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.

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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.

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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