Monthly Archives: October 2014

Metaphors of Halloween!

In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I thought I would share a few metaphors of the supernatural.  These metaphors are fascinating for a simple reason.  Most conceptual metaphors are created by comparing a physical object or human experience to an abstract concept.  For example, we can understand describing a cold-hearted person as being a “block of ice” because we have all had the experience of feeling the cold temperature of a piece of ice.  We can also understand personification such as describing the United States as a “strong nation” because we have the personal experiences of human strength.  However, how can we explain metaphors such as having “a ghost of a chance” or being “spellbound” when ghosts and witches’ spells are not physically real?  Clearly, we can create conceptual metaphors simply by having a common human experience with phenomena even if they are not real.

Ghosts and Spirits

Most of us learn about the supernatural through children’s stories – ghosts, goblins, fairies and bogeymen.  Despite the fact these beings are not real, they become part of consciousness and they have been used to create metaphors we can apply to everyday life.

guiding spirit

Some people believe that when people die their spirits live on after them in another world, and that these spirits can guide us in our life on earth.  Metaphorically, a guiding spirit can be anything that influences or inspires someone to take certain actions.

Example:  Barack Obama has been the guiding spirit behind many African-Americans getting more involved in politics since he was elected president.

blog - supernatural - Medieval_ghostghost of a chance

Ghosts are thought to be spirits who remain on earth.  Ghosts do not have physical bodies so they are transparent with almost nothing visible to the eye.  Metaphorically, we can say that something has a ghost of a chance when it has a very slim chance of being true.

Example:  When Barack Obama first ran for president, he was an unknown state senator from Illinois and some people thought he only had a ghost of a chance of becoming the first African-American president.   But, of course, he proved them all wrong.

blog - supernatural - haunted househaunt

Sometimes malevolent ghosts will scare or haunt the living.  Metaphorically, anything in the past that has a negative effect on a person’s life in the present may be described as a haunting.

Example:  George W. Bush proclaimed victory in the War in Iraq after only a few weeks of fighting.  His victory banner on an aircraft carrier came back to haunt him later as the war dragged on for years.


A ghostwriter is someone, usually a professional writer, who helps a celebrity or politician write a book usually without credit.

Example:  Ted Sorenson was the ghostwriter for John F. Kennedy for the book Profiles in Courage which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.


A phantom is another word for a ghost or spirit.  Figuratively, a phantom is something that we think is real but may not really exist.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama complained that his phantom economic recovery was not really creating any new jobs in the first years of his presidency.

Magicians, Witches and Wizards

blog - supernatural - magicianmagic

There have been many stories of magicians and witches throughout history.  Although witches may be only a part of folklore, there are modern-day magicians who work solely for entertainment.  Thus, magic has two meanings in English, the supernatural powers that can influence everyday life, or complex tricks and optical illusions created to entertain an audience.  In politics, we may speak of magic to describe something that happens without normal cause-and-effect relationships.

Example:  Some cynics believe that it is only by magic that the U.S. government can ever really balance its budget.

magic wand

In some ancient legends and stories, magicians carry a magic stick or wand that can be used to create new realities.  In common terms, a magic wand can be used metaphorically as an instrument that has the power to solve impossible problems.

Example:  Many Americans wish that the president had a magic wand he could use to eliminate poverty and all social problems in the United States.


To vanish means to disappear suddenly.  In a magic act, a magician can make something vanish with a wave of a magic wand or a simple phrase.  In politics, something can also appear to vanish because of changing perceptions or lack of media coverage.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claim that the hope he inspired during his campaign vanished soon after he took office and ran into many bureaucratic obstacles to getting things done in Washington.


Magicians can also make objects materialize or appear suddenly.  In politics, people, funding or programs can materialize suddenly without prior warning from the media.  The term materialized can also be used negatively to describe something that was expected to happen but did not.

Example:  Much of the job growth that Barack Obama promised did not materialize in the first few years of his presidency.

