Tag Archives: metonymy

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” Foxnews.com, 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

President Obama’s State of the Union Address

Hi folks!  Sorry for the delay in getting out a new post.  Sometimes my teaching schedule prevents me from having enough free time to write these lengthy analyses.  Just in time for Presidents’ Day weekend, I offer a brief summary of the metaphors in President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address.

The speech was an inspiring call to action for Congress and the American people to make progress to solve our nation’s problems.  It was not rhetorically flourishing, but it did have a fair number of interesting political metaphors.  There were three conceptual metaphors that seemed to be central to his message:  sports, motion, and personification, all designed to invoke unity between the president and the American people.   The examples are taken directly from the speech; italics are mine.


Most Americans are familiar with our popular sports of football, baseball and basketball.  It is very common for politicians to speak of the government and people working together as a sports team.  President Obama uses several sports metaphors to suggest the importance of working together with common strategies for success.

the playbook

The book of strategies used by the coaching staff to win a game is called the playbook.

Example:  Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit, where already 150 universities, businesses, nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education

blog - sports - footballstanding on the sidelines

In football, the coaches stand on the side or sidelines of the field while the athletes play in the middle of the field.  Being on the sidelines metaphorically indicates that a person or group is not directly involved in an important activity.

Example:  Listen, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines; and neither — neither should we. We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.

the game

Most sporting competitions are called games (although in other sports they may be called matches (tennis) or tournaments (golf)).  Coaches always put their best players in the game to increase the odds of winning the competition. In this case, President Obama described a woman who lost her job a week after she and her husband bought their first home.

Example:  Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance.  Give them that chance. Give them the chance. They need our help right now, but more important, this country needs them in the game. That’s why I’ve been asking CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot at new jobs, a new chance to support their families. And in fact, this week many will come to the White House to make that commitment real.

a full team

In some cases, athletes get injured and cannot play on the team.  If there are many injuries the coaches may not even have enough players to play a game. This is referred to as having a full team.

Example:  Tonight I ask every business leader in America to join us and do the same because we are stronger when America fields a full team.



As mentioned in other blog posts about speeches and writings, politicians often invoke metaphors of motion or journeys to indicate how a group or government is making progress.  In the President’s State of the Union Address, he uses many such metaphors to explain how his policies are helping the country make progress in important areas.


When an animal or person is trapped, it means that they cannot move or escape.  Being trapped metaphorically indicates the opposite of a journey in that it means that a person or group cannot move forward or make progress towards a goal.

Example:  We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to 10 percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt.


When an engine is not working properly, it may stall and die.  Similarly, when an airplane loses speed and lift, it stops moving forward and falls toward the earth.  Metaphorically, a lack of progress toward a goal may also be described as being stalled.

Example:  Upward mobility has stalled.


Even worse in terms of progress than an engine stalling is putting it in reverse and going in an opposite direction. However, when something bad is happening, it is good to reverse the trend to stop the negative effects of the action.  In this example, President Obama laments the high number of Americans who are still unemployed.

Example:  So our job is to reverse these trends.

blog - journey - derailmentderail

We often use journey metaphors specific to certain kinds of transportation.  Trains must stay on the rails to be able to move forward.  If they fall off the railroad tracks, this is known as a derailment.  Metaphorically, when progress towards a goal is interrupted or broken, we may say that it is derailed.  In this case, President Obama is talking about the success of imposing sanctions on Iran.

Example:  The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.

stay on track

Similarly, forward progress can be made metaphorically if the actions of a group stay on track.

Example:  And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.


We also talk about a quick beginning to a journey metaphorically compared to the launch of a rocket.

Example:  We also have the chance, right now, to beat other countries in the race for the next wave of high-tech manufacturing jobs. And my administration’s launched two hubs for high-tech manufacturing in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Youngstown, Ohio, where we’ve connected businesses to research universities that can help America lead the world in advanced technologies. Tonight, I’m announcing we’ll launch six more this year.


When a rocket is launched, it travels along a path through the air called a trajectory.  Figuratively, a person or group making progress toward a goal may be described as being on a correct upward trajectory.

Example:  That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life.

get on board

Another way of speaking of starting a journey to describe as a person getting on a ship, known as getting on board (the word board itself an example of synecdoche as the piece of wood indicates the platform used to allow people to walk onto the ship). In this case, President Obama talked about asking the government to raise the minimum wage for American workers.

