Monthly Archives: July 2013

Metaphors of Battles

In my last post, I described how language used to describe preparing for war is also used metaphorically to describe preparing for political campaigns.  Today I would like to share how words and phrases used to describe military battles are used to describe political elections.  Here are a few examples.

primary battles

Battles are the names of the primary engagements between armies in a war.  Metaphorically, battles can also be fought verbally between people or groups.  The notion of battle is commonly used in politics.

Example:  In every presidential primary, there are many battles among the candidates to gain the nomination of the party.

battle cry

At the start of every battle, there is a call or cry from the commanding officer to alert the troops to begin fighting.  The phrase battle cry can also be used to indicate the beginning of a political process.

Example:  In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protestors used the slogan “We are the 99%!? as their battle cry to gain support against the richest 1% of the nation controlling the government.

battleground states

The land where battles are fought are called battlegrounds.  In politics, states in which voters may vote for either Democrats or Republicans are called battleground states when candidates fight for the votes for their party.

Example:  Ohio and Florida are often considered battleground states in presidential elections.

The Battle of New Orleans - Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)
The Battle of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson wins the final battle of the War of 1812 on January 8, 1815 (painting by Edward Percy Moran, 1910)

battle lines are drawn

The exact line separating the land controlled by two fighting armies is called the battle line.  Metaphorically, a battle line is the ideological separation between two people or groups. In a public political argument, we may say that battle lines are drawn based on a certain view of a controversial topic.

Example:  In the 2012 election, Democrats drew many battles lines with Republicans over the tax breaks given to millionaires and billionaires.


Combat is another word for battles fought between armies in a war.  Metaphorically, any verbal argument can be described as combat as well. As a verb the word combat can be used to describe efforts to fight against something.

Example:  George W. Bush worked hard to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa during his presidency.


A firefight is an intense battle between two armies in which a great deal of gunfire is exchanged.  In politics, a heated argument may also be called a firefight.

Example:  Sometimes a peaceful presidential debate turns into a firefight among the top candidates.


The word clash is an onomatopoetic word meaning that it represents the sound made by two metallic objects hitting together.  A physical confrontation between people or battle between armies may be called a clash.  However, metaphorically, a disagreement in words or ideas between two people or groups may also be called a clash.  Often we speak of a clash of personalities between two people.

Example:  During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and other candidates clashed over positions on the economy.

Next time:  Offensive Tactics in War and Politics


Preparing for War, Preparing for Politics

To continue my analysis of metaphors of war in politics, I offer a few more examples here today.  When I was doing research for my book, I was continually amazed about how we cannot even talk about politics without using war metaphors.  Although modern cultures pride themselves on their “civilization,” they have also engaged in wars for hundreds of years.  Here are a few examples of how the language used in describing preparations for war is used in describing political campaigns.

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Military forces often set up an encampment or camp to prepare for battle.  In politics, a group of campaign workers or strategists may be called a camp.

Example:  In the 2012 Republican primary campaigns, the Mitt Romney camp traded criticisms with the Newt Gingrich camp.

pay tribute

Historically, when an army took control of a city or town, the local people often had to pay a tax or tribute to the new government.  Later the phrase came to mean paying a compliment to a person or group for what they have achieved.

Example:  When Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States, he paid tribute to civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. for opening doors for him.


A bulwark is a wall made of thick wood as part of a fortification of a city.  In modern times, the word bulwark is used metaphorically to mean something that provides defense against a verbal or ideological attack.

Example:  Some conservative politicians use their Christian faith as a bulwark against laws that condone abortions.

war chest

Historically, the money needed to finance a war on the battlefield was kept in a large chest that traveled with the commanding officers.  Metaphorically, the phrase war chest now indicates the amount of money that a candidate has to finance his or her election campaign.

Example:  Although John McCain had a large war chest when he ran for president in 2008, he did not win the election.


An arsenal is the total quantity of weapons a military possesses.  In politics, candidates can have an arsenal of complaints or attacks against their opponents.

