Monthly Archives: March 2014

Metaphors of Plains, Mountains, and Valleys

In this post I continue with a few examples of metaphors from the world around us.  We all have experience with flat plains, high mountains and low valleys.  We use these experiences to create metaphors used to describe political situations.


We all have experience with the earth below us whether it be a field or farm or a backyard lawn.  We commonly call the land ground.  Metaphorically, the term ground has come to mean the base or basis for many actions in life, as in the expression grounds for a lawsuit or grounds for investigation.


Example:  Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky gave Congress grounds for launching impeachment proceedings.

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ground level

A tall building may have many top floors and several basement levels.  The part of the building at the level of the street is often called ground level.  Furthermore, in any organization, there are managers and supervisors at the top levels, while there are also middle managers and ordinary workers at the bottom of the hierarchy.  These lower-level workers are sometimes ground-level workers.

Example:  A successful presidential election requires skilled strategists at the top levels and many ground-level workers to get the votes out.

top of the field

A large piece of open land is called a field.  Metaphorically, a field is any large group of people.  Someone who is a well-respected expert may be described as being at the top of the field.  In politics, a candidate in a primary is earning the most votes may be described as the top of the field.

Example:  In 2012, Mitt Romney rose to the top of the Republican field of candidates.

blog - nature - Corn_fieldfield questions

In a press conference, many journalists gather together to ask questions of political candidates or elected officials.  The speaker must answer these questions one at a time.  This process is called fielding questions from the journalists.

Example:  While in power, President George Bush liked to give speeches, but he was not comfortable at fielding tough questions from journalists.


A large area of land in a certain part of the country can be called a landscape.  Metaphorically, conditions for religion, economics or politics may also be described as a particular kind of landscape.

Example:  Due to a bad economy and powerful Republican opponents, Barack Obama faced a different political landscape in the 2012 elections than he had in the 2008 elections.


Another word for land or landscape is terrain.  Metaphorically, the word terrain can be used similar to landscape in describing a specific environment for something to happen.

Example:  Barack Obama faced a tougher political terrain in 2012 than he did in 2008.

blog - nature - plainplainspoken

The flat lands in the middle of the United States are called the plains.  Metaphorically, the concept of the flat, simple land is used to describe simple, clear language or anything else that is easy to see or understand. This type of speech is known as being plain spoken.

Example:  President Ronald Reagan was famous for being a plainspoken politician.


A geographical area where no plants can grow due to either pollution or lack of water may be called a wasteland.   In common terms, any economic, political or artistic environment that does not promote success may be called a wasteland.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claimed that his economic policies created a wasteland of high unemployment in the United States.

Mountains and Valleys

move mountains

Mountains are the largest and most solid objects in any environment.  Metaphorically, doing something that most people would think is impossible may be called moving mountains.

Example:  Barack Obama hoped to move mountains when he was elected but he made little progress in his first term in office.

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slippery slope

Mountains and hills have steep inclines that are difficult to climb up or down.  When it rains, these slopes can become impossible to ascend or descend.  In fact, a person trying to climb up a wet hill will most likely lose his or her footing and slide all the way down to the bottom.  In common terms, a slippery slope is any situation in which a specific action or decision may result in the failure of the entire process or project.

Example:  Critics of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision to allow corporations to contribute money to election campaigns complain that it was the beginning of a slippery slope to corporations taking over our entire democracy.

rocky ground

Flat areas are easy to walk on.  Areas filled with rocks make walking difficult.  Metaphorically, a difficult situation or process may be described as walking on rocky ground.

Example:  With constant criticism, presidential candidates find running for office is a rocky ground to walk on.


A monolith is a large rock in a single formation sometimes found in mountainous areas. In common terms, an organization that is large and unchanging may be described as being monolithic.

Example:  The mainstream media in the United States is often criticized for being monolithic and not being open to third party candidates in presidential elections.


A split in the surface of the earth due to an earthquake or continental drift is called a rift, such as the Great Rift Valley in East Africa.  Metaphorically, a rift is a separation between people or groups in terms of their opinions or ideas.

Example:  The rise of the Tea Party in 2008 created a rift between these economically conservative Republicans and traditional Republicans.

blog - nature - chasmchasm

Another word for rift or divide is a chasm, used similarly metaphorically.

