Monthly Archives: October 2013

Home Run! Baseball Metaphors!

Since we are in the middle of the action of the exciting World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, I thought I should share a few baseball metaphors.  Even though there are not many baseball metaphors that I could find, they are very commonly used, perhaps due to the popularity of “American’s national pastime.”   Here are a few metaphors I am sure you have heard before.

Ken Griffey, Jr., hitting a home run for the Seattle Mariners in 2009

major leagues

Baseball teams are organized into different leagues.  The professional players play in what is called the major leagues.  In politics, we may say that people who are elected high office in the government such as the House of Representatives or the Senate are playing in the major leagues.

Example:  After her loss with John McCain in 2008, Sarah Palin was criticized by some who said that she was not ready for the major leagues.

bush league

Amateur baseball players who are trying to get into the major leagues play in what are called farm teams or bush leagues, since they are often located in the rural areas.  In politics, to say that someone is in the bush leagues, or makes a bush-league mistake, means that he or she is inexperienced or incompetent at what they do.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claim that his handling of the economic crisis in 2008 was a filled with bush-league mistakes.


Hardball is the type of baseball played by professional teams, as opposed to softball played by younger players learning the game.  Playing hardball indicates that a person is talented, experienced and willing to take risks in a dangerous game.  In politics, playing hardball indicates that a politician is very serious and works at the highest levels of government.

Example:  A popular television news show called Hardball is hosted by the liberal commentator Chris Matthews.


On baseball fields, it is important to keep the fast, dangerous pitches of balls from hurting any spectators.  Thus, behind the batter and catcher is a tall fence called a backstop.  In common terms, a backstop is a person or group of people who support someone else in their work.

Example:  When the U.S. government bailed out banks in 2009, taxpayer money was used to backstop further potential losses by those financial institutions.

a swing and a miss

In baseball, a batter must swing and hit a pitch thrown past him. These pitches can be thrown very fast or made to curve so they are very difficult to hit.  When a batter misses a pitch, this is known as a swing and a miss.  In politics, a swing and a miss may be an attempt by someone to accomplish something that does not succeed.

Example:  Bill Clinton’s attempt at revising the American health care system was a swing and a miss since the bills were not passed by Congress.

flat footed

To be flat footed literally means that a person does not have arches on the bottom of his or her feet so the feet hit the ground flatly instead of on a curve.  In baseball, a fielder must always to be in a standing position ready to run to catch the ball.  A person throwing the ball must also have the feet spread apart and use the body to create enough leverage to throw the ball with force.  To be flat footed, therefore means to be unprepared to do one’s job or to make a weak effort at something.

Example:  Presidential candidates must always be prepared with good answers to important questions during debates.  They must not be caught flat footed or else they might embarrass themselves on national television.


blog - baseball - grandstand Yankee-stadium-frieze
Yankee stadium grandstand

Grandstands are the high seating areas in a baseball park, football stadium, or other sports arena.  The term grandstanding comes from the practice of some baseball players making great catches in the outfield causing the spectators in the grandstands to cheer wildly.  Thus the term grandstanding means to do something to show off.  Political grandstanding indicates the practice of doing something more to make an impression than to get things done or to unnecessarily boast about something.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama complained he was guilty of political grandstanding after quickly taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

step up to the plate

In baseball, the batter must try to hit the ball while standing near home plate.  Each new batter must take his turn by stepping up to the plate.  Metaphorically, anyone who makes a strong attempt to do something may be described as stepping up to the plate.

Example:  In 2012, Mitt Romney stepped up to the plate to run for the president of the United States against Barack Obama.

home run

A home run in baseball occurs when a player hits the ball out of the park or deep enough into the outfield that he can run around all four bases and return home.  This is the best possible hit that a batter can make.  Figuratively, a home run is anything that is a great success for a person or group.