Example:  In the 2012 Republican primary, critics of New Gingrich launched an arsenal of attacks against his past record as former Speaker of the House.

armed with ideas

When a soldier carries a weapon, we can say that he or she is armed.  Metaphorically, a person can also be armed with ideas to be used in an argument.

Example:  In a presidential debate, candidates must be armed with many ideas they can use to explain their policies and answer the moderators’ questions.

blog - war - bullets


Ammunition is the quantity of bullets used in a gun.  Ammunition can also metaphorically indicate ideas or facts to fight against someone in an argument.

Example:  A candidate in an election must not make a factual mistake in a speech.  This mistake can be used as ammunition against him or her by opponents in future debates.

ranks of the unemployed

Military personnel are normally grouped into ranks such as private, corporal, captain, etc.  The groups of such personnel are called ranks.  In common terms, we may also refer to any group of people who are distinguished by a specific social class as being in ranks.

Example:  Any American who loses his or her job automatically joins the ranks of the unemployed.

an army of volunteers

A group of soldiers is called an army.  However, metaphorically, any large group of people engaged in a specific project may be called an army such as in an army of volunteers.

Example:  No presidential candidate can win an election without an army of volunteers in every state helping get that person elected.

foot soldiers

The soldiers in the army who must walk to and from battlefields can be called foot soldiers.  In an election campaign, people who do a lot of work in cities and towns to help a person get elected may also be called foot soldiers.

Example:  In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney had many foot soldiers on the ground helping him campaign to defeat Barack Obama.

blog - war - foot soldiers

good lieutenants

A lieutenant is a high-ranking officer in military organizations.  Lieutenants must be good leaders to command his or her troops.  Metaphorically, good leaders in any organization may be called good lieutenants.

Example:  A successful presidential candidate must have several good lieutenants among the campaign staff.


A legion is a large group of soldiers.  Any large group of people working together on a project may also be called a legion.

Example:  President Barack Obama had to command legions of economic advisors who tried to get the country out of the recession started in 2008.

marshal the troops

A marshal was originally a person in charge of horses.  Later the term came to mean someone in charge of troops.  Thus, someone who is in command of many soldiers was said to marshal the troops.  Metaphorically, a leader who directs a large group of people may also be referred to someone marshaling the troops.

Example:  During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy had to marshal the troops and find the best advisors to help him avoid a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.


As mentioned, a camp is a group of soldiers preparing for war.  Someone who assists the military commander to organize the troops can be referred to by the French term aide-de-camp.  In politics, an aide-de-camp is any person who helps a candidate or politician achieve his or her goals.

Example:  Nancy Reagan provided such positive support to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, one might call her an excellent aide-de-camp.

task force

A task force is a term used in the military to indicate a small group of military personnel who must achieve a specific goal.  In common terms, a task force is any group of people assigned by a leader to accomplish a specific project.

Example:  President Obama immediately assembled a task force to try to end the recession when he was elected in 2008.

Next time:  Fighting Wars and Political Campaigns

Carpet-Bombing: Metaphors of War in Fundraising Rhetoric

blog - war - carpet bombI have recently received a great compliment:  An English professor in California has informed me that he is having his students in one of his writing classes use my blog as they analyze political metaphors.  While I was considering how I could create a few posts to help his students, I came across an amazing email solicitation from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ( 7/12/13) asking for contributions for a particular campaign.  I deviate from my usual blog style to provide a brief analysis of this fundraising rhetoric.

Even though the 2014 elections are more than a year away, Republicans and Democrats are already raising money for state and national candidates.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection in Kentucky.  He is being challenged by Democrat Alison Lundergan.   Here is how the folks at the DSCC described the campaign.  I have highlighted some critical metaphors in bold font.  Analysis to follow.

“Mitch McConnell’s scheme to win? “Carpet-bomb” his opponent with attack ads. He’s running “the nastiest race in the country” according to the Washington Post.