Example:  When Barack Obama failed to deliver on some of his campaign promises, a huge chasm was created between himself and many progressives who supported him.

fiscal cliff

I previously discussed the metaphor of a fiscal cliff in a previous post.  However, I repeat some of the explanation here as it belongs in this category of nature metaphors.  A cliff is a steep drop off in a rock formation, usually along a riverbank.  Standing at a cliff is very dangerous since one can fall off and be injured or killed.  Metaphorically, a cliff is a dangerous situation.  A fiscal cliff is a situation in which severe fiscal measures will be taken under certain circumstances such as an increase in taxes or a decrease in funding for certain programs.

Example:  In 2012, the Republicans and Democrats argued over the danger of the fiscal cliff when tax cuts were due to expire at the end of the year.

blog - nature - cavecave

A cave is a hollow cavity in the earth, usually formed with the erosion of limestone by rivers.  The word cave also exists as a verb meaning the action of a cave ceiling collapsing.  Metaphorically to cave means to give into pressure from another person or group to do what they want to do.

Example:  A president will lose his support of his constituents if he or she caves in to pressures from the opposing political party.


Landforms can be worn down because of wind or water pressures over many years.  This process is called erosion.  In common terms, support for a person or process can also be eroded by pressures from other people or groups.

Example:  American support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eroded after many soldiers were killed and there seemed to be no end in sight.

blog - nature - erosion

Next time:  Metaphors of natural disasters

Metaphors of Plants and Trees

Spring has sprung in many parts of the country.  Flowers are blooming and grass is starting to turn green.  To mark the occasion, I thought I would describe a few metaphors based on plants and trees.  Enjoy!

Plants and Trees

family tree

Plants and trees are commonly used in English metaphors.  One of the most common is the familiar term of the family tree, comparing the relatives in a family to the branches of a tree.

Example:  Michelle Obama’s family tree indicates that she is the first person descended from a slave to be a first lady of the United States.

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Trees have branches that spread out far from the trunk of the tree. In a very common metaphor, the term branch is used to indicate a part of a larger organization.

Example:  The United States has three branches of government – the executive, the legislative and the judicial.

the root of the problem

Trees have roots that not only hold the tree into the ground but symbolize the beginnings of the tree’s growth.  The concept of roots is commonly used metaphorically to mean the origin of something.

Example:  The root of the economic recession of 2008 can be found in the failures of Wall Street investment firms to manage their money properly.


A tree with deep roots is one that is very old and solidly anchored into the ground.  Metaphorically, a problem or attitude that is deep-rooted indicates that it is something that goes back many years and is not likely to change any time soon.

Example:  Due to the lack of positive changes for the average person made by Congress, many Americans have a deep-rooted cynicism of politicians.


All plants have some sort of root structure.  Grass is one of the most common plants in the world and its roots are spread evenly under the ground.  In politics, a grassroots organization is one that originated by ordinary people, not developed by a larger political party or organization.

Example:  Although millions of Americans created support networks for Barack Obama in the 2008 election, many of those grassroots organizations were dying off and looking for new members for the 2012 election.

blog - nature - leavesleaflets

Trees have thousands of leaves.  The idea of a leaf is used commonly to describe pages in a book.  Small pieces of paper are also called leaflets and are often used to distribute information in an election.

Example:  If you go to a candidate’s campaign rally in a presidential election, you may receive a leaflet describing the candidate’s best qualities and political experience.

blog - nature - stumpstump speech

When a tree is cut down, the remaining part of the trunk standing a few feet off the ground is called a stump.  Before the days of microphones and amplified sound, political candidates had to shout their speeches from a stage or platform.  In a small town with no such structures, candidates had to stand on the top of tree stumps to give their talks to the local people.  These became known as stump speeches.  Nowadays, any type of speech from a candidate during a campaign may be called a stump speech.

Example:  Mitt Romney and Barack Obama crisscrossed the country giving stump speeches prior to the 2012 presidential election.

sap momentum

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.  In politics, the positive forward energy in a campaign is called momentum.  A crisis or embarrassing event may sap the campaign of its momentum.

Example:  Although Hillary Clinton had a great deal of followers in the early days of the Democratic primary in 2007, Barack Obama’s popularity sapped the momentum of her campaign.


