Cabinets, Chairs and other Furniture Metaphors

As Barack Obama begins his second term, he is saying goodbye to many important cabinet members, especially Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Now he is in the process of hiring many new cabinet members. Did you ever wonder why we called these jobs cabinet positions? We are all familiar with the furniture commonly found in homes and offices.  Through human experience of using pieces of furniture we have developed many different types of metaphorical expressions.

blog - chair


Hundreds of years ago, professors and important figures in the church such as bishops sat in tall, well-decorated chairs as they gave their lectures.  Through these experiences, the chair became the symbol for the authority of the person using the chair.  In modern times, one can be the chair of an academic department, a board of directors, an important committee, or many other groups.  A man may be called a chairman; a woman may be called a chairwoman.  One can also use chairperson or simply chair as a neutral term.  One can also use chair as a verb meaning to lead the group.

Example:  Some senators are chairs of important committees such as the Foreign Relations Committee or the Homeland Security Committee.

on the table, off the table
Tables are essential pieces of furniture in any business or government office.  Important meetings and negotiations are held sitting around a table.  To say a topic is on the table is to indicate that it is an important issue being discussed or bargained by the parties involved.  When something is removed from discussion, we say that it is off the table. 

Example:  When the U.S. Secretary of State discusses giving aid with leaders of developing countries, many issues are on the table including health, hunger, safety and economic development.


A cabinet is a very useful piece of furniture in a kitchen or office in which to hold important items such as dishes, books, or files.  In the American government, many important positions surrounding the president are metaphorically called cabinet positions.  These people collectively are sometimes simply referred to as the cabinet.

Example:  Abraham Lincoln selected politicians from many different political parties to be in his cabinet.


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:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin was given a shellacking by many TV and radio commentators who thought she was not qualified to be vice-president.


A piece of furniture, light, plumbing device or electrical appliance that is permanently installed in a home or office is called a fixture.  Metaphorically a person, group, or topic regularly discussed in a certain context is also called a fixture.

Example:  When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2009, he became a fixture on the evening news for many years.


Next time:  The debt ceiling and other metaphors about houses.