Example:  Tracking down and killing the most wanted terrorist in the world, Osama bin Laden, was a political home run for Barack Obama.

blog - baseball - third baseborn on third base

If a baseball player makes a hit and advances all the way to third base, we say that he has hit a triple.  In 1986, former Dallas Cowboy football coach Barry Switzer coined a new metaphorical saying to describe people who were born rich but acted as if they developed their own income through hard work. He described such people by saying, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they made a triple.”  At the 1988 Democratic Convention, Texas politician Jim Hightower described George W. Bush as being out of touch with ordinary people by using the same saying.  More recently, actor/activist Martin Sheen expressed the same sentiments about Mitt Romney.

Example:  In 2012, Martin Sheen said of Mitt Romney, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”


Next time:  More sports metaphors

Empty Suits and Pockets of Poverty: Clothing Metaphors

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about metaphors derived from clothing accessories, inspired from an article in The Atlantic magazine talking about the Sun Belt.  After several detours around shutdown metaphors and a conference presentation, I present here a follow up post on clothing metaphors.  Many political metaphors are derived from our experience with the clothes that we wear at home and at work.  As many of us pull out warmer clothes for the fall weather, here is a salute to clothing metaphors.


A mantle is the name for a type of cloak not usually worn today.  It was a heavy garment that covered the shoulders to keep a person warm in cold weather.  In popular terms, a mantle is something that it is difficult to carry.

Example:  In 2008, the American voters had to wear the mantle of electing someone who could solve the nation’s economic crisis.


Another term using the idea of a cloak is dismantle, meaning to remove a burden from someone.   Historically, it also meant to attack and tear down a military fortress. In modern terms, dismantle means to take something apart.

Example:  In Iraq, the U.S. military struggled hard to dismantle the Al Qaeda terrorist networks.

Hat stall in a sunday fair. Amsterdam, The Netherlandswearing many hats

                  Different hats are worn for different purposes and different occupations, e.g., a baseball cap for sports, a hard hat for construction workers, a fancy hat for a businessman.  The idea of wearing many hats indicates that one person has many jobs or tasks in a certain organization.

Example:  The U.S. president has to wear many hats so that he can solve economic, military and social problems.

an empty suit

                  In the United States, men normally wear suits and ties if they are professional businessmen.  In politics, an empty suit is someone who dresses as if he is professional but does not get any work done.

Example:  In the 2008 election, some critics accused Barack Obama of being an empty suit since he had very little executive experience before running for president.


A skirt is a garment worn by women below the waist.  The term outskirts means an area beyond the skirt or central region of a city.

Example:  During the Iraq War, there was a great deal of fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad.


All clothing made in a factory carry the label of which company or designer made the garment.  Cans or boxes of food or other items are also clearly labeled for sale in stores. In popular terms, any person or organization can be labeled according the main features or principles involved.

Example:  Barack Obama was labeled as an elitist because he graduated from Harvard.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.compocket

A pocket is a small section of a shirt, dress, pants, or coat to hold small objects.  In metaphorical terms, a pocket is any small area distinctive from other nearby areas.

Example:  Although America is a rich country, there are also many pockets of poverty, especially in big cities.


                  The collar is the top part of a shirt.  In some manufacturing jobs, the workers are required to wear uniforms, usually including pale blue shirts.  These jobs came to be known as blue collar jobs.

Example:  Presidential candidates must be sure to gain the support of blue-collar workers who make up most of the middle class in America.


                  People working in business tend to wear white shirts and dress clothing.  The jobs of these workers came to be known as white-collar jobs.

Example:  Candidates often ask for donations from white-collar workers since they tend to have more money than blue-collar workers.

blog - clothing - white collar

white-collar crime

Crimes committed by people in business are often called white-collar crimes.

Example:  Poor people often complain that normal people who commit crimes always go to prison, but white-collar crimes go unpunished if the perpetrators can afford a good lawyer to get them off.  

off the cuff

                  The cuff is the bottom part of the sleeve of the shirt.  The phase to say something off the cuff means to speak without any previous preparation, perhaps due to someone writing notes on his arm or sleeves.

Example:  Presidential debates are very revealing because the candidates must speak off the cuff and not rely on prepared speeches; this way we can hear what they are really thinking.

Next time:  A home run!  Metaphors of baseball. 

WAESOL Conference!