A hedge is a row of bushes usually grown specifically to form a boundary or fence line on a person’s property to keep animals in or people out. The idea of a hedge to provide security or protection has led to figurative language such as hedging one’s bets meaning to protect oneself from losing too much money in a bet.  The same idea is used in the type of investments called hedge funds which are also designed to decrease the risk of money lost in an investment.

Example:  After the 2008 economic crisis, many Americans asked the government to increase the taxes paid by billionaire hedge fund managers on Wall Street.

Plant Growth

stems from

Plants are attached to the ground through the roots.  They grow and produce blossoms or fruit from the stem.  Metaphorically, the origin of something may be described as stemming from an event, process or project.

Example:  In late 2011, the approval rating for Congress dropped to only 9%.  The frustration with Congress stems from the fact that Republicans and Democrats can never seem to agree on anything and do not pass any laws to help the American people.


Some plants have small branches or shoots that grow out of the main stem or trunk.  These can also be called offshoots.  In common terms, an offshoot is anything that develops out of something else.

Example:  In the war on terror, American presidents must monitor not only the main terrorist organizations but their offshoots around the world as well.

Next time:  Metaphors of Plains, Mountains, and Valleys

Metaphors of Red, Blue, Green and Yellow

In my last post I discussed metaphors derived from the colors of black and white.  Today I discuss metaphors derived from our experiences in seeing colors of red, blue, green and yellow.  As I mentioned last time, some of these conceptual metaphors originate in our experiences with nature, while others are based on arbitrary associations.  Have a look at a spectrum of color metaphors!

Red and Blue

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red states and blue states

                  The United States has two dominant political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. During presidential elections, each state will be won by either party.  In the 1990s, television stations and newspapers struggled to show which party had won each state.  Eventually the media began using two contrasting colors for the two parties, red for Republican-won states, and blue for Democrat-won states.  In time, people began to shorten the names to simply red states and blue states.  There is nothing intrinsically red or blue about any political party.  In this case, the color-based origin of these political terms is completely arbitrary. Thus they should be more correctly labeled as slang terms instead of metaphors.

Example:  The west coast of the United States has mostly blue states such as California, Oregon and Washington.  However, the Midwest and South have many red states.


Since purple is a mixture of the colors red and blue, some media analysts say that states with an even mixture of Democratic and Republican voters are called purple states.

Example:  Virginia was formerly known as a red state, but it has been purple during the 2008 and 2012 elections.


The color red has man metaphorical meanings.  In addition to the political meaning explained above, the color red is commonly used to mean anger.

Example:  In the year 2000, many Democrats were seeing red when the Supreme Court voted to uphold George W. Bush’s election win although Al Gore had won the popular vote.

red ink

Pens with red ink were formerly used to write down the amount of money that was lost in a business.  When a business or government is losing more money than it is earning, we say that it is in red ink.

Example:  When the economy is in recession, many state governments get into red ink.  They must begin to make budget cuts.

blog - colors - Civil_War_Red_Tape_02red tape

Many years ago, a kind of red-colored tape was used to hold together official government documents.  Nowadays, the phrase red tape indicates the problems and delays one encounters when trying to get something done in a bureaucracy.

Example:  Many Americans are frustrated by all the red tape they must endure every time they deal with the government for taxes, licenses, passports, etc.


As with the phrase red ink, the term redline originally meant to use red ink to highlight a problem.  In some cases, the names of people who applied for a loan from a bank but did not qualify were crossed off a list with red line.  Thus, to redline someone means to disqualify him or her from doing something.

Example:  In part, the banking crisis of 2008 was caused by banks giving loans to people who should have been redlined since they could not afford to pay the high mortgages.


The rose flower has petals in beautiful shades of red.  If we say something is rosy, this means that the situation is very good.

Example:  When a new president is elected, most people have rosy expectations of making positive changes for the country.


In addition to meaning explained above that blue states are Democratic, the color blue is also used to indicate situations that are sad or depressing.  Also, as mentioned in the chapter on Clothing, blue collar workers are those who work in factories and make middle class wages.

Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama was able to turn some red states blue.

Example:  Many Republicans were feeling blue when Barack Obama won the election.

Example:  During the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton won many votes from blue collar Democrats in the Midwest.

blog - colors - Clouds_Blue_Sky_001out of the blue

If something is unexpected, it seems to fall from the blue sky.  Thus we have an expression that something we were not expecting is out of the blue.

