In the Crosshairs – Hunting Metaphors

On September 11, 2012, the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked by unknown terrorists.  Tragically, four Americans, including the U.S.  Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.  Congress has been investigating these attacks for many months. During the recent Congressional hearings on the attacks, some news reports have said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the crosshairs, meaning she was the subject of the investigations as to why the embassy was not properly protected.  Although most of us would not give a second thought to hearing someone being in the crosshairs, it is a rather disturbing metaphor.   The phrase is derived from the practice of a hunter seeing his animal target in a scope before shooting it.  The practice is also used by soldiers shooting people as well, an even more disturbing metaphorical use.  Hunting, however, is a tradition of killing animals for food going back millions of years, so it is not surprising that we have metaphors based on its techniques.  Here are more details on the crosshairs phrase and a few more political metaphors based on our long experience with crosshairs

in the crosshairs

Some hunters use a scope, a type of telescope attached to a rifle, to shoot an animal accurately at great distances.  Scopes usually have two lines, one vertical and one horizontal, which cross in the center of the lens to provide an accurate view of the target.  These lines are commonly called crosshairs.  In common terms, having someone in the crosshairs means that the person is being attacked by someone else through verbal or political methods.

Example: After the economic collapse in 2008, many Wall Street investment firms were in the crosshairs of people who believed these firms were partially to blame for the recession.

hunting for votes

The sport of hunting involves two steps: one is looking thoroughly for an animal in a wilderness area; the second step is killing that animal.  The sense of thoroughly looking for something is present in the metaphor of candidates hunting for votes prior to an election.

Example: In the final days before a presidential election, candidates will travel far and wide hunting for more votes from undecided voters.

hunt down

The process of looking for an animal and eventually killing it is sometimes called hunting down an animal.   In a literal sense, we may say that the U.S. government is always hunting down terrorists.  In a metaphorical sense, we can say we are hunting down anything that is difficult to find.

Example:  Some critics of loose immigration policies believe the government should hunt down and deport all the illegal aliens in the United States.

Cave painting of a woolly rhinoceros - Chauvet Cave, France, 30,000 BC
Cave painting of a woolly rhinoceros – Chauvet Cave, France, 30,000 BC


In the process of searching for an animal, some hunters look for the footprints or tracks of the animal as it travels throughout the area.  This is called tracking the animal.  In common terms, any abstract information can be tracked.

Example: Conservatives usually track the amount of money spent on social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

on track/back on track

If a hunter is able to follow an animal’s tracks for a considerable distance, we say that he is on the track of the animal.  In common terms, any effort that is consistent and productive to reach a certain goal may be described as being on track.  If a hunter loses the tracks for a short while and then finds them again, or if a person is not productive and then is able to focus on the project again, we may say that the person is back on track.

Example: In a bad economy, unemployed people may feel that their lives are on hold. When they get a new job after being unemployed for many years, they are back on track to having a productive life.

Deer tracks in snow
Deer tracks in snow

wrong track

If a hunter accidentally follows the tracks of a different animal than the one he or she is hunting, we may say that he or she is on the wrong track.  Metaphorically, if a person is following a course of action that is not appropriate for achieving the desired goal, we may say that he or she is also on the wrong track.

Example:  During a presidential election, a common polling question is asking if the country is on the wrong track because of the policies of the current administration.


A snipe is a type of bird that lives in wet, marshy areas.  It is difficult for a hunter to shoot. The hunter must hide and shoot from a secluded location.  The term sniping developed out of this hunting practice.  In common terms, sniping refers to the practice of criticizing people or groups from a distance.

Example: Many Americans dislike the sniping that goes on in presidential campaigns when the candidates create many attack ads against each other.


Originally a potshot meant a hunter’s attempt to kill an animal for food, or to put food into a pot for dinner. Later it came to mean any shot that was wild and uncontrolled.  Metaphorically, a potshot is a wild, sometimes unwarranted criticism towards a person or group.

Example: During intense political campaigns, some candidates take potshots at their opponents to gain political favor from the voting public.


Next time:  Sailing Metaphors:  In the Wake of the Benghazi Attack

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