As some of you may know, this past weekend I gave a presentation on my research to the WAESOL conference (Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages) in Seattle.   Actually it was held at the scenic Highline Community College in the south Seattle suburb of Des Moines.   I am happy to report that it was a successful trip!  I modified the paper I gave in New York last April at the International Linguistics Association conference.  This time I spoke more about the value of teaching these metaphors to ESL students.


It was a grey, foggy day but a great one-day conference – very well organized with friendly people, good food and great conversations.  As for my talk, I had about 15 audience members and they all seemed to enjoy my presentation very much.   Some said that they did not realize there were so many political metaphors and were impressed with all the research I had done collecting and categorizing them.  Several teachers asked if they could get a copy of my PowerPoint presentation.  I was very pleased with the response from the audience members.

I wish I had had more participants in my session. However, I think I had a couple things working against me.  Unfortunately, I was one of the first sessions after lunch, and I was speaking in a building furthest away from the conference center.  Many people were confused about the locations of the buildings throughout the day.  It seemed that many people could not find the room so soon after lunch.

Also, in retrospect, I should have planned the presentation better.  I had the choice of doing a 25-minute or 50-minute presentation.  I had done a 20-minute talk in New York so I decided to repeat that style of presentation.  In New York I had plenty of time for questions and answers after the presentation.  However, at WAESOL, many sessions were held in small rooms that quickly filled to capacity so some people had to run to get to another building to get a seat for a next presentation they wanted to see.  Therefore, I did not have much time to talk to the audience and get valuable feedback.  I also failed to note a suggestion for the presenters to bring my own evaluation form which would have solved part of that problem.

Lastly, I made the mistake of having a salty turkey sandwich with potato chips for lunch.   Although I drank a great deal of water in the morning to make sure I was hydrated, halfway through my talk my mouth turned into the Sahara desert.  My tongue was searching desperately for an oasis in the desert or for a bucket of water to be heaved from a cool well.  LOL. I had a water bottle with me but I was reluctant to stop to take a drink since that would have interrupted the flow of my speech and/or allowed people to ask questions and delay my talk.  Since we had no session moderators, I was afraid of committing the worst presenter faux pas – interfering with the speaker after me starting on time.  This teacher  – I found out later – had come all the way from Utah, so I was glad that I did not take any time away from his presentation.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

I am grateful to the conference organizers to allow me to present my research.  It was a great experience.  On a personal note, I am also grateful for the support from my lovely wife, family and friends.  I also had a chance to see two of my oldest friends after the conference – two women whom I worked with in Peace Corps 30 years ago in Benin, West Africa.  It was great to see them again.

If anyone is interested, here is a summary of some of the great presentations I was able to see.  There were many excellent research projects presented and interesting stories told.  Check out the kids’ fascinating math mistakes and the story about the Filipina nun practicing her English pronunciation…


Nagla Alqaedi from Gonzaga shared her Master’s Degree research on how native speakers of Arabic have trouble learning how to write compositions in English.  Arabic composition style has grown out of extensive oral traditions and allusions to the Quran.  Thus, ESL students learning to write in English tend to tell stories with many repetitions and allusions to religious morals, as opposed to direct, linear, compact writing styles of Americans.  She said she was developing new strategies to teach the American writing styles to her students.

Ani Derderian-Aghajanian from WSU (Washington State University in Pullman, WA) shared her doctoral research on how children learn math in English.   She studied 5th graders in Jordan who were diagnosed with mathematical learning disabilities.  She showed us the following examples from their schoolwork:

36 = 06 + 3

39 = 90 + 3

17 = 70 + 1

Can you see what they are doing wrong?  At first, we were all stumped.  We thought maybe the students were dyslexic but then she reminded us that in Arabic, people write from right to left.  So the students were trying to break down the place value of each number from right to left.  Then they also mixed up the order of the place value, e.g., we would say that 30 + 6 = 36 or 10 + 7 = 17.  They had it all backwards.  Poor kids!  In her research, she showed how using pictures and diagrams could teach them how to write the numbers correctly.