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, 1502.  Note that the person in front is having his wallet stolen as the magician performs a trick of balls and cups.
“The Conjurer” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1502. Note that the person in front is having his wallet stolen as the magician performs a trick of balls and cups.

trick, tricky

A trick is something done to deceive someone, as a magician does with a magic trick. The adjective form, tricky, can also indicate something that is complicated.

Example:  It is always a tricky problem to write tax laws that are fair to both the rich and the poor in the United States.


The word wizard is derived from the same root word meaning wise.  Thus a wizard in ancient legends was a wise man, usually at the service of powerful people.  In modern times, a wizard is anyone who has extraordinary skills in a certain area such as computers.

Example:  Presidential candidates need to have campaign strategy wizards in order to win the election.

A painting of Merlin from the Middle Ages
A painting of Merlin from the Middle Ages


Merlin was a very powerful wizard in the medieval stories of King Arthur. In modern English, someone can be referred to as a Merlin if he seems to have the ability to do things that no one else can.

Example:  After helping several Republican candidates win important offices, Karl Rove is sometimes called the Merlin of campaign strategy.



Witches and wizards are thought to put people under spells or some magical power that controls the lives of those people.  A person under such a spell is then spellbound. Metaphorically, someone can be spellbound if he or she seems to be under the powerful influence of someone else.

Example:  Many young Americans were spellbound by Barack Obama’s powerful speeches when he first ran for president in 2008.


Witches are thought to have the power of enchanting people, i.e., putting them under spells for good or bad purposes.  In common terms, people can be enchanted by something or someone if they are very excited and interested in them.  Conversely, when people are disappointed in something or someone, we can say that they are disenchanted.

Example:  Despite Barack Obama’s initial popularity, many liberals became disenchanted with him when he was unable to push through a more progressive agenda through Congress.

Fairies, Pixies and Unicorns

A 1910 painting of the king and queen of the fairies
A 1910 painting of the king and queen of the fairies

airy-fairy nonsense

Fairies are mystical creatures thought to live in forests that help people.  People who believe in fairies are ridiculed for believing in nonsense or something made out of thin air.   In a modern reduplicated phrase, something that is considered to be wildly impossible may be called airy-fairy nonsense.

Example:  Supporters of oil-based energy sources think that running the country on solar panels and windmills is a bunch of airy-fairy nonsense.

pixie dust

Pixies are also small mythical creatures.  It is said that they possess magical dust they can sprinkle on people to put them under spells or improve their fortunes.  In modern terms, people accused of sprinkling pixie dust on someone or something indicates that they are not truly aware of reality and are trying to solve problems by magical means.

Example:  Critics of liberal social programs believe that it takes more than pixie dust to get people off of welfare.

"The Gentle and Pensive Maiden has the Power to Tame the Unicorn" Domenico Zampieri, 1602
“The Gentle and Pensive Maiden has the Power to Tame the Unicorn” by Domenico Zampieri, 1602


Unicorns are imaginary horses with one spiral horn growing from its head.  Unicorns, along with fairies and pixies are symbolic of imaginary creatures with no basis in reality.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama often portray him riding a white unicorn symbolizing his attempts to implement radical social changes in the United States.

Psychics and Fortune Tellers

blog - supernatural - Glaskugel_CrystalBallcrystal ball

In popular folklore, women known as psychics or fortune tellers can predict the future.  One method of doing this is by seeing visions in a crystal ball.  Metaphorically, a mention of a crystal ball is a criticism of someone pretending to be able to see the future with no actual evidence.

Example:  Campaign strategists always hope they can look into their crystal balls and see their candidate winning the election.

blog - supernatural - Tea_leaf_reading


tea leaves

Fortune tellers are also believed to tell the future by reading patterns in tea leaves.  Figuratively, reading tea leaves indicates that someone is trying to predict the future.

Example:  In the close 2012 presidential election, no one reading the tea leaves could tell if Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would be the next president.


Psychics believe that everyone has a field of energy surrounding their bodies.  This energy field is called an aura.  Metaphorically, an aura is a person’s perceived popularity and strength of character in a certain field.

Example:  Although wildly popular in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to lose some of his aura after failing to get some of his policies enacted by Congress.



