seemed to applaud President Obama and his speechwriters for his second inaugural address as a valiant attempt to inspire and unify the country.


Next time:  How many parts of government are named after pieces of furniture?





Balancing and Cutting Budgets

Metaphors based on physical forces are some of the most common metaphors used in English.  In politics, two common concepts are balancing or cutting the budget.


Two objects of equal weight are said to be in balance if weighed on a scale. Metaphorically, costs and situations that are of equal quantity or quality are also said to be in balance.

balanced budget

Example: The U.S. government is always striving to lower the national debt and balance the budget.

trade balances

Countries both import and export goods.  If a country imports more good than it exports it will end up losing money.  Thus countries try to make sure the number of imports is the same as the number of exports.  This is called a trade balance.

Example: It is difficult for the United States to maintain a trade balance with China since we import so many goods from there.

hang in the balance

In an odd phrase, we speak of the fate of some decision or process as hanging in the balance as if the two sides of a scale are tipping back and forth.

Example: In 2012, the legality of Barack Obama’s health care policy hung in the balance until it was approved by the Supreme Court.

tipping point

In another sense of balance, we speak of an object balancing on the edge of something.  The point at which the object falls in one direction or the other is called the tipping point.  Metaphorically, the tipping point is the time or event when a decision is made one way or another.

Example: Many Americans do not vote in presidential elections.  While they may be interested in government, often the tipping point of staying home is when they realize that the president or members of Congress are not doing their jobs.


The act of cutting involves a sharp object removing a piece of an object from a larger base, as in cutting a piece of paper with a scissors.  In common terms, we may also speak of cutting budgets, staff, or programs by reducing their size.

Example: The economic crisis of 2007 led to many budget cuts in state and local governments around the country.


Another word for cut is slash, but the latter term implies a more drastic or violent cutting action.

Example: Conservative politicians are always arguing that we should slash government spending to reduce the national debt.


Yet another word similar to cut is to gouge, but this term implies a digging motion in addition to the cutting action, as in gouging out a knot out of a piece of wood.  Metaphorically, any deep cut may be referred to as gouging.

Example: When gas prices rise, many American citizens claim that the oil companies are gouging consumers to make more profits for themselves.

 Next time:  President Obama’s 2nd Inaugural Address

Metonymy and Synecdoche: When the House Speaks and the Boots Walk


Metonymy (pronounced meh-TAHN-uh-me) and synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) are two specialized forms of figurative language. Metonymy occurs when a word for a feature of something is used to represent the entire concept.  For example, in the famous phrase the pen is mightier than the sword, the pen represents writing and the sword represents fighting.

White House

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The White House is the place where the U.S. president lives.  The name of this residence is used to represent the statements, policies, programs and government of the United States. When a proper name is used as a metonym, technically this is called a toponym.  Metonymy thus includes both common nouns and toponyms.

Example:  On May 2, 2011, the White House issued a statement that Osama bin Laden had been killed.


The U.S. government headquarters is located in Washington D.C.  The name Washington can be used as a toponym to represent the entire U.S. government.

Example:  Washington is always working on new trade agreements with China.

Wall Street

The largest investment banks in the United States are located on a street in New York City named Wall Street.  For many decades, the name of Wall Street represents all of the investment banks in the United States.

Example:  Many economists blame the 2008 financial problems directly on Wall Street.

Main Street 

Most small towns in America have a principal road in their downtown area known as Main Street.  Symbolically, Main Street represents all aspects of small town life.

Example:  Middle class Americans are sometimes frustrated with federal policies that favor Wall Street instead of Main Street.



boots on the ground/boot camp

As mentioned, synecdoche is a special form of figurative language.  Synecdoche has many complex patterns of usage, but our purposes here, we can say that it occurs when a part of something represents a whole.  For example, in the sailing phrase all hands on deck, the hands represent the sailors who will be doing the work.

