Monthly Archives: February 2015

More on Metaphors of the Theater

The presentation of the Academy Awards last week inspired me to share a post of metaphors based on acting. Today I would like to continue in the same theme, sharing a few more metaphors based on the physical settings and events held in theaters around the world.

The Baden Baden Theater in Germany
The Baden Baden Theater in Germany

political theater

The modern forms of campaigning and governing easily allow comparisons to theatrical productions. Metaphorically, American politics is sometimes known as political theater, especially when it appears that politicians give speeches or vote on bills in Congress that seem only for show, not for substantive governmental policy decisions.

Example: In Barack Obama’s first few years as president, Democrats accused Republicans of engaging in political theater when they seemed to filibuster or block all Democratic bills in Congress.

The 2015 Miss America contestants
The 2015 Miss America contestants

beauty contest

Beauty contests are popular competitions to determine who is the most beautiful among a large group of women. Since all presidential candidates must be handsome men or attractive women, critics complain that our modern elections are nothing more than beauty contests.

Example: Democratic and Republican primaries often seem to be beauty contests instead of discussions of the most important issues of the day.

blog - theater - Chicago_Theater marqueeup in lights

A theater or movie house will normally put the name of the current show along with famous actors’ names on a large electric board called a marquee. The name is usually above the doors of the building and well lit, thus we say that each name is up in lights. Metaphorically, a person who becomes famous will have his or her name up in lights.

Example: One wonders if some members of Congress really ran for office for public service or simply to have their name up in lights.

blog - theater - red_carpetred carpet

For the opening of some important movies or plays, a long roll of red carpeting was traditionally laid out in front of the building. The famous actors, directors and producers would then walk on this red carpet to be cheered by adoring fans. Metaphorically, rolling out the red carpet means that someone is providing an exceptionally warm welcome to someone important.

Example: Critics complain that too many Senators and members of Congress roll out the red carpet for lobbyists from large corporations and expect them to pass laws in their favor.

usher in

Spectators at a play or movie can be shown to their seats by helpers known as ushers. We say that these spectators are ushered into the theater. Figuratively, when a new policy or program is being introduced, we may say that it is being ushered in.

Example: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 ushered in a new era of corporate contributions to political candidates.


The word fanfare carries many meanings. It originally meant loud talking or chattering. Later it came to mean a loud, showy display or introductory music played by trumpets. In politics, an important vote, decision or event may be covered widely in the newspapers, magazines, and television and radio shows. This may also be described as being part of a great fanfare.

Example: In August, 2012, Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate with great fanfare.

center stage

In some large theaters there are more than one stage. There is a large stage in the middle and one or two stages on the sides. Traditionally the most important part of the play is performed on the center stage. Metaphorically, something being on center stage means that it is the most important part of a process or situation.

Example: High unemployment seemed to take center stage in the 2012 presidential elections.

A staging of "Twelfth Night" at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival
A staging of “Twelfth Night” at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

front and center

At certain times in a play or musical, important scenes are performed at the front part of the center stage. This is known as being front and center. Figuratively, someone or something that is seen as being very important at the time may be described as being front and center.

Example: Republican policies towards women’s health care were front and center on the minds of women voters in 2012.

stage, staging

Putting on a live theater production is sometimes called staging a performance. In politics, when candidates arrange a speech, interview or debate to be on national television, we may also refer to this as staging an event.

Example: Many presidential candidates are good at staging town hall meetings to talk to local people about the issues.

international stage, world stage

When celebrities or politicians become world famous, we say that they are figuratively playing on an international or world stage.

Example: When Barack Obama picked Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State in 2008, she became an important player on the world stage of diplomacy.

backstage maneuvering

When a play is being performed, many stagehands or assistants are busy behind the curtain getting the actors and sets ready for the next scene. This might be called backstage maneuvering. Metaphorically, any meetings or decisions that are made in secret may be referred to as backstage maneuvering.

Example: Often bills are passed in Congress after hours of backstage maneuvering by leading members of Congressional committees.

behind the scenes

Another way of describing the work of stage hands during a play is say it is behind-the-scenes work. In politics, many deals are made behind the scenes as well.