Example:  Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board.

America does not stand still/take steps

A journey always begins with the first few steps.  A person cannot stand still and expect to go anywhere. Metaphorically, standing still indicates that no progress is being made towards a goal.  A person needs to start moving and take the first steps to begin the journey.

Example:  But America does not stand still, and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.

blog - journey - footsteps

race to the top/big strides

Some journeys are competitions between people or groups.  These competitions are known as races.  A winner is sometimes considered the person at the top of the winners’ podium so that a competition may be described as being a race to the top.  One of President Obama’s programs to improve public education in the United States is called the Race to the Top.  In an extended metaphorical passage, Obama also describes the necessary progress as making big steps or strides toward solving the problem.

Example:  Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance. Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy — problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math.

Example:  So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children.

speed up/picking up speed

Once a journey or race has begun, a person may need to increase speed to win the race.  This may be known as speeding up or picking up speed. 

Example:  But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.

Example:  With the economy picking up speed, companies say they intend to hire more people this year.

get by/get ahead

In a race, the person who speeds up the most may get ahead of the competitors.  In cases of evenly matched competitors, one person may struggle to pass or get by another competitor. Metaphorically, just barely making progress toward a goal may be described as getting by, while making a great deal of progress could be referred to as getting ahead.

Example:  The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead.

Race to the finishin the lead

A person who gets ahead of his or her competitors may be described as being in the lead.  Metaphorically, being in the lead indicates that the person is moving ahead towards a common goal.

Example:  With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role.

move this nation forward

Advancing one’s position in a race may also be described as moving forward.  Figuratively, any progress towards a goal may be referred to as moving forward.  In a common political metaphor, we can talk about moving this nation forward.  In this example, President Obama talked about making sure that all moms make sure their children get health insurance.

Example:  After all, that — that’s the spirit that has always moved this nation forward.


Despite the best efforts to advance on a journey, sometimes a person loses his or her footing and may stumble or fall.  Metaphorically, stumbling indicates that there is a break in the progress towards a goal.  Towards the end of his speech President Obama admits that the journey towards progress is not always easy, but they will persevere.

Example:  Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.

Personification – Metonymy

this chamber speaks

Personification is a rhetorical or poetic device that allows a writer to compare an idea or action to a person. Personification can take many different forms.  In one type known as metonymy, the actions of people in a place are represented by a person.  In this case, the building where Congress meets, known as the chamber, is described as a person who can speak.

Example:  Tonight this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.

Personification – Synecdoche

war footing

In another type of personification called synecdoche, the words for parts of the human body can be used to represent the actions done by those parts.  In this case, having a footing on something indicates that a person or country has a strong position for acting or moving forward.

Example:  So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks, through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners, America must move off a permanent war footing.

into the wrong hands

Similarly, the terms hands is used figuratively to represent the work done by the people with those hands, as in the famous military phrase, “all hands on deck.”  In this case, saying something falls into the wrong hands indicates that dangerous materials are in the possession of criminals or terrorists.

Example:  American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.

blog - synecdoche - hands

Personification – Body Position

More commonly, the use of personification involves the description of businesses or governments as people using their eyes, arms, hands, backs and shoulders to get things done.


People see accurately by focusing their eyes on a certain object.  Metaphorically, being focused means that a person or group is working together towards a common goal.

Example:  And let’s pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.


To see an object precisely, one’s eyes must be clear of obstructions.  Figuratively, being clear-eyed or seeing something clearly indicates that the goal is precisely determined.

Example:  These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away.

reaching out/ reach their potential

People can use their arms and hands to reach out and touch other objects or people.  Collectively, groups or governments can metaphorically reach out to people or other groups as well.

Example:  And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

seize this opportunity/ stand ready

We can also grab or seize an object with our hands.  Figuratively, we can seize an opportunity.  We can also stand ready to perform an action after seizing an opportunity (more on standing metaphors to follow).

Example:  If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.

standing up/weakened/strengthen

Another common metaphor of body position is standing up.  When a person stands up, he or she is in a position to attack or defend oneself in a battle.  Thus standing up means to act in a position of power or protection.  Also, we may also speak of groups, governments or even programs as being strong or weak as a person. Certain actions may strengthen or weaken a program.

Example:  Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote.  Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened, but conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it.