Cody Lyon from Weber State University in Utah shared his techniques of using email for journaling.  He said he uses a famous quote from Ernest Hemingway at the start of every writing class:  “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  Most students believe that writing is a long and painful process.  He started asking his students simple questions via email, and they write back to him.  He does not correct any grammar or punctuation – he does that with other classroom exercises – so the students are free to write whatever they want.  He said the students love it and it helps to improve their writing.

Kathy Hunt from Bellevue College showed us her own research on bilingual education.  She discussed how parents who speak their native languages at home (known as heritage languages) struggle with the decisions of what language their children speak at home or at school.  She said that many children do not want to make the effort to learn their parents’ language – they just want to learn English.  Most parents have to be very strict about using their native language at home and/or enroll their children in weekend language classes which take away time from their friends and sports activities. However, children who don’t learn their parents’ language almost always regret it when they are older because they cannot communicate with their grandparents or visit their home countries without being very embarrassed.  She also shared research that shows that growing up bilingual helps children develop cognitive skills including learning languages better, multitasking, and even delaying Alzheimers!  Bilingual children also get better jobs when they are older, communicate better with their extended families and have a stronger cultural identity.

Reference:  Baker, C. (2007). A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism.

Yoshiko Murahata from Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute in Spokane, WA shared some original research on categorization.  This type of research stems from the classic and controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from the 1950s which claims that language use influences cognitive processes. For example, in one recent study, Western and Asian subjects were shown four squares of several shades of blue.  They were asked if there were one blue or two blues.  Most Westerners said there was one blue.  Japanese speakers more often said that there were two different blues because – one theorizes – that there are two different words for blue in Japanese: “ao” for dark blue, and “mizuiro” for light blue.  Of course, we can say “dark blue” and “light blue” but apparently English speakers still conceptualize them as one color.

In another study, subjects were shown three drawings of a cow, a sheep, and a carton of milk arranged in the shape of a triangle with the cow on top.  Subjects were asked to rate the similarity of each pair of items.  Apparently Westerners tend to group the cow with the sheep – since they are both animals, – while Asians tend to group the cow with the milk – since cows produce milk.  It seems that Westerners tend to recognize taxonomic relationships while Asians recognize thematic relationships.  Ms. Murahata repeated with experiment with drawings of a monkey, a panda and a banana (among 20 other experiments).  Again, Westerners grouped the monkey with the panda, while Asians paired the monkey with the banana.  We in the audience were surprised that Americans would not associate the cow with the milk and the monkey with the banana given our cultural experiences as children.  However, the data seem to indicate otherwise. Even more remarkable, Japanese learners of English switch from thematic to taxonomic groupings as their English proficiency nears that of a native speaker, theoretically because their language is changing how they categorize objects.


Cook, V. J. and Bassetti, B. (eds). 2011.  Language and Bilingual Cognition.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The Geography of Thought.

The plenary speaker was Christina Cavage from Savannah Technical College in Savannah, GA.  She gave a very nice talk on blended learning.  She provided dozens of examples of the benefits of using technology in the classroom to ESL learners.  She showed how students can learn from watching YouTube videos, online grammar exercises, computerized pronunciation lessons, etc.  I did not catch all of her statistics, but she had some impressive data showing how students in blended classrooms learn more, score higher on standardized tests and enjoy learning more as compared to students with traditional textbook learning.  She also told a funny story about a Filipina Catholic nun – no joke.  She said when she taught in New Jersey she used some software that allows students to record their own voices to practice their pronunciation. She could then listen to the students’ recordings and keep track of how many times each student practiced the exercises.  Normally, the students would practice each exercise three or four times to get it right.  However, she noticed that the Filipina nun did each exercise about 40 times!  Curious, she listened to the recordings and she heard her student record her voice, then another nun record her voice, and another nun, and another… It turned out the whole convent of nuns was practicing their English pronunciation with the student’s homework exercise!

Just shows you how valuable our lessons are to students who really want to learn.

Reference:  Cavage, C.  and Jones, S. (2013). Next Generation Grammar.


Next time:  Back on track with metaphors from the news…


More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 2.

More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 2.