Many monsters and scary creatures are also described in the literature of the supernatural.  One such creature is known as the bogeyman, a monster who scares children or harms people.  Figuratively, a bogeyman is something or someone that threatens to cause harm to someone else.

Example:  For many Americans, Osama bin Laden was a real life bogeyman and they were glad when he was finally caught and killed.

silver bullet

Some legends tell of supernatural monsters called werewolves which are half man, half wolf creatures.  The only way they can be killed is by shooting them with a silver bullet.  Metaphorically, a silver bullet is any action that can automatically solve a difficult problem.

Example:  When gas prices rise seemingly out of anyone’s control, government experts claim that the oil supplies are so complicated that there is no silver bullet to keeping the prices down.

A set of scarecrows in a field in Japan
A set of scarecrows in a field in Japan

spook, scare off

Spook is an old word meaning to scare or frighten someone.  In modern terms, a person can be spooked or scared off by any action that causes them to hesitate in doing a normal activity.

Example:  The economic crisis of 2008 scared off many Wall Street traders from investing in the stock market.

blog - supernatural - Skeleton_Jack-O-Lantern

Next time:  Election Metaphors

Metaphors of Vision

Sight is perhaps the most primary of the five human senses.  Thus we have many metaphors of the human experience of seeing the world around us.

blog - vision - eyesa vision

Having sight is also referred to as having vision.  Metaphorically, a vision can also indicate an imagined plan for the future for whatever project one is involved in.

Example:  Every U.S. president has a unique vision for the future of the country.


A person who is known for being able to plan for the future may be called a visionary.

Example:  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary who worked for civil rights for all Americans in the 1960s.

lose sight of

While traveling, people will be able to see a landmark along the side of the road, if driving, or along the coast, if going by boat.  As the people pass that object, we can say that they lose sight of it. Metaphorically, we can also lose sight of a goal or objective of a certain project.

Example:  Many voters become disappointed with members of Congress when they lose sight of their purpose to serve the American people and instead only cater to lobbyists.

take a look at

Everyday we look at objects, images and written texts with our eyes.  This may be described as taking a look at something.  In a figurative sense, taking a look at something can mean examining and analyzing any type of information.

Example:  After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, the U.S. government had to take a hard look at its national defense systems.

blog - vision - viewview

Being able to see something implies that one has a view of it.  Figuratively, however, a person having a view can mean that he or she has an opinion on a certain matter.

Example:  Republicans and Democrats normally have opposing views on taxation of the wealthy in America.


A glimpse is a very quick look at something.  We may also use the word figuratively in the sense of understanding a small amount of information about something or someone.

Example:  Hearing a presidential candidate’s campaign speech can provide a glimpse into his or her plans for the presidency if elected.

blog - vision - transparenttransparent

If we can see directly through a physical object, we say that it is transparent.  The word transparent can also be used to mean something that is perfectly understandable without any deliberate trickery or confusion.

Example:  Most Americans prefer to have transparent government, meaning that we have the right to know everything our politicians do both here and in other countries.


The opposite of being transparent is being opaque, meaning one cannot see through the object clearly. In a sarcastic sense, people may say that things that should be transparent are actually opaque.

Example:  Critics of Barack Obama claim his transparent government was too opaque for the American people.

clear, crystal clear

To be able to see something without visual obstruction is to see it clearly.   Information, opinions, or policies can also be seen clearly if presented simply.  We may also describe this ability as being crystal clear as if the object is as transparent as a natural mineral crystal.

Example:  Presidential candidates try to make their positions crystal clear on top issues such as abortion, taxes and immigration.

focus on, sharper focus

We have the ability to look at objects that are close or far away by focusing our eyes to the correct distance.  Metaphorically we can also focus on issues or problems by examining them in closer detail.  We may also refer to this process as having a sharper focus on something.

Example:  Presidential elections tend to focus our attention on important issues that aren’t always discussed in politics.

blog - vision - Magnifying_glassmagnify

With the aid of optical instruments, we can make objects appear bigger than they actually are.  This is called magnifying the object.  Figuratively, we can also magnify a problem by making it worse.