Example: Tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden was accomplished with many behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering and strategies by the Obama administration.

blog - theater - backdrop Scenic_Designagainst the backdrop

In a play or movie set, there is often a painted scene to indicate a particular place. This painted scene is known as a backdrop. The actors in the play or movie act out their lines in front of or against the backdrop. Figuratively, any action in politics or culture can take place against a backdrop of a particular place or situation.

Example: Presidential candidates often give speeches about reducing unemployment against a backdrop of closed factories in Midwestern towns.

Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention
Pat Nixon in the spotlight at the 1972 Republican Convention


Theaters normally have strong lights that they can point anywhere on the stage. If a light is used to illuminate one small scene, this is called shining a spotlight on the scene. Metaphorically, being in the spotlight means being the center of attention.

Example: During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s tax records were in the spotlight for many months.

raise the curtain

When a play is about to begin, the theater raises the main curtain so the audience can see the actors and the sets. Metaphorically, raising the curtain on something means to begin a process, or to reveal information that was not announced previously.

Example: Speakers at national conventions often raise the curtain on new Democratic or Republican policies.

The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York
The curtains at Radio City Music Hall in New York

lower the curtain

When a play or musical is concluded in a theater, the curtain is lowered. Figuratively, lowering the curtain indicates the end of a process or program.

Example: Many Americans were glad when the U.S. government was able to lower the curtain on the War in Iraq in 2011.


It is hard to believe that there are so many comparisons made between politics and theater performances. It reminds us how much our politicians must be very gifted at public speaking, back room deals and acting out parts for the benefit of campaign donors and voters. One wonders how much our politicians truly want to help American citizens or how much they want to be in the spotlight…

Next time: Casting a Net for Terrorists

And the Oscar Goes to…

Metaphors of Theater and Drama

There have been many comparisons made between politics and live theater, television or movies.   Candidates for pubic office must be attractive public figures, good entertainers and crowd pleasers. In 1960, Richard Nixon famously refused to wear makeup for a nationally televised debate, and he was perceived as losing the debate to John F. Kennedy wearing makeup and looking tanned and healthy. Modern politicians must be even more aware of their presence on television in interviews and debates.

blog - theater - Kennedy_Nixon_debate

With the Oscars on TV this weekend, I thought I would share a few metaphors based on acting in films and theaters.


When a movie or play producer is planning a new show, he or she must ask actors and actresses to try out for the parts in the show. These tryouts are called auditions. Figuratively, a person who wants to run for office may need to audition for the role.

Example: Mitt Romney spent many years auditioning for president of the United States before he was finally nominated by the Republican Party in 2012.

blog - theater - Ronald_Reagan_in_Dark_Victory_trailer
Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming our 40th president

play a role, a part to play

If an actor wins the approval of the producer, he or she will be hired to play a role in the show. This may also be called having a part to play in the production. Metaphorically, anyone involved in a large process for a company or government may be said of playing a role in that process.

Example: John F. Kennedy played a large role in shaping progressive policies in the United States before he was assassinated in 1963.

starring role

The lead actor or actress in a show is considered to have the starring role. Figuratively, the most important person in an organization may be considered as having the starring role in the process.

Example: Martin Luther King, Jr. had a starring role in the creation of civil rights for all minorities in the 1960s.

bit part

A small role in a movie or play may be called a bit part. In politics, someone who has a minor job to do in a larger process may be considered as having a bit part.

Example: During the Obama presidency, Michelle Obama played a bit part in highlighting the problems of obesity in the United States.

America’s role

In addition to people metaphorically playing roles in society, countries can also play roles on the international stage. We can say that America has a role in many international negotiations and policy making.

Example: Some Americans concerned about the national budget believe that America’s role as the policeman of the world should be reduced and the money saved to solve problems at home.

U.S. Capitol at DuskWashington’s role

Similarly, Washington D.C. can have a role in the affairs of American citizens and even state policies.

Example: During hard economic times, state governors often hope that Washington’s role in providing funding to social programs will increase.

a key role

An important role in a play or movie may be called a key role. In politics, important leaders or significant events may be described as having a key role in determining policies and programs.

