Beefing Up Security: Metaphors from Down on the Farm

A recent headline from the CNN online news website read: “U.S. to beef up missile defense against North Korea, Iran” (By Chris Lawrence, CNN,  Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed concerns over U.S. security after a series of alarming missile launches by the North Koreans and the increasing possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.  The metaphorical expression to beef up is derived from the word beef referring to the meat of a cow.  The word beef is also a slang term for strength or brawn, derived from the strength and size of a cow or bull. To beef up, therefore, literally means to increase the size or strength of an animal or person.  Metaphorically it refers to the increase in size or strength of any organization or process.

We have many metaphorical expressions derived from our experience with farm animals, some dating back hundreds of years.  Here are a few more choice examples.

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

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


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

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

bull, bull sessions, bully and the bully pulpit

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

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

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

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


Workers on a farm or ranch who catch and control the animals are said to wrangle with them.  In politics, arguments and fights between politicians are sometimes called wrangling as well.

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


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

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


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

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




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

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


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

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

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Next time:  A Republican Autopsy and other Medical Metaphors