Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Top Story! – Metaphors of Top and Bottom

We have many metaphors derived from our spatial perceptions of height and comparisons between the top and bottom positions of objects. Normally, people or things at the top are more important or powerful than things at the bottom. For example, in many news broadcasts, the announcers will speak of the top story, meaning the most important story of the day.  In contrast, people or things that are low or on the bottom have low status or low importance.  Here are a few examples of top and bottom metaphors.

Space Needle in Seattle, WA

people at the top

As with the idea of the leaders of an organization being high in the chain of command, we may also say that these leaders are the people at the top. 

Example:  In the U.S. government, the people at the top are the president and vice president, along with the Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the House.

top of the heap

A heap is a tall pile or hill of many items mixed together.  In yet another height metaphor, the people in leadership roles in an organization may be referred to as being at the top of the heap.

Example:  When a candidate wins an election, quite often the campaign staff members who helped the candidate win move into the top of the heap in the candidate’s new government.

top tier

A tier is a horizontal part of a stadium, theater or any tall building.  Metaphorically, any group of people can be described in terms of tiers such as political parties, business organizations or tax groups. The top tier of any organization is the group of the most powerful or important people.

Example:  Democrats tend to think that the top tier of income earners in the country should be heavily taxed to provide necessary income to the government, while the Republicans believe the top earners should be given tax breaks so that they can expand their businesses and create more jobs.

top drawer

Cabinets and office desks contain a variety of drawers.  Traditionally, the most important information, files or documents are placed in the top drawer.  Metaphorically, important or very talented persons are sometimes referred to as being top-drawer individuals.

Example:  Whenever there is a crisis, a good leader should consult with all the top-drawer advisors working in the government at that time.

top someone

To reach the top of a mountain is a great achievement.  To achieve more than someone else in a similar situation can be called topping someone. 

Example:  In the 2012 election, Barack Obama topped Mitt Romney to win the presidency of the United States.

over the top

To say something is over the top is to say that it is too extreme for a certain situation.

Example:  When Wall Street investment firms gave some of their employees million-dollar bonuses the same year that the economy was collapsing, many critics said their spending was over the top.


rock bottom

As with the concepts of top, we have metaphors of being at the bottom of something.  One way to describe being at the lowest point is to say we have hit rock bottom, as if we have sunk to the bottom of a lake.

Example:  President Obama’s popularity seemed to hit rock bottom when the Democrats lost so many elections during the 2010 midterm elections.

blog - height - bottom of well

low on the scale/lower down the scale

The word low describes the position of being towards the bottom of a place.  A scale is a tool for measuring the weight or height of something.  Metaphorically, being on the low end of a scale means that the person or thing has a lower value, such as lower income, or does not have much importance relative to other items measured on the same scale.

Example:  Tax cuts often help wealthy Americans, but they do not always help those people lower down the scale.

low profile

A profile is a side view of a person. Contrary to a high profile, a low profile indicates lack of visibility or importance in a certain situation.

Example:  After stepping down as president in 2009, George W. Bush kept a low profile until he released his book Decision Points in late 2010.

low moment

A low moment is a time when someone or group of people is unsuccessful, defeated or emotionally depressed.

Example:  The low moment for George W. Bush’s presidency was when we were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

Next time:  Flip that House! 

Breaking News! – Metaphors of Fragile Objects

In our daily experience of sizes and shapes of objects, we can easily distinguish between whole objects and those that are broken into parts.   Normally, we conceive whole objects as being good and complete, while broken objects have less value or no value at all.  Thus, we have a negative connotation of breaking the rules. However, in other cases, whole objects or continuous lines represent the status quo, traditions, or old habits.  In these cases, something that is breaking has a positive connotation since one is creating something new or exciting. As an example of these latter cases, we may hear a news broadcaster talk about breaking news, meaning the most exciting and new story in the news at that time. Here are a few more examples of metaphors based on fragile objects.


If something is fragile, it is likely to break into pieces if dropped or struck with a strong physical force.  Metaphorically, a process or group can break into pieces under stress from outside force.  We also say that we break promises, break rules or break the silence.