Example: The 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York played a key role in increasing funding for the war on terror.

take a cue

When an actor forgets a line during a play, there is a person there who can give him or her a hint as to what the line should be. This called giving or taking a cue. Metaphorically, taking a cue from someone means that one person is following in the same line of thinking or behavior as another person.

Example: Republicans in the 1990s seemed to take a cue from Ronald Reagan and held firm ground on their policies.

John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922
John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922


The word soliloquy refers to a Greek word meaning “talking to oneself.” In a theatrical production, a soliloquy is given by an actor reciting lines alone on the stage such as Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech. In politics, a speech reflecting on personal history or national problems may be called a soliloquy as well.

Example: In 2011, President Obama visited many cities and gave soliloquys on the importance of revising the national health care system.



In the earliest theatrical productions of ancient Greece, actors wore masks to represent different characters or emotions. These masks also hid the faces of the actors. Metaphorically, anything that is hidden from view may be described as being masked.

Example: Critics of government spending claim that certain accounting practices mask the true amount of the national deficit.

Mask of the Greek god Zeus
Mask of the Greek god Zeus


Unmask means to review a mask that a person is wearing. A performer who is unmasked has his true identity revealed. In modern terms, any information that is revealed to the public may be described as being unmasked.

Example: Good investigative reporters often unmask the inner workings of the American government.

bow out

At the end of a performance, the audience usually applauds and the actors or singers will take bows before leaving the stage. This is also called bowing out of the performance. Metaphorically, any time a person or group of people discontinue an activity, this may be called bowing out as well.

Example: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich hoped to become the Republican nominee for the president in 2012, but he had to bow out of the primary after low polling results.


Once again, we can see how we create metaphors from every aspect of American life.  Metaphors of acting correspond to the roles that politicians play in American government. How much are our politicians acting when they give a speech?

Next time: More Theater Metaphors

Describing Presidential Candidates

A recent Time magazine article described 16 different prospective Republican presidential candidates (Feb. 16, 2015, pp. 10 -11, by Zeke Miller, illustrations by Lon Tweeten). I was amazed to find 29 different metaphors in 13 different categories (with a few more I decided not to analyze this time…) in a very short graphic article (pictures below). Once again, it is not hard to find evidence that metaphors are ubiquitous in describing American politics.

TIME GOP candidates Feb 15 1

TIME GOP candidates Feb 15 2








Here are a few examples from the article. I include the exact descriptions of candidates in quotation marks, along with the notes indicating whether they are currently “trending up,” “holding steady” or “trending down” in current opinion polls. I have maintained the use of all caps to note the names of the candidates and the polling trends while the italics are mine indicating the metaphors in question. In some descriptions, there is an amazing variety of mixed metaphors so I am forced to repeat some descriptions to illustrate different metaphors. I hope it all makes sense.

Horse racing

            Presidential elections are often compared to horse races because of their similarities in competition, close finishes and large amounts of money involved. Candidates are described as jockeying for position or running in the race.

blog - candidates - jockeyrun/run to the right

Example: Article title – “See How They Run


The Louisiana governor has one reliable move: run to the right with innovative policy solutions. But he still barely registers in the polls.” 



The big beneficiary of Mitt Romney’s decision to abandon a third presidential bid, the former Florida governor has dominated the early jockeying for moneymen and staff. Unknown: how he performs with voters.”


There are several different types of metaphors derived from our experiences with nature.


EPSON DSC PictureA field is a large, open tract of land using for farming or grazing. Metaphorically, any large group of people may be called a field, as in a field of job candidates or in politics, a field of presidential candidates.

Example: “With a potential field larger than any other in memory, the GOP presidential sweepstakes has already split into several smaller contests with different candidates competing in separate lanes for the nomination.”


The only woman in the anti–Hillary Clinton field, Fiorina has been one of the most effective critics of the former Secretary of State. But her record, both as a Senate candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO, is … complicated.”

defense hawk

There are also several metaphors derived from animals. For one, politicians who are pro-military or pro-war are sometimes referred to as hawks or defense hawks in comparison to the bird of prey, famous for quick attacks on small animals (in contrast to doves who are passive, quiet birds).


