Rattling Sabers and other Metaphors of Swords, Knives and Spears

A few weeks ago, North Korean president Kim Jong-un was described as rattling sabers as he was threatening to attack South Korea.  More recently, the phrase has come up again as some conservatives in the U.S. Congress are calling for military action in Syria.   Pundits are also talking about putting boots on the ground, a topic covered in an earlier post.

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The metaphor of rattling sabers is an interesting one.  A saber is a type of sword with a rounded blade.  To rattle a saber metaphorically means to prepare for war, as if one is drawing out one’s sword for a fight.  Technically the metaphor of saber rattling is a type of synecdoche, i.e., when the part represents the whole, since the saber represents the fighting.

Here are some additional metaphors based on the use of spears and knives.

tip of the spear

A spear is one of the most basic weapons.  The tip of the spear is the most sharp and dangerous part.  Metaphorically the tip of the spear is the first part of a military invasion or a new process.

Example: Writing new tax laws is the easy part.  The tip of the spear is getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on the bill in Congress.


The tip of a spear may also be called the spearhead.  Metaphorically, someone who takes the first actions in a new process may be said to be spearheading the project.

Example: Barack Obama hired David Axelrod to spearhead his campaign for the 2008 election.


A lance is a type of lightweight spear.  In the middle ages, a knight who could be hired to fight in different battles was referred to as a free lance.  Later the term came to mean anyone who did work for hire.

Example: During an election, many freelance journalists try to get the top story on the candidates.

knife-wielding journalist

A knife is a dangerous weapon that can be used in fights.  An attacker who carries a knife may be called a knife-wielding attacker.  Metaphorically, a journalist who makes strong criticisms against a person or group may be called a knife-wielding journalist.

Example: Sarah Palin considered running for president in 2012 but changed her mind after a series of articles against her by knife-wielding journalists.

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take a stab

When a knife is used to break the flesh in a person, this is called a stabbing.  This action requires a quick forward movement of the knife to be successful.  This action is also called taking a stab at someone but it is not always successful if the stabber does not reach far enough to injure the person.  In common terms, a person trying something new when he or she is not sure if they will be successful may also be called taking a stab at something.

Example: Some people are persuaded to run for office even if they are not sure if they can win.  They may consider taking a stab at becoming elected for an important office.


To stab someone in the back is called a backstabbing.  However, metaphorically, someone can also stab a person in the back if he or she is revengeful and unfair in a verbal criticism.

Example: When some Democrats in Congress did not vote for President Obama’s bills, some people wondered why they were backstabbing him like that.


Brandish is an old word meaning to bring out one’s sword with a flourish as if ready for a fight.  In modern terms, one can brandish documents or signs that indicate one is about to start an argument.

Example: During the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, protestors brandished homemade signs complaining about the richest 1% of the country controlling the other 99%.

Next time:  The Red Line and other Machine Metaphors