Example: Political candidates must be careful not to break promises they made during a campaign.  Voters may remember and not vote for them in the next election.

blog - fragile - Broken_glass


break the economy

The economy is considered to be a fragile object that can be broken with a recession, depression or other widespread financial problems throughout the country.

Example: Lawmakers are always worried that high federal deficits may break the economy.

break the tie

When there is a vote for any Congress or Senate bill, an equal amount of votes on both sides is considered a tie vote.  However a tie is also considered a fragile state and can be broken.

Example: In the case of a tied vote in the U.S. Senate, the Vice-President must break the tie.

a clean break

When someone changes a policy or program, the new rules may be confusing.  However, this situation can also be broken cleanly if there are no longer any connections between the old policies and the new ones.

Example: Usually a new president will make a clean break with the previous administration and start his or her own policies and programs.

break from the past

As with a clean break, a politician may also make a break from past experiences or views.

Example: A politician with legal troubles may want to make a break from the past before he or she tries to run for office again.


When something completely goes wrong, we say that there is a breakdown.

Example: Some critics say that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were the result of a complete communication breakdown among intelligence agencies in Washington D. C.

break records, shatter records

In a complex metaphor, we speak of breaking or shattering records.  On one level, a level of achievement in a certain area, such as a speed record in sports, is thought to be a fragile object.  This may be due to the fact that vinyl music records are known to shatter easily. On a second level, breaking these fragile records indicates that a new advancement has been made in a certain area.

Example: During an election, a popular candidate may break records for voter turnout.

break off

With some physical objects it is possible to break off a part from the whole.  This is true of branches from a tree or part of a hard piece of candy or larger piece of food. Metaphorically, to break off something means to stop doing something before it is complete.

Example: Many American presidents have had to break off negotiations for peace with either Israel or Palestine due to a lack of progress.

tax break

When a tax is reduced or eliminated for a certain income group or business, we say that they have been given a tax break.

Example: Everyone likes to pay fewer taxes, but many Americans feel that millionaires should not be given tax breaks.

break in violence

When an action continues for a long time, any stoppage of that action is considered a break, as if the action is broken into two parts.

Example: During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, family members of American soldiers hoped for a break in the violence and the soldiers could come home.

Next time:  The Top Story! – Metaphors of Top and Bottom

Leaks and other Metaphors of Liquids

Barely a day goes by that we do not hear mention of a leak on the news.  As I write this, Edward Snowden is hiding out in Hong Kong, after admitting to leaking secret files of the National Security Agency.  U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning sits in a federal prison after being accused of leaking secret defense files about the Iraq War and Australian Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is living under house arrest at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London due to charges of leaking millions of secret military documents.

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explained many years ago, we often describe abstract conditions or processes in terms of containers, such as having a full schedule or an empty promise.  We also speak of information as if it is liquid enclosed in a container.  Thus, a leak of information means that knowledge that was once contained has now been released, as if water is leaking from a cup, bottle, or even a large structures such as a dam.

blog - leak

leak information

If containers contain cracks or holes, they may leak out their liquid contents.  Metaphorically secret information is thought to be like a liquid that must be held in a watertight container.  Government secrets that are accidentally released are sometimes referred to as being leaked to the public.

Example: There were many scandals in 2010 as thousands of government documents were leaked to the press by the WikiLeaks organization.

dripping with sarcasm or condescension

Some containers can drip liquid if they contain small holes.  Liquid can also drip from a container if it overflows the top and goes over the side.  Metaphorically, a person’s speech can drip with sarcasm or condescension if the speaker’s intention is very clear to the audience.

Example: Politicians are usually careful that they do not make fun of anyone they are talking to.  If their speech is dripping with sarcasm they may insult someone in the audience.

up/down the pipeline

A pipeline is a long series of pipes used to deliver water, oil or other liquids from one place to another.  Metaphorically, a pipeline can refer to the series of people in an office or government organization that allows communication between higher and lower administrative staff.  Saying that information goes up the pipeline means that information is given to a low-level staff member who relays to his or her supervisors.  Going down the pipeline means a top official shares information with lower-level staff members.