South Carolina’s most colorful defense hawk wants to reclaim traditional GOP foreign policy–in which instability is usually the enemy. He also may have an ace up his sleeve: support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.”

a breakout

Wild animals may also be caught and held in cages. If they escape, they may be described as breaking out of their enclosures. Metaphorically, an obscure political candidate who suddenly gains a great deal attention in the media may also be described as breaking out.


After wowing an Iowa audience, the Wisconsin governor flew to Washington to attack its politicians, putting him on the verge of a breakout. Next he must prove his mastery of the issues.”

blog - candidates - baskingbasks in high poll numbers

Finally, cold-blooded animals need to warm them up by lying or basking in the sun. In a strange metaphor, we can also say that people bask in the attention of others or in this case, basking in high poll numbers.


A pediatric neurosurgeon with zero political experience, he basks in high early poll numbers and a massive online-fundraising ability. Is he for real? There is a difference between punditry and politics.”


            In one brief example, the entire field of candidates is described as if it is one large container with the successful politicians in Washington D.C. being the insiders, while newcomers from outside Washington are classed the outsiders.   In this case, the Time article describes five governors as being in this category.


Example: “THE OUTSIDERS” [Scott Walker (Wisconsin), George Pataki (New York, former), Rick Perry (Texas), Mike Pence (Indiana), and John Kasich (Ohio)] 


            We use tools to build or repair machines, buildings or household objects.

My beautiful picturegood wrenches

Metaphorically, people who solve problems may be described as being good wrenches (perhaps derived from the slogan of General Motors car parts and mechanics called “good wrenches.”)

Example: “Governors position themselves as good-wrenches ready to fix the nation’s broken politics”


If one changes an attitude or position in a certain situation, he or she may be described as retooling himself or herself.


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”

Card games/gambling

There are several metaphors derived from card games and gambling.


In one instance, the presidential election is compared to a sweepstakes competition in which one person wins the entire amount of prize money. This term is derived from a practice of people playing games of chance seated at a table. The prize money or stakes would be set out on the table, and the winners would use their arms to sweep the stakes closer to their bodies to collect their earnings.

Example: “With a potential field larger than any other in memory, the GOP presidential sweepstakes has already split into several smaller contests with different candidates competing in separate lanes for the nomination.”

blog - candidates - jokerwild cards

In some card games, one or more types of cards are considered wild cards, meaning that they could take on the values of other cards. This is a complex term originally comparing the card to a wild animal with unpredictable behavior. Later the phrase wild card came to mean any person or group with unpredictable behavior such as a football or baseball team in a playoff situation. In politics, a wild card is a candidate who may be unknown but may surprise everyone and win the election.


They want to change the Republican Party, not just win it over” [Lindsey Graham (Senator from South Carolina), Carley Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard), and Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky]

an ace up his sleeve

In high stakes poker games, players may be tempted to cheat in order to win. Some cheating players may hide an ace – the highest-ranking card – up their sleeves so they can secretly pull it out at the correct time in order to win a hand. This is known as having an ace up your sleeve. In general terms, and in politics, having an ace up your sleeve means that you have a secret strategy that may be used later in a process when no one is expecting it.


South Carolina’s most colorful defense hawk wants to reclaim traditional GOP foreign policy–in which instability is usually the enemy. He also may have an ace up his sleeve: support from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.” 


            Presidential elections are often compared to boxing matches or other examples of competitive sports.

071020-N-9818V-459take a blow

In boxing, the contenders must hit or punch each other. Receiving a punch is sometimes called taking a blow. Metaphorically, when a person has a setback in politics, this may also be described as taking a blow.


The former Texas governor’s quest to move beyond “oops” took a blow when a state judge refused to throw out his criminal indictment for abuse of power. Mug shots make lousy campaign posters.”

a champion

The winner of a boxing match is normally called a champion. In politics, a person who wins an election may also be called the champion. Interestingly, the word champion has its origins in the Latin word campio meaning a combatant in a field of battle, lending more credence to the use of the word field to describe a group of political candidates.