Today, as Congress is in the process of ending the government shutdown, I continue Part 2 of my analysis of political metaphors about the shutdown from a recent Time magazine article –  Scherer, Michael and Altman, Alex, “Loss Leaders: The Fever Never Broke.  Cooler Heads Have Not Prevailed.  And the Next Self-Inflicted Crisis May be Worse than the Last.”  Time, October 14, 2013, pp. 20-26.  In this post, I will analyze a few metaphors from the categories of journeys and war.


            Many political processes are compared to people going on a journey.

pave the way

Modern roads are paved with asphalt to make them smooth.  New roads must be paved before people can travel on them.  Metaphorically, one needs to pave the way to start a new project.

Example: “Heritage Action and the others paved the way for the ambitious junior Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, a slick and silver-tongued rookie who appears to have noticed that Obama once had those same credentials” (p. 24). 


While on a journey along a road or highway, roadblocks can literally block the continuous progress on a journey or metaphorically block the progress of a program.

Example:  “In late July, Heritage began promoting a plan backed by Cruz to turn the approaching budget crisis into a roadblock for Obamacare” (p. 24).



Some obstacles in the road are very small and can simply be avoided by walking around them.  We can call this action sidestepping the obstacle.  In common terms, we also say that one can sidestep a problem or an issue by not dealing with it directly.

Example: “Speaker Boehner and his top lieutenant, Eric Cantor of Virginia, preferred to sidestep a shutdown, fearful that it would boomerang on the GOP” (p. 25).

Michigan 106 Mile markermarker on the road

Countries around the world routinely put markers on the sides of roads and highways indicating miles, exits or important points of interest nearby.  People use these markers to measure the distance travelled on their journeys.  Metaphorically, road markers indicate the amount of progress being made towards a collective goal.

Example:  “The sad news is that the shutdown may be just another marker on the road from bad to worse, where the power of minority rule, refined by the politics of safe seats, paralyzes the body politic indefinitely” (p. 25).


            In my research, I discovered that metaphors derived from actions of war are the most common of all political metaphors.  This fact is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of politics in the United States.  As with the term game, the metaphorical term war is used to describe politics as if it is a literal term.  In the following excerpt from the article, Scherer and Altman use a series of war metaphors.  In one case, the term skirmish originally meant a fight with a sword.  In modern language it describes any type of physical or verbal fight.  Also, when a gun or cannon is fired, gunpowder explodes and blasts the bullet or shell from the barrel.  Metaphorically, a blast is any type of sudden or powerful burst of information.

daily messaging war / skirmish of email blasts

Example:  “…each faction busies itself with the daily messaging war, an unending skirmish of e-mail blasts, tweets, viral videos and cable-news sound bites, making the eternal case that someone else is to blame” (p. 26).

top lieutenant

The hierarchies of political organizations are often compared to military ranks.  To repeat an earlier example…

Example:  “Speaker Boehner and his top lieutenant, Eric Cantor of Virginia, preferred to sidestep a shutdown, fearful that it would boomerang on the GOP” (p. 25).

First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492, 1862 : Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín.
First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492, 1862 : Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín.

stake their flag

In the early days of global exploration, European explorers would claim lands for their home countries by putting or staking their flag on the beach of the “new” country (of course ignoring the native peoples who already lived there). Thus staking a flag meant claiming ownership of that land for the home country.  Metaphorically, staking a flag indicated claiming ownership or commitment to a particular policy.

Example:  Speaking of some conservative Republican groups, “Sidling further and further toward the far flank, they eventually stake their flag on zealotry” (p. 23).

blow up Senate rules

Explosive devices were originally invented as weapons of war.  Bombs and cannon balls were used to blow up enemy infrastructure.  Metaphorically, to change something completely may be described as blowing it up. Repeating an earlier example…

Example:  “… Senate Majority leader Harry Reid threatened to blow up Senate rules if Republicans did not allow the confirmation of a gaggle of presidential appointees” (p. 25).

self-inflicted wound/ shoot the party in the foot

In some cases, soldiers may shoot themselves in order for them to be removed from the battlefield.  As in the subtitle of the Time article, the authors describe the shutdown as a Republican “self-inflicted crisis.”  Also, to shoot oneself in the foot metaphorically means to deliberately harm oneself or create obstacles to one’s own progress.