But after McConnell abused the filibuster 413 times, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes has pulled this race into a true toss-up: McConnell (R) 45, Grimes (D) 45.

BY MIDNIGHT, we must match the McConnell Super PAC’s $260,000 infuriating ad blitz dollar-for-dollar and ensure their lies in Kentucky and across the country don’t go unanswered. We’re so close to matching them — we need just 700 more contributions to fight back against McConnell and Republicans like him.”

Campaigns have been very negative going back hundreds of years.  It is common parlance to say that one candidate attacks the other in ads or debates, as if the candidates are boxers in a ring or soldiers in a war.  Thus, most negative campaign ads are simply referred to as attack ads.  It is also common to describe the response against an ad as fighting back, again as if the candidates are in a war.   Interestingly, the authors also employ the term blitz, German for “lightning” made famous in the World War II term blitzkrieg meaning “lightning war.”  In modern parlance, a blitz is anything that is done quickly and with great force.

MAP - war - arms training

However, the usage of the carpet-bomb metaphor is quite extreme in this fundraising description.   Carpet-bombing was a practice used during World War II and the Vietnam War in which bomber planes dropped hundreds or thousands of bombs in one area at one time, as if one were laying a carpet of bombs.  To describe a series of ads as carpet-bombing indicates that there are many ads distributed in one area at the same time.

There are two interesting factors to note about this use of carpet-bombing.  Stylistically, note that the authors used quotation marks in this instance.  As I explained in my analysis of the use of the phrase fiscal cliff, the use of quotation marks around a metaphor indicates that the authors consider the phrase to be new or unusual.  After the usage becomes more common, the quotation marks tend to disappear.  Secondly, one must wonder at the suggested violence in a phrase such as carpet bombing. I believe it speaks of the level of acceptable violence in American culture that metaphors of great violence are used so commonly and without objection by the average person.

I should also note that this fundraising text also describes the campaign with popular metaphors from other semantic domains.   For one, the campaign is referred to as a race, a term derived from horse racing, comparing two candidates in an election to several horses in a horse race.  The election is also described as a toss-up, a term derived from gambling, i.e., flipping a coin to determine the winner or loser of a particular bet. Finally, the campaign attack ads are described as going unanswered.  This is a much more tame metaphor, indicating that the exchange of ads, however negative, may simply be described as a conversation or an exchange of letters between friends.

This fundraising solicitation beautifully illustrates the complexity of metaphor usage in American politics.  Some metaphors may be considered neutral while others may evoke feelings of anger or war.  I believe that these metaphors are used deliberately to help the fundraising team achieve their political and financial goals.  It is my hope that American citizens will be consciously aware of this metaphor usage and base their voting or giving of donations on the candidate’s qualifications and not simply on political rhetoric.

Next time:  More analyses of metaphors in political ads

Propping Up Governments: Metaphors of Buildings

The United States is well known for helping other countries in need by giving donations of money, food or medical supplies.  In some cases, the U.S. also works directly with other governments by giving them military equipment or political advice.  This is sometimes referred to as propping up governments as if they are old buildings about to fall down.  For example, the United States used to be a close ally of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.  However, with the deposition of Mubarak two years ago and Mohammed Morsi last week, television commentators are wondering about the wisdom of propping up governments in other countries.  Here are a few more examples of metaphors based on the ideas of governments or economies considered to be shaky buildings.

blog - building rubble


If a building is very old, or has been in an earthquake, the foundation may be unstable, and it may collapse.  In politics, governments or situations can also be called unstable.

Example: During the 1990s, the peace in the Middle East was very unstable.


When something is shaky, it is similar to being unstable.  People, organizations and governments can be called shaky as well.

Example: The housing market was shaky in 2008 before the prices crashed.


Rickety is yet another word that means unstable or shaky.

