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.

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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