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In a common expression of the quantity of military troops, we say that we have boots on the ground.  The boots refer to the soldiers wearing the boots.  Similarly, the training grounds for new soldiers is sometimes called boot camp for the same reason.

Example:  In 2007, President Bush requested more boots on the ground to help win the War in Iraq.  This troop surge eventually did lead to the end of the war.

the bench

In the Middle Ages, judges sat on a wooden bench.  The bench itself has come to represent an entire court or legal system.  Supreme Court Justices are said to sit on or read their verdicts from the bench.

Example:  In 2010, Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the bench of the Supreme Court.


A lobby is the main entryway in a large building.  In the early days of American government, people wishing to gain favor from politicians waited in the lobbies of governmental buildings to visit the legislators.  Later the term lobbyist referred to these people hoping from special favors from the government.

Example:  Health care advocates claim that tobacco company lobbyists kept the dangers of smoking from public view for many decades.


Next time:  Balancing the budget and other metaphors derived from physical forces

A Few Football Metaphors

Since we are in the middle of the numerous college football bowl games and NFL playoffs, I thought I would share a few political metaphors derived from one of America’s most popular sports.


Some sports such as football and basketball require the players to execute many different kinds of offensive and defensive plays to win games.  The collection of all of these plays and strategies is called the playbook.  In politics, campaign managers or government officials may also be described as having a playbook to win elections or complete complex programs.

Example: These days, with negative attack ads and huge corporate donations, presidential candidates need a very complex playbook to win elections.

star quarterback

A good football team needs a star quarterback to win games.  In politics, a presidential candidate may be referred to as a star quarterback to win the election.

Example:  In 2012, the Republican Party selected Mitt Romney as their star quarterback to beat Barack Obama in the presidential election.

kick off

A football games always begins with one team kicking the ball down the field to the other team.  This action is called the kick off.  In common terms, the beginning of any event or process may be called a kick off.  This phrase may also be used as a verb to indicate the start of something new.

Example:  In Europe, national elections allow only a few months of campaigning.  In the United States, presidential campaigns kick off more than a year before the election.

double team

In football and basketball, sometimes star players require two people to defend them to prevent them from scoring points.  This is known as double teaming the player.  In politics, when a two people criticize a fellow politician, this may also be referred to as double teaming.

Example: During the 2012, presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden double teamed Mitt Romney in response to some of his attack ads against President Obama.

Next time:  How does the White House speak? Whose boots are on the ground?

Hardball and Up

blog - Baseball-ballNews broadcasts are normally given literal names such as “CBS Evening News” or “NBC Nightly News.” Some news commentary shows are simply named after the host as in “Hannity,” “The Rachel Maddow Show,” or the “O’Reilly Factor.”  Others have titles reflecting current news such as “Happening Now,” or “Your World.” In a few cases, however, the titles are metaphors designed to catch the viewers’ eyes and ears.


Hardball is the type of baseball played by professional teams, as opposed to softball played by younger players learning the game.  Playing hardball indicates that a person is talented, experienced and willing to take risks in a dangerous game.  In politics, playing hardball indicates that a politician is very serious and works at the highest levels of government.

Example: A popular television news show called Hardball is hosted by the liberal commentator Chris Matthews.

In contrast to hardball journalism, we can also have softball questions in politics. These are easy questions asked by a journalist to allow the politician to provide an easy answer and look good on TV.

Up with Chris Hayes

Another news commentary show on MSNBC is called Up with Chris Hayes.  I cannot presume to know why he chose this name, but the preposition up has many interesting semantic properties.  Given the fact that the show airs very early in the morning, the viewers must literally be up early to watch it.  However, there is also a metaphoric sense of people being up on the news, as in the phrase, “what’s up?” I am sure that the creators of the show enjoy this double meaning of the viewers being up early and up on the latest news. I have heard that the twitter hashtag for fans of the show is #uppers, originally created as a joke, referring to the stimulant drugs by that name, now referring to the people who get up early to watch the show.

Next time:  With all the college football bowl games on TV this week, can you think of any football metaphors?