Example: For national security, important information about possible terrorist attacks must come from the field and up the pipeline to the president.

down the drain

Liquids in containers such as sinks or vats can be released by going down a drain in the bottom of the container.  In a very popular metaphor, abstract concepts such as money or possibilities can also be described as going down the drain when they are lost or wasted.

Example: Critics of the War in Iraq complained that the billions of dollars spent there was really money down the drain since there was little hope of winning the war.

blog - drain

drain the budget

In a similar metaphor, money is thought of as a liquid that can be drained from a company or governmental budget.

Example: Some conservatives believe that expensive social programs such as Medicare are draining the federal budget.

spill over

If a container is completely filled with liquid, the liquid may spill over the sides.  Metaphorically, money, emotions or other abstract concepts can spill over from one area to another as well.

Example: After Hurricane Katrina, the anger of the local people at the failure of government to help them spilled over from the streets into the national news.

spill over the borders

In another example of spilling over, problems in one country can also be thought of as a liquid spilling over the border from one country to another.

Example: Whenever there is violence in one country, neighboring countries are always afraid that the fighting will spill over the border into their countries.

Next time: Breaking News!  – Metaphors of Fragile Objects


Blog Featured in Local Newspaper!

Hello! I would like to share an article that appeared yesterday in our local newspaper, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.  The author writes a daily column called Etcetera highlighting local news stories.  She is an old friend of mine and helped me put this article together about my research, the blog and my book.  Thanks Annie!

Etcetera – 6/4/13

By Annie Charnley Eveland

Metaphor Book a Labor of Love Written with Blood, Sweat and Tears

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Walla Wallan Andrew J. Gallagher tuned in to the constant barrage of metaphors such as “playing hardball,” “a flood of immigrants,” “the economy has collapsed,” “candidates are neck and neck” and “the election is going down to the wire.”

So when the Walla Walla Community College instructor took a six-month sabbatical he began researching political metaphors.

In mid-April, Andy presented his research at the annual conference of the International Linguistics Association in New York City.

He wanted to use a book that described such metaphors as a teaching tool for his students of English as a second language, but found such a book did not exist — yet. That’s when he decided to write one.

Andy said he looked for political metaphors while researching hundreds of news-magazine articles, speech transcripts and thousands of hours of TV news broadcasts. He aimed to find a few hundred metaphors but thousands came out instead. Over a four-year span, he analyzed and categorized them in his spare time on nights and weekends.

The result is his book, “Metaphors in American Politics,” with more than 2,000 examples in 54 categories of source domains from all aspects of life.

“For instance,” he said, “elections are often compared to other intense competitions such as horse racing, poker, sports, boxing and war, e.g., ‘politics is a high-stakes game,’ ‘that speech was a home run,’ ‘the candidates took the gloves off in that debate,’ or ‘the bill was torpedoed in Congress.’ We also use metaphors based on experiences with nature, animals, shapes, temperature, etc., such as the ‘fiscal cliff,’ the ‘yoke of slavery,’ the ‘housing bubble,’ or the ‘Cold War.’”

Andy added that “many metaphors are created based on bodily experience, or how we use our bodies, heads, arms, hands, etc. in everyday life, e.g., ‘take a stand on an issue,’ ‘face the problem,’ ‘reach across the aisle,’ or ‘have a goal within our grasp.’ Other metaphors are based on physical actions used to describe abstract processes, e.g., ‘pull out the troops,’ ‘push the bill through Congress,’ ‘cut the budget,’ ‘slash the deficit,’ or ‘ratchet up the pressure.’”

Andy originally wrote the book to benefit ESL teachers and students but said K-12 English teachers and students and college-level students of English, political science, journalism, communications or linguistics would find it useful, too.

Authors of the 1980 book “Metaphors We Live By,” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, provided theories on which Andy based his research.

He’s currently seeking a publisher for the book. He has been writing a blog to share the research at He also plans to attend several conferences on linguistics and language teaching this year and in 2014.

Andy has earned a master’s in linguistics, a master of education in adult education and a Ph.D. in English. He also studied briefly with Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon and is trained to analyze metaphors in everyday English. He has worked at the Washington State Penitentiary WWCC campus for 16 years, teaching classes of English as a second language, adult basic education and general educational development.

He can be reached through his blog or at