Metaphors Inside Containers

A few weeks ago I described a few metaphors derived from the outside of containers such as Scott Walker dropping out of the 2016 election. Today I offer the opposite set of metaphors – those derived from descriptions of inside containers. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.

Inside the container

Inside St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic
Inside St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic


                  One of the most common metaphors is when we talk about abstract ideas being in containers. We have many expressions such as being in politics, in the news, in the middle of the problem, etc.

Example: Sarah Palin was thrown into the middle of American politics when John McCain picked her as his vice-president candidate. 

take it all in

                  When a person tries to learn something complicated, it is difficult to understand everything. In these cases, we say it is hard to take it all in, as if we are putting the information into a container.

Example: During presidential debates, some of the policy discussions get so complicated, it is hard for average Americans to take it all in. 

blog - containers - Ship_in_bottleinside

                  In politics, reporters try to understand the details of politicians’ offices, policies, programs, staff problems, etc. This is called getting the inside information.

Example: During a presidential election, reporters ask many questions of candidates so they can get inside the campaign and find out what is really going on.


                  An insider is someone who lives or works inside a certain area or institution. A person can be a White House insider, or a Washington insider, for example. Politicians who live in Washington D.C. are sometime called beltway insider because of the ring of highways around that city.

Example: In the 2008 election, John McCain was considered to be a beltway insider since he had been a U.S. Senator for so many years.



                  Rooms and houses are common containers. We can enter or exit these spaces. The same is true for tunnels or highways.  Metaphorically, we can also enter or exit abstract ideas as if they were containers, such as entering the political process, or entering an election race.

Example: Controversial elections always inspire young people to enter politics to see if they can make a difference.

blog - containers - Milk-bottlebottle up

Bottles are also common containers. Liquids in bottles are sealed or bottled up. Metaphorically, information, opinions, or emotions can also be bottled up in people who are not able to express themselves.

Example: After the 2008 election, Sarah Palin complained that John McCain’s staff kept her bottled up during the campaign and would not let her express her opinions at political rallies and interviews. 

blog - container - lock uplock up

                  Some containers, such as rooms with doors, cabinets, or safes can be locked with a key to prevent anyone from entering. In metaphorical terms, anything that is certain may be called locked up. In politics, a candidate may have a certain election locked up if he or she is sure to win.

Example: Late on the night of the 2012 presidential election when the votes were counted, it was clear that Barack Obama had the election all locked up.


                  Containers can be filled with all sorts of liquid or solid materials. Abstract ideas such as time or job positions can also be filled. 

Example: When George W. Bush was elected in the year 2000, he filled his cabinet with Republicans who had worked with his father George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford or Richard Nixon.


Quantities inside Containers

                  Containers can be full or empty. Most commonly, metaphorical containers are described negatively as being empty, meaning there is a disappointment in the quality or quantity of something.

empty promise

                  When one makes a promise, one intends to complete some action. However, if the promise is not kept, we can say that it was an empty promise.

Example: Voters do not like candidates who make empty promises. If one says he or she will lower taxes, the taxes must indeed be lowered while that person is in office.

blog - containers - bowlempty vessel

                  A vessel is an old word meaning a large cup, bowl, vase or pot usually designed for holding liquids. A vessel full of water or milk is very valuable. An empty vessel has no value. In politics, similar to an empty suit, a person who does not seem to have good qualifications or who does not keep his or her promises may be called an empty vessel.

Example: Critics of George W. Bush claimed that he was an empty vessel in terms of domestic policy.

empty handed

                  Similar to the concept of being an empty vessel, a politician who does not bring any new ideas or policies to meetings may be criticized as arriving empty handed. Also, a politician who goes to a meeting but who does not bring back any progress or new policies from a meeting or international summit may be criticized as coming back empty handed.

Example: An American president cannot go to a European economics or climate summit and come back empty handed. He or she must make some sign of progress to bring back to the United States.

blog - containers - hollow tubehollow promise

                  A closed container that is not full is considered to be empty or hollow. A hollow promise is one that cannot be fulfilled.

Example: Candidates who make hollow promises are often defeated in the next election since the public does not trust them anymore.


                  Another word for empty is void. However, this term is also applied to policies or procedures that are illegal or done incorrectly, such as a void check. In political terms, a void is created when there is no leadership in a particular area.

Example: In the 2008 presidential election, supporters of Barack Obama thought he filled a void for a president who fought for the rights of the American middle and lower classes.


                  Each container has its limits in terms of size and space. This concept of limits has also been used metaphorically to apply to non-spatial concepts such as time, effectiveness of programs and procedures, physical capabilities of people and machines, etc.

Example: In American politics, presidents have term limits of two four-year terms, senators have unlimited six-year terms, and members of the House of Representatives have unlimited two-year terms. 

blog - containers - worldthe world

                  The concept of the entire earth or world is used metaphorically to mean everything possible in a certain domain.

Example: Supporters of Barack Obama in 2008 thought he was a new hope for the world, bringing peace and prosperity to everyone.

Example: Be wary of politicians who promise you the world during their election campaigns; they often cannot keep such large promises.

Next time: I am wading through 55 pages of the transcript from this week’s Democratic debate – I hope to have some interesting metaphor analysis of that next week…