Example: Many autocratic governments in Africa rest on rickety foundations if they do not have the support of the people.

prop up

                  When a building is in danger of collapsing, people can use boards or metal beams to hold or prop up the walls.  In politics, when organizations or systems start to collapse, they can be propped up with new funding or policies.

Example: During World War II, the American economy was propped up with millions of dollars spent on building weapons for the war. 

shore up

To shore up something also means to support it or prop it up so it does not collapse.

Example: President Obama’s stimulus packages in 2009 were designed to shore up the economy during the recession.


                  A buttress is a very strong wooden or metal structure on the inside or outside of building supporting the walls and roof.  In political terms, one can buttress a policy or argument with more information, money or programs.

Example: During a debate, candidates can buttress their arguments with examples from American history. 

blog - building - Notre_Dame_buttress



                  A brace is a smaller form of buttress or wooden support.  In popular terms, one can brace for a financial or natural disaster.

Example: In 2005, the residents of New Orleans were braced for Hurricane Katrina, but no one predicted there would be so much flooding

Next time:  Metaphors of War in Political Ads


Standing Up! Wendy Davis and Leticia Van De Putte

On this the 4th of July, I thought I should mention an act of patriotism that occurred last week, an act which also illustrates a very important principle of metaphor creation and usage. State Senator Wendy Davis of Texas enacted a marathon filibuster on her senate floor to prevent the passage of a draconian anti-abortion bill.  She stood on the floor, wearing pink tennis shoes, for 13 hours, without even going to the bathroom.   Poignantly, she was not only literally standing up, she was figuratively standing up for women’s rights in Texas.  For a moving video summary of the filibuster, see

blog - stand up - Wendy_Davis_2010

One of the most brilliant insights of the work of Lakoff and Johnson is that we create metaphors based on bodily experiences.  In this case, standing up allows a person to see better, have greater ease of movement, and a greater ability to act in case of danger.  In terms of power, a person standing up is in a dominating position compared to a person sitting down.  Moreover, people who are about to fight must be standing up in order to strike blows against an opponent or defend oneself from attacks.  Thus, metaphorically, to stand up indicates that a person is ready for action.  Actually, we cannot even speak of being ready for action without using the metaphor to stand up for something. It can also mean to be supportive of a certain issue.  Senator Davis certainly stood up for women’s rights.  It should be noted that Ms. Davis had help from another State Senator, Leticia Van De Putte, who rushed back from the funeral of her own father who had been killed in a car accident earlier that week.  Two amazing heroines from Texas!

Here are a few examples of metaphors created with the bodily experience of standing.

stand up

                  When we stand up, metaphorically we indicate strength for or against a certain position.

Example:  During World War II, England, France and the United States stood up against the armies of Hitler.

take a stand

To take a stand means that one is firm in one’s beliefs.

Example:  Martin Luther King, Jr. took a stand against the discrimination of African-Americans in the 1960s.

blog - stand up - MLK

where one stands

To have an opinion or position on an important issue may be called where one stands on that issue.

Example:  During a presidential campaign, a candidate must make clear where he or she stands on the important issues such as the economy and national defense.

stand by

                  To stand by indicates that one is not doing anything, either to wait for something to happen, or to deliberately do nothing out of fear or laziness.  It can also mean that a person or organization affirms that its decisions, products or policies are absolutely good.

Example:  U.S. soldiers are always standing by in case they are needed to defend our country.

Example:  During the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, most countries stood by and did nothing to stop the murder.

Example:  George W. Bush always stood by his decision to invade Iraq as a response to the 9/11 attacks.


                  In English, a verb phrase can sometimes be made into a noun.  Thus the verb phrase to stand by can be changed to a noun form, spelled as one word, to mean the same thing as the verb.

Example:  The American Red Cross is a relief organization always on standby ready to help victims of natural disasters. 

stand down

                  To stand down is a military term meaning that the military personnel are ready to act but can rest for the moment.

Example:  During a war, if a battle is postponed, the army must stand down until the battle begins.

stand in the way

                  To stand in the way of something means to stop its progress or completion.