Example:  Small problems in an election year can be magnified by intense media scrutiny.

the big picture

When looking at something, our eyes can focus on the details of one part of the image, or on the entire image.  Looking at the entire image can be called looking at the big picture.  Metaphorically, we can also say understanding general truths about a matter may be described as seeing the big picture.

Example:  To understand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must see the big picture of the work of international terrorist organizations.

Loch Alsh - Reflectionreflection

The word reflect is used to describe the phenomenon of an image returning backwards towards the viewer.  People can see their reflection in a mirror or a dark pool of water.  Metaphorically, a reflection can mean either thinking one’s thoughts over and over again as in a day of prayer and reflection after a tragedy, or alternately, an event or situation that expresses something else.

Example:  The policies of a Democratic-controlled Congress are usually a reflection of their social liberal approach to government.


If something is brightly illuminated by the sun or artificial light, we may say that it is glaring to the eyes.  Figuratively, we can also say if something is very clear or conspicuous in a certain situation, we may say that it is glaring.

Example:  Since the 1980s there has been a glaring gap between the rich and poor in the United States.

blog - vision - blurredblur, blurred

When something is not clear in a person’s vision, we may say that it is blurred. Metaphorically, if a situation is not clear, we can also say that it is blurred.

Example:  Some government policies supported by the so-called religious right may blur the line between church and state.


When an object cannot be seen clearly because it is so dark, we can say that it is murky.  We usually apply this adjective to liquids or atmospheric condition, as in murky waters or murky skies.  Metaphorically, we can also say that a dark or unclear situation is murky.

Example:  American voters do not normally approve of the murky relations of Washington lobbyists and members of Congress.

myopia, myopic

A vision disorder that occurs when a person cannot clearly see objects a great distance is called myopia.  A person with this disorder is myopic. In figurative terms, someone who is accused of not understanding a complex situation may be called myopic.

Example:  During the War in Iraq, some conservatives claimed that liberals had a myopic view of the dangers of Islamic terrorism.

blog - vision - blind as a batblind

When people have a vision disorder in which they cannot see at all, we say that they are blind. In common terms, a person who is accused of not understanding the dangers or complexities of a situation may also be described as being blind.

Example:  A good president cannot be blind to the suffering of the middle and lower classes in America.

blind optimism

Blind optimism occurs when a person is completely confident in the success of something when he or she may not understand the difficult reality of the situation.

Example:  Critics of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld claimed that they had a blind optimism in the success of the War in Iraq.


Next time:  Metaphors of Halloween!

More Metaphors of the ISIS Crisis

Hello dear readers! Before getting to the metaphors of the day, I would like to say thanks to everyone who continues to read my blog.  As my Facebook or email group members have already heard, I reached a few milestones this past week.  For one, this past week I sent off my 100th post!  My, how time flies!  It is hard to believe, but I have been doing this for 22 months now.  And, according to the stats on my blog software, I have also just reached a total of 50,000 views of my blog.  Pretty amazing for an academic blog! I am not sure if that is 50,000 different people reading the blog one time each, or 500 people reading it 100 times each, most likely the latter.   Once again, thanks for reading.  As always, feel free to leave comments or questions after the blog post.  I would love to hear from you!

Today I would like to add a few more metaphors used in the discussion about the ISIS terrorist group that President Obama did not use in his national speech.

blog - soldiers and bootsboots on the ground

The first example the common phrase boots on the ground.  This phrase is technically not a metaphor but an instance of the type of figurative language called synecdoche (sin-NECK-duh-key).  I have discussed this linguistic phenomenon in a previous post, so I won’t provide too many details here.  However, I should point out that synecdoche occurs when a part of something is used to refer to the whole.  Common examples include all hands on deck, when hands refer to the sailors working on a ship, or the Yankees have a great glove at third base, when the glove refers to the baseball player.  With the phrase boots on the ground, the boots refer to the soldiers who wear them when they go into battle.