The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward” 

blog - candidates - Fish-hookmaster barb thrower

In the old days before firearms, people used spears to attack each other. In track and field events, we still have javelin competitions imitating the need for throwing spears. In the sport of fishing, the hooks sometimes contain barbs which are metal points going in the opposite direction of the hook so that the fish cannot get away once it is hooked. Metaphorically, a barb is a stinging, insulting comment. In a combination of physical and abstract actions, we can say that people can throw barbs at someone else as if they are throwing a spear at their target. Someone who is good at witty insults may be called a master barb thrower.


An intellect and master barb thrower, the Kentucky Senator is expanding his father’s libertarian coalition. But his stumble over vaccine mandates suggests that transcending it will be harder.”

have a shot

In hunting and warfare, it is important to be a good marksman with a rifle. A hunter, for example, must wait for the right opportunity to shoot at an animal.   This is known as having a good shot. Metaphorically, having a good opportunity to do something is also known as having a shot at something. 


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”


            We are all familiar with fire, going back to our ancestors millions of years ago. There are three metaphors of fire to describe these candidates.

catching fire, reignite

The first two describe the process of starting a fire as in some combustible materials catching fire, or igniting a fire with some device. Metaphorically, a political candidate or idea that suddenly becomes popular may be described as catching fire, while an issue that had formerly been popular may need to be reignited.


The go-it-his-own-way Ohio governor has been touring the country in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. This is not an issue that shows any sign of catching fire.”


Social conservatives’ favorite former Arkansas governor has retooled himself as a culture warrior after six years at Fox News. He has a shot if he can reignite his old populist message in an economic upturn.”


A final metaphor from fire comes from the use of a piece of burning wood from one fire to start another fire. This piece of wood is called a firebrand. Metaphorically, a person who can be a catalyst to change the lives of the people around him or her may also be called a firebrand.


The Tea Party firebrand is a proven draw among the party’s evangelical and Obama-hating grassroots. That same orthodoxy, and an inability to attract campaign staff, could limit the Texas Senator’s ambitions.”


            We can use our experiences with clothing or accessories to describe political situation.

SONY DSCBeltway cred

In a very common metaphor, the political culture surrounding Washington D.C. is known as the beltway. This is for two reasons: there is literally a circular highway system that surrounds Washington D.C., and this highway and political system both resemble a belt that a person would wear to hold up his or her pants. In an unusual slang phrase, a politician who has a good reputation, credit, or “cred” for short in Washington is said to have beltway cred.


A competition for party pros, billionaire money and Beltway cred 

Physical forces

            We often use words and phrases from physical forces such as cutting or hitting to describe abstract processes.

squeeze, drag

In this case, political pressure can be described as squeezing someone. Also, physically moving a heavy object may be called dragging the object. In airplanes or boats, anything that slows down the forward motion of the vehicle is also called drag. Metaphorically, anything that slows down a process may be called a drag on that process.


Squeezed by Jeb’s success and New Jersey’s economic drag, the governor keeps working both sides of the Atlantic. His bombast remains untested in the heartland.”

Body parts/body position

            It is very common to create metaphors based on body parts, such as the foot of the mountain, or the arm of a chair.

The Heartland Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa
The Heartland Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa


We also use metaphors of our hearts to indicate the center of something. The term heartland means the center of a country or culture, normally meaning the Midwestern area of the United States where we grow most of our grains and vegetables.


Squeezed by Jeb’s success and New Jersey’s economic drag, the governor keeps working both sides of the Atlantic. His bombast remains untested in the heartland.”


We can also use metaphors of body actions or positions to describe abstract processes. To embrace or hug someone means to physically hold them close with our arms. Metaphorically, to embrace something means to be in favor of some idea or process.


A conservative star with both Washington and talk-radio polish, the Indiana governor found a way to embrace Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. He says he won’t decide whether to run until the end of April.”


            In rare cases, political actions are related metaphorically to theater movements or actions.

bow out

In this instance, we can talk of a politician bowing out of an election. This phrase is derived from the practice of a performer taking a bow at the end of the performance.