Example:  Sometimes the members of Congress stand in the way of the president trying to implement his policies.

stand accused

                  If someone is accused of a crime, we may say that they stand accused, as if they are already in the courtroom facing the judge for his or her sentence.

Example:  Osama Bin Laden stood accused of organizing the 9/11 attacks on New York until his death in 2011.


                  A person’s reputation for honesty, integrity or ability to get things done may be referred to as his or her standing in the community.  A political group can also have a standing in the nation, or a country may have a standing in the world. 

Example:  The war in Iraq endangered the moral and political standing of the United States throughout the world.

left standing

                  In a large fight or a boxing match, the losers will be knocked down, and the winners will be left standing up.  In popular terms, a person or group who is left standing is the one that has defeated all the competitors.

Example:  In the 2008 economic crisis, some Wall Street firms had to close their doors, while others such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Chase were left standing 


                  In a standoff, two people, groups or countries do not fight but silently oppose each other hoping for a resolution of their problems.

Example:  During the Cold War, there was a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

blog - stand up - Occupy Wall St
Occupy Wall Street protestors standing up against Wall Street bankers

stand in

                  A stand in is a person who replaces or substitutes for another person.

Example:  In case of emergency, the vice-president of the United States is a stand in for the president.


                  When one takes a stand for or against something, one is also taking a stance.

Example:  The Bush administration took the stance that the War in Iraq was necessary to remove the dictator Saddam Hussein.

Next time:  Propping Up Governments: Metaphors of Buildings

Flipping Houses and Flip-flopping Candidates

You may have heard the phrases flipping a house or a flip-flopping candidate.  Obviously, people and house are not literally being flipped upside down.  These are common metaphorical expressions. Why is that? Any object can be manipulated with our hands.  We can turn, spin or flip a small object with ease.  These common motions can be used metaphorically to describe manipulating information or power or changing behavior.

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flip a house

Some real estate experts buy homes in need of repair, remodel them and sell them for a profit.  This is commonly known as flipping a house.  This used to be a common practice in the United States.  However, since housing bubble burst in 2007, this practice became very rare.

Example:  A sign of the economy getting back in shape is to hear of people flipping houses once again.


turn into

The motion of turning an object in one’s hand is used in a common metaphor of something changing shape by turning into something else.

Example:  With all the money used to support presidential election campaigns, some American fear that our democracy may be turning into a plutocracy in which money buys all the power.


We may also spin an object, such as a child’s top, so that it rotates quickly about an axis. In politics, we have the interesting metaphor to spin information or a news event, meaning that we change the facts into an opinion that favors one political party over another.

Example:  Critics of conservative talk radio claim that it spins the news to favor the Republicans while critics of progressive network shows spin the news in favor of Democrats.

blog - flip - ferris wheel

the latest twist

Flexible or braided objects such as paper or rope can be twisted into many different shapes.  Metaphorically a process or series of events can be described as being twisted if there are unexpected changes in the process.

Example:  In the latest twist on the economic recession, homeowners were losing their mortgages because they could not afford to pay their medical bills.

power shift

Physically one can shift the position of an object from one place to another.  Metaphorically, we can also shift power in a government by the changing of politicians or policies.

Example:  When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, there was a huge power shift from the Republicans back to the Democrats.

rotate out

If we interchange one object for another in a confined space, we call this rotating out the objects. Metaphorically we can also rotate out people or programs in wars or government.

Example:  Soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were rotated out and sent back to the United States after they finished their tours of duty.

 blog - flip - pancake

flip flop

                  A person can also flip an object, meaning to totally change its position from top to bottom or front to back.  We can also call this flip-flopping an object.  In a common political metaphor, a politician who often changes his or her mind on many subjects may be said to flip-flop.

Example:  In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was often accused of flip-flopping on many important issues.

Next time:  Wendy Davis: Standing Up and Standing for Something.