Monthly Archives: August 2014

Turning the Corner: More Economic Metaphors

In my last post, I discussed how metaphors of time are used to describe economics, highlighting a few phrases from a recent Time magazine article (“Surprise: The Economy Isn’t as Bad as You Think: Seven Signs America has Turned the Corner” by Roger Altman, Time, July 28, 2014, pp. 38-42).    Today I would like to share a few metaphors based on experiences of physical movement and journeys from the same article.

We have all passively experienced the flow of water in a river or the passing of clouds in the sky.  We have also experienced the more active motion of driving in a car, or riding in a boat or train.  These experiences of movement and being on a journey help us create metaphors to describe other more abstract experiences and we find a number of these metaphors used to describe economics.  We have metaphors to describe when there is no movement at all, backwards movements, or forward journeys. All of the following examples are from the Time magazine article; the italics are mine used to highlight the metaphors in question.

No movement

blog - journey - stagnantstagnant

When there is no flow of water in a river, we say that the water is stagnant.  This term carries a negative connotation since stagnant water is often polluted or filled with natural debris.  In fact, the word stagnant originally referred to standing water in a pond or swamp.  When there is no movement towards a goal in business, economics or politics, we may say that it is stagnant.

Example:  “Our outlook shines compared with that of the rest of the industrialized world, as Europe and Japan are stagnant” (p. 40).

Example:  Speaking of educational outcomes, “For 25 years, those outcomes were stagnant” (p. 42).


Another way of indicating a lack of movement is to say something is stable.  This carries a meaning of being balanced or not moving backwards or forwards.

Example:  “…the role of manufacturing in our GDP is stable…” (p. 41).

blog - journey - RR trackson the wrong track

Trains run on railroad tracks.  They must be on the correct tracks to go in the right direction.  If they are on the wrong tracks they will go in the wrong direction, either making progress towards a different location, or going completely in the opposite direction. In either case, a literal train or a metaphorical process on the wrong track will not be making the expected progress.

Example:  “In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 63% of respondents said the U.S. is on the wrong track”  (p. 40).

Backwards movement


We have many terms in English based on the back as a body part, indicating that something is literally or metaphorically behind us. One such term is setback, an interesting compound word created by combining the motion of putting or setting something in a particular location along with the physical location of something.  Metaphorically, a setback is an event that blocks the progress of a group of people towards a particular goal. In this case, the opposite of a setback is a recovery, word originally meant to indicate a return to good health.  In the Time magazine article there are several insets highlighting setbacks and recoveries of the economy.

Example:  “13% – Setback: Percentage of households that suffered ‘substantial financial stress’ during the recession. 26% – Recovery: Increase in the average home price in 20 key metro areas since April 2012” (p. 40).


We normally travel forward in a vehicle, but sometimes we must drive in reverse to put the vehicle in a particular position.  Metaphorically, reversing oneself indicates that the person is going in the opposite direction that one was originally heading. Normally there is a negative connotation to this term, as if one is breaking a promise or not succeeding in reaching a goal.  However, in other cases there may be a positive connotation when a person is describing something going in a positive direction after having been going in a negative direction.  This situation occurs in the Time magazine article when the author describes negative economic trends stop and begin to improve.

Example:  After describing poor high school graduation rates in the U.S., the author writes “But beginning in 2006, the decline began to reverse” (p. 42).

Example:  After noting that labor costs are rising in China, the author writes “That explains why certain U.S. producers are reversing themselves and committing to manufacturing goods at home” (p. 41).

blog - journey - train turnaroundturnaround

Another way to describe a negative trend becoming positive is to say that it is a turnaround, as if a vehicle is turning and driving in the opposite direction.

Example:  “…criminologists still differ on what has caused the nationwide turnaround in crime rates…” (p. 42).


A final example of backwards movement is the term comeback.  Once again this term is a compound word combining an action with an adverb.  In popular terms, this term is used to describe an athlete or celebrity whose career had been failing but found success again later.  In economics, the term comeback may describe a reversal of a negative trend.

Example:  “Despite the pessimistic mood, America is experiencing a profound comeback” (p. 40).

Forward movement

blog - journey - turn the cornerturn the corner

One way to describe a vehicle changing course and going the right direction is to say that one turns the corner.  Metaphorically to turn the corner indicates that progress toward a goal that was once stalled is not proceeding in the right direction.

Example:  In the title of the article, Roger Altman aims to describe “Seven signs that America has turned the corner” (pp. 38-39).

blog - journey - derailmenton track

As mentioned earlier, trains must travel on tracks.  When a train is derailed or off the tracks, it cannot continue moving forward.  When the train is repaired, we say that it is back on track.

Example:  “The idea that America, whose oil production has been declining for the past 40 years, is now on track to become the world’s biggest producer by 2015 is still hard to grasp” (p. 41).

engine of our economy

Forward movement is also characterized by a machine or an engine with power and force.  We may say that manufacturing, for instance, is the engine of our economy as if it is a vehicle driving down the road. (Note that in the following example, the economy is also described as being “healthy” as if it is a person recovering from an illness.)

Example:  “…the overall outlook for consumer spending, the engine of our economy, is healthy again” (p. 40).

blog - journey - turbochargerturbocharged

Engines can be given additional horsepower with a turbocharger, a device that forces more air and fuel into the combustion chamber.  Metaphorically, a process can be turbocharged if it is given extra energy through additional money or resources applied to it.