Example:  The rise of Hitler in World War II was not out of the blue; many Europeans knew he was gaining power in the 1930s.

blue blooded

Many years ago in Spain, the term translated as blueblood meant someone who was very rich or from a high social class.  This term may have started from the idea that blood looks blue in people with very fair skin especially when compared to people with darker skin.

Example:  After the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, citizens did not want any more royal British bluebloods controlling their government; they wanted to elect their own presidents.

Green and Yellow

blog - colors - green shoots Convallaria_majalis_IP0404087green

The color green has many metaphorical meanings.  Since most plants are very green when they start to grow, the color green is used to indicate people who are not yet mature or experienced.  Since the color green is associated with plant growth, it has been used to describe programs, organizations and governments that take good care of the environment.  Subsequently, one who works in a business promoting environmental concerns can be called a green collar worker.  Finally, since American money is colored green, the term green can also be used to indicate financial gain.

Example:  Some critics said that Barack Obama was too green to be elected president since he did not have much executive experience.

Example:  Traditionally American-made cars have not been good at saving gas or reducing pollution.  However, now the companies are stating to make greener cars with better gas mileage and less carbon dioxide emissions.

green collar

Example:  After the high oil and gas prices in 2008, many companies started making alternative energy, creating many green collar jobs.


                  A person who is inexperienced can also be called a greenhorn, perhaps derived from animals with new horns when they are young.

Example:  Ronald Reagan was no greenhorn when it came to making public speeches.  He was a famous Hollywood actor before becoming the governor of California and the president of the United States.


A greenback is another word meaning American money, due to its color.

Example:  Americans seem to need more and more greenbacks to buy simple things like food and gasoline. 


In popular terms, to be yellow means to be afraid or cowardly, as in a soldier who is afraid to fight in a war.  In politics, a leader may be called yellow if he or she is afraid to use military force against an enemy.

Example:  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt was not yellow; he declared war on Japan the next day and immediately began plans to attack.

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, a satire of their role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain. Source – Wikipedia.
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, full-length, dressed as the Yellow Kid, a satire of their role in drumming up USA public opinion to go to war with Spain. Source – Wikipedia.

yellow journalism

In the 1890’s, a New York newspaper had a comic strip character who always wore yellow clothes.  The Yellow Kid, as he was known, was so popular another newspaper created their own yellow characters to get more people to buy their newspaper.  This competition became known as yellow journalism, later meaning the type of reporting relying on headlines, exaggerations and sensational stories to sell newspapers instead of trying to find all the facts.

Example:  American citizens should be careful about yellow journalism when it comes to learning the truth about the news.  They should only read newspapers that tell the real truth about events.

Other color metaphors


If someone cannot physically see colors, this is called being colorblind.  Metaphorically, being colorblind means that one does not form opinions or make decisions based on a person’s race.

Example:  Did America become more colorblind after Barack Obama was elected the first black president? Or will race still an important issue in society for many years to come?


If a person is looking off-color, this means he or shoe does not have the usual color of healthy skin.  In jewelry, a jewel that is off-color is less valuable because it is not as pure as other examples of that type of gem.  In popular terms, a joke or story is considered off color if it is not accepted by normal society, usually because it has some sexual content.

Example:  Good politicians are careful not to tell any off-color stories since many people will be offended.

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true colors

If people show their true colors, this means that they are showing what they really think or believe.

Example:  Democrats show their true colors when they write laws that help poor people have better lives.

Next time:  Metaphors of Plants and Trees

Metaphors of Colors: Black and White

In my last few posts here, I have talked about metaphors of metals and some colors.  Today I would like to add a few more metaphors based on our experience with colors. It should be noted that some color metaphors are based on experiences with nature, e.g., those derived from white, black or green, while others are completely arbitrary such as those based on red or green traffic lights. Today I will concentrate on metaphors derived from our perceptions of black and white, light and dark and the grey shadows in between.

Black and White

The two most common color terms used metaphorically in English are black and white, used to distinguish the two dominant races in the United States.  African-Americans are often referred as blacks, while Caucasians are referred to as whites.

Separate drinking fountains for "whites" and "coloreds" in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939
Separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939


Example:  In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president.