Example: A few weeks ago, American military advisors have been saying that there would be no American boots on the ground.  Now, some experts are saying that it might be inevitable to have American soldiers in battle in Iraq or Syria.

Dinosaur footprintlarge footprint

In a strange mixture of synecdoche and personification, we can also talk about a country leaving a footprint in another country.  People and animals leave footprints in sand or soft soils as they walk.  Metaphorically, countries can leave footprints in another country if they have many people working in that country.  Recently, I have heard pundits on TV talking about not having American boots on the ground in Syria because we don’t want to have a large footprint there.

Example:  After the U.S. government spent billions of dollars on the War in Iraq, many Americans are vehemently against having another large footprint in Iraq or Syria trying to defeat ISIS.

blog - ISIS - neighborhoodneighborhood 

As explained in the analysis of President Obama’s speech in my previous post, it is common for people to talk about countries as if they are people.  Another example worthy of mention is the notion of a neighborhood of countries.  We may say for example, that Mexico and Canada are American neighbors as if they are families that live on the same street.  On TV news shows the past few weeks, some commentators have wondered why the other countries in the Middle East are not helping more to defeat ISIS.  President Obama himself used the metaphor of a neighborhood in a television interview.

Example:  “Saudi Arabia needs to help take down ISIS because it’s in their neighborhood.” – Pres. Obama on Meet the Press, Sep. 7.

war fatigue

Yet another example of personification is the phrase war fatigue.  People and animals can get tired or have fatigue.  Metaphorically, countries can be described as being fatigued if its citizens collectively share a common emotion.  Specifically, a country can have war fatigue if most of its citizens are tired of their country being at war.

Example:  After more than 10 years of wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans are suffering from war fatigue and are very reluctant to see more American boots on the ground in the Middle East.

clear vision

People and countries can also have a collective vision.  This is indeed a strange metaphor since no one can see through someone else’s eyes.  And yet we can talk about the United States having a clear vision of how a war against ISIS will develop militarily and/or diplomatically.

Example:  Supporters of President Obama claim that he laid out a clear vision of the war against ISIS with the four-step strategy he explained in his national speech.

blog - ISIS - 58_edsel_pacerwhat does a victory look like?

Another odd metaphor of vision is the question one might hear on a news show: “What does a victory look like?”  We have all had the experience of listening to someone describe a physical object in answer to a request, as in “What did the 1958 Ford Edsel look like?”  Metaphorically, we can also talk about an event as if it is a physical object, as in what winning a war looks like in terms of government takeovers, captured soldiers or the end of combat.

Example:  Many TV news commentators are asking American military advisors what a victory against ISIS would look like.

blog - ISIS - needlethreading a needle

In a totally different conceptual metaphor, we can describe military strategies in terms of a sewing technique.  Anyone who has tried to sew a garment knows that it is very difficult to thread a needle, inserting the slender thread through a tiny hole at the top of the needle.  Metaphorically, threading a needle indicates a situation that is very difficult and takes great precision to do accurately.

Example:  “Obama and his top advisers appeared to be threading a needle as they carefully clarified how exactly U.S. troops might be used, a day after Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey opened the door to approving ‘U.S. military ground forces’” (“White House: No ‘combat role,’ but US troops could ‘forward deploy’ with Iraqis”, Sept. 17, 2014).

hawks and doves

Finally, I must mention one of the most common metaphors from our experiences with animals.  Traditionally, hawks are symbolic of war since they are very skilled at killing prey, while doves are symbolic of peace since they are quiet, calm birds with a soothing call.  Metaphorically, people who support military activities are commonly referred to as hawks, while people who are anti-war and who support diplomacy and peace negotiations are often called doves.   The recent crisis in the Middle East has caused TV commentators to begin describing experts as being hawks or doves. (I discussed other metaphors of birds in a previous post.)

Example:  Despite a country filled with war fatigue, some hawks in Congress immediately supported air strikes against ISIS, while the doves argued for restraint in getting involved in another war in the Middle East.

blog - nature - hawkblog - nature - dove






Next time:  Metaphors of vision