Example:  Altman notes that the economy is recovering “And it’s all being turbocharged by an energy boom nobody saw coming” (p. 40).


Economic progress can also be described in terms of a rocket being launched.  A rocket or missile follows a specific trajectory or arc in the sky after being fired.  A powerful rocket can have a very high and long trajectory.  Metaphorically, the trajectory of a process is its planned execution or development.

Example:  “Surveys find entrenched pessimism over the country’s economic outlook and overall trajectory” (p. 40).

blog - journey - galloping horsegalloping advances

In a less technological metaphor, we can also liken economic progress to the journey on a horse. Horses have several gaits including slow trots and fast gallops.  Any movement described as galloping indicates a past pace towards a goal. In this example, the author ironically describes automotive technology as making galloping advances.

Example:  “…galloping advances in engine technology and vehicle weight are enabling automakers to improve their mileage more quickly than anyone forecast” (p. 41).

lead the way

Journeys often need leaders to guide the travelers.  We sometimes speak of a road as a way, as in our word highway.  Saying that a person leads the way indicates that the person is guiding the journey or the process towards a goal.

Example:  In describing the reduction of coal-fired plants, the author states “To have any credibility in leading global negotiations on these issues, we need to lead the way” (p. 41).

blog - journey - fine linebarriers/walking a line

In a final example, the author ends the article with a mixture of several powerful metaphors.  In addition to use the word outlook (as described in the previous post), and a mention of barriers, physical or metaphorical impediments to our journeys, he also describes the economic recovery process as walking on a thin financial line as if one may fall off a thin walkway while crossing a dangerous part of the journey.

Example:  “With our economy’s near- and medium-term economic outlook strong, now is the time to remove the barriers that are keeping hardworking Americans walking a far too thin financial line” (p. 42).

Next time:  A book review:  Metaphors in International Relations Theory by Michael P. Marks

I Didn’t See That Coming! Metaphors of Time

blog - time - train comingHave you ever heard the phrase, “I didn’t see that coming?”  This phrase is normally used when an event occurs in our lives that we were not expecting, such as suddenly being laid off, or a celebrity doing something stupid.  We say it all the time, but one must admit it is pretty strange when you think about it.  It implies that events of the future are coming at us like a car on the road or a train on the tracks.  In fact, the way we conceptualize time is one of the strangest aspects of the study of metaphor.

For example, a recent Time magazine article describes how the economy is recovering (“Surprise: The Economy Isn’t as Bad as You Think: Seven Signs America has Turned the Corner” by Roger Altman, Time, July 28, 2014, pp. 38-42).  Altman explains, “And it’s all being turbocharged by an energy boom nobody saw coming” (italics mine, p. 40).  The concept of time coming at us is just one of the ways we conceptualize time.

When I was first writing my book on political metaphors, I was sure that I would have a chapter on metaphors of time.  However, I could not find any consistent set of political metaphors based on concepts of time. Instead I found an odd collection of sayings that were not directly related to political actions or speeches.

blog - time - soldiers marchingFor example, we have a saying time marches on.  This phrase is interesting for three reasons: 1) the notion of time is personified, i.e., we conceive of time as a person doing an action; 2) time as a person is not still but constantly moving forward; and 3) we say that time is marching. We don’t say that time is strolling by, or time is running down the track.  When we say that time is marching, we imply that it is moving at a consistent deliberate pace as when a soldier marches into battle lock step with his fellow soldiers.

blog - time - watchWe also say time waits for no one.  Again this phrase is an example of personification as if time is a person who continues to move forward regardless of human behavior or actions.  We may also say time is on our side as if time is a person who is supporting one’s actions.

blog - time - hourglass



This idea of time as movement perhaps relates to the fact that we also conceptualize time as a distance.   We describe time as being short or long as if it is a two-dimensional linear object.  In fact, we can say that a short time is brief, but I cannot think of another way to describe the opposite without saying long.  We even use the word long when we ask questions about time.  For example, “How long did you have to wait at the doctor’s office?” “Oh, not too long.  About a half hour.”

Then we have the examples of time coming at us.  We have such expressions as the time has come to take action, or the election is coming up.  And we have the phrase mentioned earlier, “nobody saw [that] coming.”

Since we conceive as time coming at us, it is perhaps not surprising that we may also say that we are looking at time as if it is ahead of us.  We might say that we are looking forward to our summer vacation or looking towards a better solution to a problem in the future.

An outlook of the Columbia Gorge in Washington state
An outlook of the Columbia Gorge in Washington state

The author of the article also mentions that, “Our outlook shines compared to that of the rest of the industrialized world…” (p. 40). Thus we have the unusual word outlook with a preposed adverb preceding the verb.  The author also writes “But in terms of the growth outlook, the news is good” (p. 40).

Another unusual word used to talk about the future is forecast.  Once again the short form of the adverb before is preposed before the verb cast.  This term is used to describe the intent to predict a future event such as the weather or a stock performance.  The Time article describes that new houses are being built at increasing rates.  While prior to the housing crisis 1.5 million homes were built annually, the rate dropped to only 500,000 homes.  “Most forecasts envision a rate of roughly 1.2 million next year…” (p. 40).

blog - time - forecast

While there are many different types of metaphors used to talk about the economy, it is interesting to look at the way we talk about metaphors of time as we describe economic progress.  It gives us a view into how our minds work in conceptualizing abstract ideas.  Students of language or politics would benefit from a deeper understanding of how these metaphors work.

Next time:  Turning the Corner: More Economic Metaphors