Example:  All U.S. presidents prior to Barack Obama were white males. 


white trash

Trash is another word for garbage.  Poor white people who do not take care of their houses or who have junk or garbage in their yards are sometimes called white trash.

Example:  Local politicians try to clean up white trash neighborhoods and try to get people to take better care of their homes and yards.


If you coat something with a thick layer of white paint, this is called whitewashing.  In metaphorical terms, whitewashing means covering up the truth about something.

Example:  American citizens like our politicians to tell us the truth about the economy, not whitewash the facts to make things look better than they are.

black and white

                  Black and white are the two colors with the most contrast.  If we say something is black and white, it is very clear and well understood.

Example:  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the reason for the U.S. to go to war against Japan was black and white.

Example:  The causes of the economic crisis in 2008 were not black and white; there were many different complicated causes.

black market

While white normally has a meaning of something good, black often means something bad, since evil things are thought to happen in the dark or absence of white light.  A black market is a system of commerce where items are sold illegally.

Example:  In some countries where everyday items are hard to find or very expensive, there is often a black market where one can buy these goods more cheaply.


Someone who is blackhearted is a very bad person.

Example:  The warlords in Asia and the Middle East who make a profit from killing other people must certainly be blackhearted 



Just recently, people have begun to describe minorities with dark skin as being brown.  However, this is not common usage.

Example:  In 2001, author Richard Rodriguez published a controversial about race in America called Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

black-brown divide

When there is conflict between dark-skinned African-Africans and brown-skinned minorities, this is sometimes called the black-brown divide.

Example:  If Mexican-Americans and African-Americans are competing for the same jobs, this conflict may result in a growing black-brown divide. 

Light and Dark 


Similar to black and white, the concepts of light and dark are opposites.  Anything in the light is considered good; anything in the dark is considered bad.

Example:  Let us hope that the illegal dealings of any politician will be brought into the light so they can be prosecuted.


Something that is bright is very good.

Example:  Even though World War II was a horrible war around the world, the bright side of the story is that world peace was achieved for many years afterwards.


Something referred to as stark is very clear, bright and easy to see.

Example:  The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a stark reminder that every country must control its borders.

turn away from the light

                  If someone turns away from the light, this means that he or she is changing from a good person to a bad person.

Example:  Some Democrats complained that the Bush administration turned away from the light when it allegedly authorized forms of torture in Guantanamo Bay prison.

What's on the dark side of the moon?
What’s on the dark side of the moon?


People or groups described as being dark are considered to be very bad.

Example:  In Iraq, American soldiers had to fight against the dark forces of terrorism.

in the dark

The concept of darkness can also mean that there is a lack of knowledge.  To say that someone is working in the dark means that they do not understand what they are doing.

Example:  Fighting terrorism is like working in the dark since we do not always know who we are fighting.

dark money

                  Most of the money donated to political campaigns is easily traced to the donor. However, after the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, people and organizations can donate money anonymously.  These funds are sometimes called dark money because the source is kept secret or in the dark.

Example:  Critics of the Citizens United ruling complained that there is too much dark money in presidential campaigns.  They would rather know who is giving the money to each candidate.

dark suits

People who wear dark suits are thought to be very serious or dangerous, usually working for the government.  The phrase dark suits can be used to describe the clothing or the people themselves.

Example:  Government agents in dark suits arrested the politician for tax evasion.

light-colored suits

Men wearing light-colored suits are thought to be friendly and helpful.

Example:  The light-colored suits from the government were aid workers who came to help the poor people find jobs.



A shadow is caused by something or someone blocking sunlight. In English the word shadow can have two meanings.  For one, someone in another person’s shadow is trying to be as good as that person who came before him or her.  Secondly, someone working in the shadows is thought to be doing something bad or illegal.

Example:  In the 2008 election, while George Bush was still the Republican president, John McCain struggled to get out from under George Bush’s shadow and become the next president on his own.

Example:  Terrorist networks often work in the shadows of foreign countries and only come into the light when they attack. 


Buildings and trees can block the sun on hot days bringing cooler shade.  However, being shady carries the same meaning as working in the shadows.

Example:  The U.S. diplomat felt uncomfortable meeting with officials in other countries if those officials are surrounded by shady assistants.  

gray/gray areas

Gray is a color halfway between black and white.  In metaphorical terms, the word gray can represent something that is neither good nor bad.  In another sense as the opposite of black and white, something termed gray can mean that the situation is not clear or well understood.