The betting money says Bush’s campaign will keep the Florida Senator from running this cycle, but he has impressed GOP bigs nonetheless. Watch for whether he bows out after this month’s book tour to run for re-election instead.”


blog - candidates - Base-foundation-2base

            Every building needs a foundation or base upon which one can build the structure. Metaphorically, the most ardent supporters of a political party are sometimes called the base. Politically, a presidential candidate must appeal to his or her base in order to raise the necessary campaign funds and win the election. The base may even help select the candidate for the next election.


The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward”


            As I have mentioned many times in analysis of political speeches, journey metaphors are very common in describing the process of political actions. In two simple examples, we can talk of presidential candidates stepping forward on their journey to the White House, or we can say someone stumbles when he or she makes a bad remark or policy decision.

stepped forward

Example: “The base wants a champion, and several have stepped forward”



An intellect and master barb thrower, the Kentucky Senator is expanding his father’s libertarian coalition. But his stumble over vaccine mandates suggests that transcending it will be harder.”


            It is pretty clear that metaphors are commonly used to describe political candidates. The wide field of Republican candidates provides an opportunity for journalists to use these metaphors describing each one’s unique qualities. Time will tell which of the 16 candidates will survive the grueling primaries to become the party’s nominee next year. I will keep watching the news to see what political metaphors are used in the media. Stay tuned!

Next time: More Metaphors of the Theater

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Metaphors of Wild Animals

As explained in previous posts, we often create metaphors based on the behavior or appearance of animals. In those posts, I shared how pets and farm animals are the source of metaphors in politics. Today I would like to share a few examples of how we create conceptual metaphors based on our experiences with wild animals. As I mentioned previously, it makes sense that we create metaphors based on common experiences with household pets and domestic farm animals.   However, we also create metaphors based on the appearance and behavior of wild animals, most of which the average person has never seen except in zoos, or in books, magazines, television programs or films. It is indicative of the power of the human mind that we can create figurative language based on experiences we have only had second hand. With that in mind, imagine how these metaphors were created…

lion, lionize

The lion is a ferocious African animal largely considered to be the “king of the jungle.” Rarely, a government leader will also be referred to as a lion because of his strength and wisdom.

Example: Both Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were lionized by their citizens.

Male Lion on Rock


A lion is said to roar when it is angry. Some politicians also roar if they have a strong voice and argue their points well in debates. Some feminists also that women should roar to gain more civil rights in American society, partially inspired by singer Helen Reddy’s song, “I am Woman” with the chorus, “Hear Me Roar.”

Example: During the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton was said to roar for women’s rights in America.

blog - wild - gorilla800-pound gorilla

A gorilla is a huge, powerful animal. There is a saying that to ignore a problem is like not seeing an 800-pound gorilla.

Example: The national deficit has been the 800-pound gorilla for the Obama administration.


blog -wild - tigertoothless tiger

The tiger is another ferocious animal. However, without its teeth, it is pretty harmless. In politics, a government agency that does not enforce any laws is considered a toothless tiger.

Example: The Environmental Protection Agency may be called a toothless tiger if it does not shut down companies that pollute our land, water and air.


A bear is a big powerful animal. Bears also hibernate or sleep most of the winter. When they wake up in the spring, they are thought to be hungry and dangerous. In world politics, Russia has been referred to as the sleeping bear.

Example: After the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world watched to see if the sleeping bear would wake up and become a more dominant force in global politics.

blog - wild - bearbear market

                  When the stock market is on a downward trend and losing money for investors, this is called a bear market, comparing the movement of the market to the activity of a bear when it is asleep in the winter. (Compare to bull market explained in a previous post.)

Example: It is best not to invest money in a bear market; wait until the economy is growing faster during a bull market.


A lair is a place where a large animal lives and sleeps. It is considered dangerous to go into a lair if you are not sure what animal is in there. In metaphorical terms, a lair is a place where dangerous people live or conduct terrorist operations.

Example: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the whole world wondered what lair in Pakistan or Afghanistan Osama bin Laden had retreated to.

blog - wild - rabbitswarrens, warren-like

Small animals such as rabbits live in underground tunnels called warrens. There are many twists and turns and different parts of a warren. Sometimes government office buildings are compared to warrens.