Example:  “…Boehner allowed the hardcores to shoot the party in the foot rather than provoking them into setting it on fire” (p. 25).

blog - war - triggerpull the nuclear trigger/ a civil war within the party

Shooting a gun requires a person to pull the trigger.  Metaphorically, pulling a trigger means to begin a new process or set an action in motion.  In nuclear weapon, the device that ignites the bomb is known as the nuclear trigger.  Also, a civil war literally means a war between two factions within one country.  In politics, we can also see a metaphorical civil war between two factions of one political party.

Example:  Quoting Republican Congressman Peter King speaking of John Boehner, “’When does he decide to basically pull the nuclear trigger and start a civil war within the Republican Party?’” (p. 25).

the next battle

Political arguments are often compared to battles.

Example:  “Even as the shutdown begins to take its toll, the next battle is looming. On October 17th, Congress must pass a bill to lift the federal debt limit or risk economic calamity” (p. 23).

Battle of Chattanooga--Gen. Thomas' charge near Orchard Knob, Nov. 24, 1863, Kurz & Allison, 1888.
Battle of Chattanooga–Gen. Thomas’ charge near Orchard Knob, Nov. 24, 1863, Kurz & Allison, 1888.

destructive combat

The fighting in a war is known as combat.  Political arguments are also commonly referred to as combat.

Example:  “Voters will have to wait another year to decide at the voting booth who wins this unseemly and destructive combat” (p. 26).


More Shutdown Metaphors: Time Magazine, Part 1.

Due to the high level of interest in my last posting on the government shutdown, I have looked further into the discussions in the national media.  This week I discovered an excellent article on the shutdown in the latest Time magazine –  Scherer, Michael and Altman, Alex, “Loss Leaders: The Fever Never Broke.  Cooler Heads Have Not Prevailed.  And the Next Self-Inflicted Crisis May be Worse than the Last.”  Time, October 14, 2013, pp. 20-26.  This article proved to be a treasure trove of political metaphors related to the shutdown.  I will describe these metaphors in two separate posts.  Today I will analyze a few metaphors from the categories of nature, games, machines and medicine.


Descriptions of politics often include metaphors of animals or nature.

lemmings with suicide vests

Lemmings are small arctic rodents that are noted for jumping off cliffs to their deaths.  This claim, however, is only a myth (due in part to a staged Disney documentary in the 1950s!  And yet, people who are thought to deliberately fail to achieve their goals are metaphorically referred to as lemmings.

Example:  “Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, compared members of his own party to ‘lemmings with suicide vests’” (p. 22).

blog - animals - lemming

a gaggle of presidential appointees

A group of geese is commonly known as a gaggle.  The term gaggle is also used metaphorically to describe a group of people who are similar in appearance or opinions.

Example:  “… Senate Majority leader Harry Reid threatened to blow up Senate rules if Republicans did not allow the confirmation of a gaggle of presidential appointees” (p. 25).

sapping Obamacare

Some trees ooze a liquid from their trunk called sap which can be used to make special products such as maple syrup or even rubber. In the belief that this leaking of sap weakens the tree, the verb sap carries the meaning of weakening something or someone of their stores of energy.

Example:  “The House passed a series of budget resolutions, each one aimed at sapping Obamacare” (p. 25).


The word brink originally referred to a type of cliff or edge of a riverbank.  Metaphorically, being on the brink of something means that a person is about to make an important decision or is facing an impending disaster.  The metaphorical usage originated with discussions of avoiding nuclear war.   The action of negotiating a settlement on an important issue is also known as brinkmanship.

Example:  “At the White House, Obama’s aides studied the polls and saw in Boehner’s brinkmanship an exercise in self-harm” (p. 23).

blog - animals - salamandergerrymander

Technically, the term gerrymander is not a metaphor, but is actually a neologism (newly created word).  However, I thought I would include it here because of its fanciful history.   As the story goes, Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts in 1812, redrew district boundaries in his state to benefit his own party. One new district was so contorted it looked like a salamander.  A local newspaper editor named this process gerrymandering.