Example:  International spies are known for working in the gray areas; are they working for good or evil? 


The term bleak is from an old word meaning a lack of color.  Something that looks bleak is not a good situation.  There is little chance that the problem will be solved.

Example:  During the 1940s and the height of World War II, the prospects of winning the war looked very bleak, but in the end the Allies beat Hitler and won the war. 


The term dim is similar to that of bleak in that there is a lack of light or hope that the situation is very good.

Example:  American citizens take a dim view of politicians who do not do their jobs very well; they should work harder to help people.

Faded colors on the Sistine Chapel.
Faded colors on the Sistine Chapel.

fade away

When colors lose their intensity, they can become faded, e.g., dark blue can become light blue if exposed to too much sun.  We then say that the color has faded away.  In metaphorical terms, both good and bad events can fade away from people’s memories.

Example:  If someone in your family has been killed in a war, the memories of that horrible event never fade away.

fade to black

In the movies when the film is finished, the screen gradually goes black.  In popular terms, a problem or event that fades to black is finished and usually forgotten.

Example:  Although Jimmy Carter did not win reelection as president in 1980, his career did not fade to black; he has remained active in politics for many years after that.

Next time:  Metaphors of Red, Blue, Green and Yellow

Metaphors of Metals

One of the many fascinating aspects of research into metaphors is that once in a while a word or phrase will harken back to an earlier time.  About 150 years ago, most people in America and England lived in rural areas so we find metaphors of farming, ranching, growing fruits and vegetables, etc.  For example, most of us have never seen a yoke but we have no trouble understanding a metaphorical phrase such as the yoke of slavery.  We may also understand a TV commentator talking about a bellwether election, even though we may not realize that a bellwether is actually the name for a lead sheep in a flock that wears a bell.  Similarly, even though most of us have never seen a gold or silver mine, much less worked in one, we understand many metaphors of mining metals out of the earth.  Perhaps our understanding comes from books or movies with Western themes.  In any case, here are a few colorful metaphors from our past experiences with mining for metals.


a gold mine

Gold is one of the most precious metals in the world.  Practically every country in the history of the world has tried to mine gold from the earth to make valuable objects.  When gold is found in an area, people usually try to dig all of it out of the ground.  This process usually requires digging deep holes in the ground called mines.  A mine dug specifically for gold is simply called a gold mine.  However, metaphorically, any great source of information or resources may also be called a gold mine.

Example:  During the Vietnam War, the so-called Pentagon Papers released to the public proved to be a gold mine of information about the United States’ involvement in the war.

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Associated Gold Mine, Kalgoorlie, Australia, 1951

mother lode

A lode is a large deposit or vein of gold, silver or other precious metal discovered in rocks.  The so-called mother lode is the largest of all deposits in the area.  In common terms, the largest source of information or resources is sometimes referred to as the mother lode.

Example:  The WikiLeaks documents released in 2010 proved to be a mother lode of secret documents about the War in Iraq.

data mining

Mining is the process of getting precious metals out of the ground.  In common terms, we can also mine documents, websites and social network pages for information about people.  This process is called data mining.

Example:  Some companies use social network sites for data mining information on the buying tastes of young people.


If one wishes to dig a mine under a large area of earth or stones, this process is called undermining.  Metaphorically, if a person tries to prevent someone from doing a certain action, or negate the progress of a certain group, this process may also be called undermining.

Example:  When Bill Clinton tried to reform health care in 1994, his efforts were undermined by insurance companies, drug companies and opposing politicians.


In a large mining area, many different people or groups of people can be digging for metals in various locations.  In the days of the gold rushes in California and Alaska in the 1800s, each location was usually marked by stakes or pieces of wood driven into the ground.  Thus, a person had a stake in the area for digging gold or silver.  The person who owned the stake was called a stakeholder.  In modern terms, a stakeholder is someone who has a major financial or personal interest in a large project.

Example:  During Barack Obama’s efforts to reform health care in 2010, the stakeholders such as insurance companies and doctors argued back and forth for months before they all reached an agreement.

blog - metals - gold panningpan out

One method for finding gold is to place sand and rocks in a pan, rinse it with water, and try to find the gold flakes that are contained in the soil.  This process is called panning for gold.  If one is successful at finding gold in this manner, we may say that the location panned out.  If no gold was found, we may say that that area did not pan out for gold.  In common terms, if a project or process is successful, we may say that it panned out.  If it is a failure, we say that it did not pan out.