Example:  Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day.

blog - body - standing upwe stand for

We can also describe a position of power or authority as standing for something.

Example:  On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.

drain our strength

Another way of describing weakness is by saying that it drains a person’s strength, or metaphorically a government’s power to accomplish its goals.

Example:  We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.

backed/backed by pressure

The back of a person or animal is one of the strongest parts of a body.  People can use their backs to apply pressure or force to move objects.  Metaphorically, backing someone or something means that a person or group is supporting a project.

Example:  American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.  And we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.

Example:  And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade.

at their side

People who work together may be physically close to each other or work side by side.  We can also say that one person who supports another is at their side.

Example:  As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in the difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.

shoulder to the wheel of progress

As mentioned, we can conceive of a journey as the movement of a vehicle.  In a common metaphor we can speak of the wheel of progress as if movement towards a goal can be described as a turning wheel.  In a sort of double metaphor, President Obama talks about using our collective shoulders to physically move objects or make progress towards a goal.

Example:  But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

feet planted/eyes cast towards tomorrow/ within our reach

President Obama ends his speech by combining three metaphors of journeys and personification.  He speaks of the country’s attempts to improve the lives of its citizens, and refers to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg who was seriously injured in battle but has been an inspiration to many people in his recovery.  President Obama describes the readiness of the country to move forward as having our feet planted, while our eyes are fixed on the future, and our goals within our reach.

Example:  The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach. Believe it.

In sum, as commander in chief, the president naturally needs to inspire and motivate American citizens to work with him and Congress to solve our problems.  A State of the Union address is the perfect way to achieve this goal. I believe President Obama and his speech writers deliberately used metaphors of sports, journeys and personification to relate his messages of unity and progress to the American people.

Next time:  Metaphors of Silver and Gold

Metonymy and Synecdoche: When the House Speaks and the Boots Walk


Metonymy (pronounced meh-TAHN-uh-me) and synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) are two specialized forms of figurative language. Metonymy occurs when a word for a feature of something is used to represent the entire concept.  For example, in the famous phrase the pen is mightier than the sword, the pen represents writing and the sword represents fighting.

White House

blog - white house

The White House is the place where the U.S. president lives.  The name of this residence is used to represent the statements, policies, programs and government of the United States. When a proper name is used as a metonym, technically this is called a toponym.  Metonymy thus includes both common nouns and toponyms.

Example:  On May 2, 2011, the White House issued a statement that Osama bin Laden had been killed.


The U.S. government headquarters is located in Washington D.C.  The name Washington can be used as a toponym to represent the entire U.S. government.

Example:  Washington is always working on new trade agreements with China.

Wall Street

The largest investment banks in the United States are located on a street in New York City named Wall Street.  For many decades, the name of Wall Street represents all of the investment banks in the United States.

Example:  Many economists blame the 2008 financial problems directly on Wall Street.

Main Street 

Most small towns in America have a principal road in their downtown area known as Main Street.  Symbolically, Main Street represents all aspects of small town life.

Example:  Middle class Americans are sometimes frustrated with federal policies that favor Wall Street instead of Main Street.



boots on the ground/boot camp

As mentioned, synecdoche is a special form of figurative language.  Synecdoche has many complex patterns of usage, but our purposes here, we can say that it occurs when a part of something represents a whole.  For example, in the sailing phrase all hands on deck, the hands represent the sailors who will be doing the work.

blog - soldiers and boots

In a common expression of the quantity of military troops, we say that we have boots on the ground.  The boots refer to the soldiers wearing the boots.  Similarly, the training grounds for new soldiers is sometimes called boot camp for the same reason.

Example:  In 2007, President Bush requested more boots on the ground to help win the War in Iraq.  This troop surge eventually did lead to the end of the war.

the bench

In the Middle Ages, judges sat on a wooden bench.  The bench itself has come to represent an entire court or legal system.  Supreme Court Justices are said to sit on or read their verdicts from the bench.

Example:  In 2010, Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the bench of the Supreme Court.


A lobby is the main entryway in a large building.  In the early days of American government, people wishing to gain favor from politicians waited in the lobbies of governmental buildings to visit the legislators.  Later the term lobbyist referred to these people hoping from special favors from the government.

Example:  Health care advocates claim that tobacco company lobbyists kept the dangers of smoking from public view for many decades.


Next time:  Balancing the budget and other metaphors derived from physical forces