Example:  “…after multiple rounds of ornate gerrymandering, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, fewer than 1 in 5 is truly competitive on Election Day” (p. 22).


            As mentioned in the previous post, political actions are often compared to children’s games, board games or sports.

a bystander to the game

In some cases, metaphors are so common that we use them in speech and writing as if they are literal words and phrases.  Note the example below:

Example:  “…the President – who is elected by the entire country – seemed content to be a bystander to the game” (p. 23).

the endgame

When a game of chess is completed, this is simply called the end of the game or the endgame.  In common terms, an endgame has come to mean the objective or primary goal of a policy or approach to solving a problem.

Example:  “’No one I have talked to on either side of the aisle knows what the endgame is,’ explains Representative Dan Lipinski” (p. 25).


            The inner workings of government policies are sometimes compared to machines.


A mechanism is a part of a machine that controls a certain function, as in a spring that keeps the time in a watch.  Metaphorically, a mechanism is something that controls the function of something in a process.

Example:  “Congress created the debt ceiling in 1917 as a mechanism to restrain borrowing and must authorize any increase in its limit.”

blog - machines - hot buttonhot button issues

Most machines have buttons that must be pushed on and off to control various functions.  Some emergency or shut off buttons are painted red and may be known as hot buttons.  Metaphorically emotionally charged topics such as immigration or abortion may be referred to as hot button issues. In the following example, Scherer and Altman describe the power of some conservative political groups.

Example:  “[Heritage Action] pushed hot button issues, published rankings to praise the orthodox, and used their clout to punish signs of squishiness” (p. 24).

machinery engaged/no reverse gear

Some machines such as internal combustion engines must have gears that are engaged to work and propel a vehicle.  Engines often work with transmissions that are built with gears to control the speed.  In a complex metaphorical passage, Scherer and Altman compare the Republican plan for the shutdown as a machine.

Example:  “But the machinery was engaged and it seemed to have no reverse gear” (p. 24).


            In some cases, government policies, processes or negotiations are compared to people who are ill and need medical attention.  This is a form of personification or anthropomorphism.

feverish stalemate

The Time magazine authors compare the shutdown to a person with a high fever as they state that “the fever never broke ” (p. 21).  In an unusual mixture of medical and game metaphors, they also describe the shutdown as a stalemate but also as a person who has a fever.

Example:  “A decisive re-election would break the feverish stalemate in Washington…” (p. 23).

soothe financial markets

People who are suffering from illnesses may need to be soothed by family members or medical staff before they can heal.  Metaphorically, political or economic problems can also be soothed by politicians. In their discussion of conservative groups, Scherer and Altman use this metaphor as well.

Example:  “Conservative outfits like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action for America weren’t interested in cutting deals to soothe financial markets” (p. 24).

blog - medicine - soothe


Paralysis is a severe injury resulting in a person losing function of muscles in his or her body.  In common terms, any system, program or government operation which no longer functions properly may be described as suffering from paralysis or is paralyzed.

Example:  “… the power of minority rule, refined by the politics of safe seats, paralyzes the body politic indefinitely” (p. 25).

dead on arrival

When a person has a heart attack or is in a serious accident, in some cases the person dies before he or she can get medical attention at a hospital.  In these instances, the person is described as being dead on arrival.  In politics, government programs or policies that are not approved by Congress may also be described as being dead on arrival.

Example:  “And while immigration reform would clear the Senate, it was already dead on arrival in the House” (p. 24).

Next time:  Shutdown Metaphors of Journeys and Wars

Special Edition: Shutdown Metaphors

This is one blog that I was hoping I would not need to write.  Unfortunately, our dysfunctional Congress has succeeded in shutting down the government.  If you are confused by all the metaphors used by politicians and journalists in the past few weeks, here is a short guide to some of the most common ones, grouped by conceptual metaphor category.



The word shut originally meant to throw a bolt across a door to keep it closed.  The compound word shutdown was originally used to describe the shutting of doors of a factory, but later it was also used by extension to describe the stopping of an engine from running.   Metaphorically, the term shutdown is now also used to describe the stopping of the U.S. government as either a building with doors that are bolted shut or as a machine that is no longer running.