Example:  Bill Clinton’s effort to reform health care in 1994 did not pan out.

Metal Works


Metals mined from the ground are in a rough state.  They must be purified, melted down and then formed into whatever object the person wants to make.  With heavy metals such as iron, the metalworker or blacksmith must heat and pound the metal into different shapes.  The place where this occurs is called a forge.  The word forge, however, also means the action of pounding the metal.  In common terms, one can also forge a new position or policy by creating something with force.

Example:  Many U.S. presidents have tried and failed to forge lasting peace in the Middle East.

hammer home the point

In the forging process, one must repeatedly hammer the metal to make the correct shape.  In metaphorical terms, any repeated action with a specific goal may be referred to as hammering something.  Commonly, in a political debate or long discussion, one person may hammer home a point on a certain topic that he or she wants to make.

Example:  After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George Bush often hammered home the point in his speeches that protecting the United States from further attacks was a top government priority.


When metal is in a natural cold state, it cannot be bent.  However, when metals are heated to a high temperature they are bendable or pliable.  Thus a pliable piece of metal can be bent in any desired shape.  Metaphorically, a person or group of people who can be persuaded to agree to different opinions may also be called pliable.

Example:  A good U.S. president can accomplish a great deal of progress when working with a pliable Congress.

unalloyed evil

Sometimes two metals are mixed together to produce a stronger combination, such as copper and tin combined to make brass.  These metals mixed together are called alloys.  When a certain metal is pure, we say that it is unalloyed.  In common terms, we may also say that someone or something considered pure in a certain situation is unalloyed.  In one such phrase, we say that a person who is truly evil has a characteristic of unalloyed evil.

Example:  Most historians agree that Adolf Hitler was a man of unalloyed evil given the number of people he killed during World War II.


golden rule

Since gold is symbolic of the highest standard in the world, it is often used to describe great achievements or high moral actions.  In one instance, we talk about the golden rule of behavior – to treat others as you would have them treat you.

Example:  Although this is not heard very often in politics, at a prayer breakfast in February, 2009, Barack Obama asked everyone to follow the golden rule, as he described it, “the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

golden age, gilded age

In world history, we sometimes talk of a great period of time as the golden or gilded age (gilded meaning covered in gold).

Example:  In 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted he longed for the golden age of George Bush’s presidency in 2004 when U.S. troops had more success in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

blog - metals - gold

alchemy, alchemist

In the Middle Ages, some chemists believed that they could turn everyday metals such as lead into gold if they could discover the correct process.  This process, which proved to be impossible, is called alchemy.  Today, people who believe that they can turn bad situations into good ones with some magical process may be referred to as alchemists.  Usually the term is used negatively to describe someone who is being fraudulent or unrealistic.

Example:  When Barack Obama authorized the federal government to bail out the large U.S. automakers, critics thought he was being an alchemist.  Years later, when the companies rebounded and paid the money back, Obama was given the credit for helping save the industry.

turn lead into gold, turn gold into lead

Another way of talking about alchemy is to say that people are turning lead into gold.  However, we sometimes hear the opposite phrase, to turn gold into lead, when someone takes a good situation and makes it worse.

Example:  Some critics of liberal policies believe pouring money into social programs such as welfare is only turning gold into lead.


top military brass

Brass is another important metal.  Although it does not have the financial value of gold, it is very shiny and is used as decorations in many important homes and businesses.  In the military, brass is used as decorations on the uniforms of top-ranking officials.  In a linguistic device known as synecdoche, the brass decorations of the uniform are used to represent the people wearing those uniforms.  Thus we have the phrase top military brass meaning the highest-ranking military officials in a certain situation.

Example:  Although unpopular with the American public, President Obama’s policy of increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2010 was supported by the top military brass in Washington.

blog - metals - brass ringbrass ring

In the 1800s and early 1900s, some carnivals contained an amusement ride called a carousel in which children could ride on wooden horses which bobbed up and down as they rotated around a circular track.  In some of these carousels a wooden arm extended from the side of the arena with rings attached at the end.   If the children could grab a brass ring as they passed the arm, they could get a free ride on the carousel. However, this was very difficult to do and became a popular challenge at these rides. This practice led to the common phrase of grabbing the brass ring, meaning trying to get the best prize or greatest opportunity in life.