Example: Thousands of government employees work in the warren-like offices of the Pentagon.

release, let go

When a wild animal is trapped, it is dangerous to release it or let it go, similar to unleashing a dog (see above). In political terms, prisoners and especially terrorist prisoners, are compared to wild animals.

Example: There has been great fear that if the terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are let go, they will go back to being terrorists again.

breakaway, break out

Also, if wild animals are kept in cages or pens and accidentally escape they can be dangerous to people around them. People, small groups and even small countries are thought to also break away if they do not remain within their normal boundaries.

Example: In 2008, Russia invaded the small province of South Ossetia and was referred to as a breakaway region when it tried to show its independence from Georgia.

Example: Riots broke out in many cities in 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

blog -wild - horse running

on the loose, running wild, run amok

After a wild animal escapes, it is thought to be on the loose, running wild or running amok. In politics, people, groups or policies can be thought to do the same.

Example: Some say that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by the free market system running wild without regulation.


A wild animal can be controlled or tamed by people with a lot of patience and training. In popular terms, one might speak of a political system that is out of control.

Example: When President Obama took office in January, 2009, many people wondered if he could tame the Wall Street executives who were running amok with investors’ money.

blog - wild - Leopard_killprey upon, predatory

Some wild animals are predatory, meaning they prey upon or kill smaller animals for food. Some financial institutions are considered predatory if they attack ordinary people and try to get their money unfairly.

Example: Some say that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by predatory bank lenders who let people buy houses they could not afford.

go for the jugular

Some wild animals kill other animals by biting the jugular vein in the neck which carries a great deal of blood to the head. An animal will surely die if its jugular vein is cut. In politics, someone who goes for the jugular is very aggressive and wants to have victory at any price.

Example: During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain was often accused of going for Barack Obama’s jugular in speeches when he tried to link Obama to terrorists.


Many wild animals can be very angry or ferocious when they are attacking or being attacked. In American politics, some candidates attack each other with ferocity as they try to win the election.

Example: Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were accused of attacking each other with ferocity during the 2012 presidential campaign.

gnaw at

A small animal eats food by gnawing at it in small bites. When a person who is bothered by some problem, one might say that the problem is gnawing at the person.

Example: The problem of slavery gnawed at President Abraham Lincoln until he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing the slaves.

blog - wild - squirrelsquirrel away

Squirrels are known for saving nuts and other foods to eat during the winter. People are also known to squirrel away money or important papers they might need later.

Example: Everyone should squirrel away some money in their savings accounts in case they have emergency expenses.

blog - wild - zebra stripesstripes

Some animals, such as zebras, have distinctive stripes. Metaphorically, a person’s stripes indicate his or her personality or values. In political terms, some elected officials may have the same stripes as someone in a particular party.

Example: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are definitely politicians of a different stripe.

blog - wild - leopard spotsspots

Other animals have distinctive spots. There is a saying that “a leopard cannot change its spots”: meaning a person does not change his or her position on something important.

Example: In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain claimed he was not like George W. Bush but some people said, since McCain was also Republican, he was not going to change his spots.


Some reptiles remove or shed their skin as they grow. The American economy is said to shed or lose jobs.

Example: The country cannot afford to shed more jobs when there is such high unemployment already.


Snakes and reptiles creep or move slowly, especially when they are about to attack. Some policies and attitudes can also creep into the American culture.

Example: The influence of evangelical Christians began to creep into the U.S. government in the 1980s.

blog - wild - viper fangs


Snakes bite with long teeth called fangs. If a snake is defanged, the teeth are taken out and the snake can no longer bite anyone. In politics, an organization can be defanged if its power is take away.

Example: Some say that the corporate lobbyists have defanged the Environmental Protection Agency.


As we can see, humans can create figurative language based on indirect experiences with animals most of us have never seen in the wild. It is also interesting that we use the more dangerous and violent behaviors of animals to create metaphors in our politics. What does this say about our political system!?

Next time: Describing Presidential Candidates