Sailing Metaphors: In the Wake of the Benghazi Attack

As mentioned in my last post, there have been many Congressional hearings on the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi last September.  A common way of talking about the results of an event is to say in the wake of the incident.  This is one of those expressions that is so common most people would not even recognize it as a metaphor. Actually it is an expression from sailing as when a ship leaves a wake behind as it travels through the water.  Metaphorically, the result of an action is compared to the disturbance in the water behind a ship.  There are many metaphors based on our experiences with ships on sailing.  I mentioned a few of these in my analysis of President Obama’s State of the Union Address.  Here is some more information on in the wake of  and a few additional examples of metaphors based specifically on our experience with ships traveling through deep water.

Official Release by Commander Mark McDonald, Director, Combined Information Bureau, JTF 536.

in the wake of

A large ship pushes the water out of the way in the front and leaves a V-shaped wave in the back.  This unique wave is called the wake of the boat.  In a common metaphor, the result of any process or event may be called the wake.

Example: In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government vastly increased national defense systems and created the Homeland Security Office.


There are also metaphors in English related to our experiences of ships traveling through deep water.  One measure of water depth is called a fathom, a depth of about six feet.  Originally, this term referred to how far a person could stretch one’s arms.  Later, the term was applied to a similar measurement underwater.  Metaphorically, our experience of water depth helps us describe the depth of knowledge of a subject, or how well we understand a concept.  We even say that we cannot fathom something if we do not understand it.  In a common adjective, we also say that something that is incredibly complex is unfathomable.

Example: The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York led to unfathomable destruction when the Twin Towers both collapsed.

run deep

A large heavy ship will sit deep into the water because of its own weight.  In these cases, we may say that the ship runs deep.  The same phrase can be used to describe a submarine that travels deep under the water.  Metaphorically, the phrase to run deep indicates that an attitude or belief is strongly held by a group of people.

Example: Distrust of government runs deep among many Libertarians who argue for a smaller role of government in personal affairs.

a deeper problem

In some cases, we may speak of issues or problems that are easily understood or explained.  In other more complex cases, we may refer to the situation as having deeper problems.

Example: The economic crisis of 2008 revealed deeper problems of banking practices and regulations.

float a plan/proposal/budget, etc.

Obviously ships must be able to float on top of the water in order to move through it efficiently.  Very light objects can float in the air. In an unusual metaphor, if we suggest an idea to a group of people, we may call this floating a plan or proposal as if the idea is not attached to anything solid beneath it.

Example: A U.S. president may float a new tax plan, but it could be rejected by Congress.

Next time:  Grilling and other Cooking Metaphors