Example:  Barack Obama grabbed the ultimate brass ring in 2008 when he became the first African-American president in the United States.


Brass is a mixture of copper and tin, making it stronger than either one of those metals individually.  The process of making brass is called brazing.  Something that is covered in brass may be called brazen.  In common terms, being brazen means a person is very strong-willed or outspoken.

Example:  In May 2010, North Korea fired a torpedo at a South Korean ship.  Many critics decried this action as a brazen act of war.

Iron and Steel

iron law

Iron is a very tough metal used to make steel and super strong metal vehicles or structures.  Symbolically, iron refers to anything that is strong and tough.  In one instance, a so-called iron law is any rule which normally cannot be broken under any circumstances.

Example:  One iron law of the United States is to never invade another country without approval from both houses of Congress.


In the 1800’s war ships and other military vehicles began to be reinforced or clad with iron to make them more resistant to cannon ball attacks.  These ironclad vessels usually could not be cracked or broken in battle.  Metaphorically, any rule or legal case that cannot be broken may also be described as being ironclad.

Example:  President Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency in 1973 after he was accused of not following the ironclad rule of not breaking any U.S. laws while in office.

iron fist

A person’s fist can be used to fight or control other people.  An iron fist is a metaphorical expression of a person’s strict control of a situation or a group of people.

Example:  When a revolution in Egypt broke out in 2011, critics of President Hosni Mubarek claimed he had been ruling the country for thirty years with an iron fist.


As mentioned, iron can be made into a very strong metal called steel.  Metaphorically, people can be steely if they are also very strong in certain situations.  One can have a steely resolve, steely focus or steely determination to get something done.

Example:  After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, President Bush had a steely determination to capture and kill those who were responsible for the attacks.


Although iron is a very strong metal, unpainted or unprotected iron can be weakened by being exposed to water and air for long periods of time.  The metal can oxidize or rust and lose its strength.  Thus an old piece of metal can become rusty.  Metaphorically, a person can also be rusty if he or she is out of practice at performing a certain task.

Example:  Politicians who retire and then return to public office may be rusty at giving speeches until they get back into practice again.

corrosive rhetoric

Just as when iron rusts after being exposed to water, any metal can be damaged by strong chemicals.  These chemicals can actually corrode or eat away at the metal until it breaks or falls apart.  In common terms, people’s actions or words can also be corrosive if they cause the situation to break apart.   In politics, the use of language to explain a policy or persuade someone to do something is called rhetoric. The fighting that goes on between members of Congress is often referred to as corrosive rhetoric.

Example:  The corrosive rhetoric that occurs between Democrats and Republicans during an election is enough to disgust American people to the point that they do not even vote.

chain of command

Iron and steel are metals used to make chains that can be used for pulling heavy objects or securing valuable items. The concept of a metal chain is commonly used in metaphors describing how people are connected to each other in an organization or society.  In the military or government hierarchies, the connection between the highest ranking and the lowest ranking people is called the chain of command.

Example:  In the United States government, the Speaker of the House is the third person in the chain of command after the President and the Vice President.


A link is one circular or oval part of a chain.  As with the chain metaphor, a link may also refer to a connection between things or people.

Example:  When Barack Obama ran for president, some critics made accusations that he had links to terrorist organizations, none of which turned out to be true.

18th century shackles used in the slave trade in Ghana, West Africa
18th century shackles used in the slave trade in Ghana, West Africa


If a person uses a chain to tie down something or someone, we say that the thing or the person has been shackled by the chain.  Metaphorically, someone or something unable to move or make progress in a certain situation may be described as being shackled.

Example:  Critics of excess government spending claim that the economy is shackled by a huge national debt and cannot grow as it should.

scrap, scrap metal

Metal that is broken or not usable is referred to as scrap metal.  Scrapping refers to the process of throwing away the unusable metal.  In common terms, we can also scrap anything that does not work any more.  In politics, programs or policies that are serving the American people may be scrapped.

Example:  In Congress, if members of the House and Senate cannot agree on the wording of a new bill, it may be scrapped and a new bill may need to be written.

Next time:  More metaphors of colors