A recent New York Times article described the ads used in the political campaigns in New York state. One section details how language becomes sharpened when ads turn negative:
“The sharpening of the discourse among the candidates comes after several weeks during which many of them have complained that coverage of two scandal-tarred candidates — Mr. Spitzer, in the comptroller’s race, and Anthony D. Weiner, in the mayor’s race — has overshadowed other campaigns and issues.”
We commonly use our experiences with tools to metaphorically describe language and actions in politics. Politicians talk of sharpening skills, honing messages and shaving points off of an opponent’s lead in the polls. Here are a few more examples of how sharp tools lead to political metaphors.
sharp eye, sharp tone, sharp reminder
Cutting tools must be sharpened periodically so that they always cut well. The notion of a sharp cutting tool is used metaphorically to indicate anything that is accurate or exact. People can have a sharp eye, speak with a sharp tone or have a sharp reminder by an unexpected important.
Example: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were a sharp reminder that the world is still a dangerous place.
The adverbial form of sharp, sharply, is also used metaphorically to indicate any action that is quick and severe. It is usually used to describe a large increase or decrease in money or some other numerical value.
Example: Conservatives argue that reducing government spending will sharply reduce the budget deficit in the next ten years.
Another sense of an action done sharply is the sense of opinions being extremely divided into two opposing groups. In these cases, we may say that the opinions are sharply divided.
Example: Democrats and Republicans have sharply divided opinions on how much wealthy Americans should be taxed.
sharpen the message
The physical act of sharpening a tool is also used in many English metaphors. For example, to sharpen a message means to make it more exact and focused on a particular audience.
Example: During a political campaign, candidates often sharpen their messages to make sure they are winning the votes they need to win the election.
Sharpening a knife or axe using a special stone called a whetstone is known as honing. Figuratively, to hone something means to make it more perfect.
Example: Politicians can hone their speaking skills on the campaign trail as they give hundreds of speeches around the country.
Razors are used for trimming and shaving hair and beards. The shaving done by their sharp blades leads to metaphors of cutting small amounts of something from a larger whole.
Example: A losing candidate would most likely want to shave a few points off his or her opponent’s lead in the polls before the election.
The opposite of sharp is blunt. Figuratively, something that is blunt is not very precise or sophisticated. In one phrase, a person that is blunt spoken speaks in simple, direct language that may be offensive to some people.
Example: Vice-President Joe Biden is known for being blunt spoken while giving speeches.
A sharp instrument usually makes a clean cut in wood, metal or cloth. A blunt instrument can make cause a lot of damage to the material. Metaphorically, any action that is not sensitive or causes damage may be called a blunt instrument.
Example: Laying off thousands of workers in a recession is a blunt instrument used to balance a company’s budget.
blunt their efforts
One can accidentally blunt a knife or axe by hitting it on a hard surface preventing the tool from being useful. Figuratively, a person or group can blunt the efforts of another group by reducing their funding or blocking their progress.
Example: In the first few years of the Obama presidency, Republicans in Congress seemed to be able to blunt the efforts of Democratic leaders trying to change the health care system.
Next time: Mired in gridlock – Metaphors of swamps!