Example:  Some experts blame the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party on the 2013 government shutdown.

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Start / Stop Switch








close their doors

Given the history of the word shutdown, it is not surprising that we also use a metaphorical phrase that the government is closing its doors when there is a shutdown.

Example:  When the government closes its doors, many government agencies and national parks are also closed.

debt ceiling

The limit of the amount of debt that the U.S. government can borrow is known as the debt ceiling, as if the debt is a physical amount of cash in a small room that cannot grow higher than the ceiling of that room.

Example:  The U.S. government raised the debt ceiling for many decades without controversy, but it has become an issue of budget negotiations in the past few years.


who will blink first?

A game that is popular among children and young adults is the staring game.  Two people face each other and stare as long as they can at the other person. The first person who blinks loses the game.

Example:  During the political negotiations prior to the shutdown, many people wondered if House Speaker John Boehner would be the one to blink first.


In a game of chess, the object of the game is to capture the king of the opposing player.  This is known as checkmate.  In an older form of the game, the winning move was decided when the opposing player could not move any more, a situation known as a stalemate.  Today a stalemate is any situation in which two opposing sides cannot come to an agreement on a particular matter.

Example:  The shutdown occurred because the Republicans and Democrats were at a stalemate on budget issues.

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Ping-pong is a popular game in which two players hit a small ball back and forth across a net on a small wooden table.  English speakers sometimes use this  back-and-forth movement to describe fast-changing negotiations or disagreements between two groups of people.

Example:  Prior to the shutdown, Democrats and Republicans ping-ponged different bills back and forth that could have avoided the shutdown.



The term piecemeal is an Old English expression meaning the fixed time to eat a meal.  However, the term now indicates doing something in small measured steps instead of in one large effort.

Example:  The American people have been frustrated with the Congress since they try to solve budget problems piecemeal instead of passing comprehensive legislation.

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cherry pick

Cherries are fruit that grow on tress in small bunches.  Sometimes they ripen at different rates, so that one has to be careful to pick only the ripe cherries and not those that are still green.  This process of careful cherry-picking is used to describe processes in the government that only apply to one or two problems instead of solving a crisis in a holistic manner.

Example: After the shutdown began, some members of Congress began to cherry pick some government agencies that they wanted to remain open.


cash flow

Money has long been considered metaphorically as a flowing liquid.  Note the term currency that is derived from the motion of water flowing in a current.  During this most recent budget crisis, the government shutdown meant that it would not pay its employees.  In effect, the cash would stop flowing.

Example:  Unfortunately for many federal employees, their paychecks would be terminated since there would not be any government cash flow during the shutdown.

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freeze payments

Water freezes at a certain low temperature. We can also say that money which stops flowing is frozen.  We can speak of frozen assets or frozen payments.

Example:  During the shutdown, the U.S. government froze payments on most of its expenditures.


hold hostage

Disturbingly, some of the actions of our members of Congress have been compared to criminal behavior.  For instance, when someone holds another person against his or her will for an extended period of time, this is known as holding the person hostage.  In the latest failed negotiations in Congress, the Democrats accused the Republicans of holding the country hostage by refusing to compromise on the implementation of Obamacare.

Example:  Critics of the Tea Party claim that they are holding the nation hostage so they prevent the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.

a gun to the head

Even more serious is the metaphor of a person holding a gun to someone’s head as if they are about to shoot that person.   Some Democrats have complained that the negotiating tactics of the House Republicans are tantamount to holding a gun to their heads until they agree to their demands.

Example:  Prior to the 2013 government shutdown, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not agree to Republican demands with a gun to his head.


no end in sight

Finally, an unusual journey metaphor illustrates the pessimism of finding an easy solution to the shutdown dilemma.  On a long journey, we cannot always see our destination in our field of vision so that it is literally not in sight.  Moreover, during a long journey through a tunnel, we may not be able to see the end of the tunnel.  Combining these two experiences results in the metaphor of having no end in sight, meaning that there is no immediate solution to an ongoing problem.

Example:  As the shutdown continued for several days, journalists reported that there was no end in sight.

blog - journey - tunnel