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American Metaphor Categories

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The Metaphor Project's list of enduring American Metaphor Categories contains a number of important themes found in the American cultural story. The American cultural story (think 'personality') is a mixture of our ideal vision, ideal national character and pieces drawn from our actual historical experience. This list is not meant to be all-inclusive, definitive, or confined to what we ourselves like. It is designed to be representative of the whole range of what the American cultural story includes, so that we can keep that in mind and make use of it in new ways.

It is designed to empower activists to use what they themselves already know and accept about the American story in their own work. See American Framing Steps, Red, Blue and Purple, and June 2005: Speaking American About Economic Justice for suggestions about how to pick aspects of the elements and recombine them for success in our goals. For more on this topic, including sources, see What Is 'Speaking American?', Why 'Speak American?' and the American Studies section in Selected Sources.


SPORTS: play to win, play by the rules, play fair, fair play, the x is still in play, be a team player, join the team, be a good sport, be a poor loser, the best defense is a good offense, game of chance, level the playing field, target something. SPORTS metaphors are often applied to topics in BUSINESS, POLITICS or WAR especially. . .

BUSINESS: a business grows, one builds a business, watch the bottom
line, be profit or customer driven, add value, be lean and mean, get competitive advantage, take out insurance, invest in x, x is money in the bank, we owe you, you're in debt to us, that will cost you, you earned it, balance the books, honest accounting, open the books, negligence, full disclosure, kickbacks, accountability, due diligence. . . BUSINESS metaphors are often applied to topics in POLITICS, SPORTS, WAR, and to personal life as well. . .

THE ECONOMY& THE MARKET: slows, accelerates, grows, shrinks, balloons, deflates, inflates, tanks, crashes, is healthy or sick, runs a deficit, shows gaps, explodes, is fair or unfair, is a bubble about to burst, is a force of nature (not manmade), people are consumers, economic activity is a game, war, competitive, corporations are teams, people, or crooks. . .

WAR: win the battle, lose the war, acceptable losses, acceptable risk, the war on---, collateral damage, preemptive strike, the good fight, moral combat, our forces, the troops. . .some WAR metaphors move back out again to POLITICS, SPORTS, and BUSINESS topics.

TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE: be a tool, be a machine, drive, roll, slide, chug, be a computer: online, offline, in default mode, up on the screen, download, bug, crash, hardware, software interface, experiment, test, evolve, progress. . .these terms are also used in POLITICS, SPORTS, WAR, BUSINESS, as well as personal life.

AMERICAN POLITICS AND POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS: whistle stop tour, all politics is local, Joe Six Pack, keep it simple, stupid; it's the economy, stupid; dance with the one that brung ya, big government, people are citizens. . .more metaphors may be transferred into this category than out of it. SEE ALSO AMERICAN HISTORY.

AMERICAN HISTORY: Don't Tread On Me, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Real Deal (Truman), the New Frontier, the Great Society, the Bridge to the 21st Century. . . These metaphors are usually applied in POLITICS.

WORK: work ethic, pay your dues, put in your time, sweat equity, join the union, work hard, play hard, solidarity. . .

HUMANS AND NATURE: nature is our garden, nature is a cornucopia, earth is a marketplace or an economy, humans are hunters, red in tooth and claw, taming the wild west or nature, we sow the seeds of progress, some animals are man's best friend--the faithful dog, the trusty horse; re cows--don't try to understand 'em, just rope and throw and brand 'em (from RAWHIDE), nature bats last. . . terms like these are often used in POLITICS or BUSINESS. See HEALTH and the BODY for other nature/human metaphors.

CRIME: outlaw, gangster, mastermind, thug, henchmen, goon, robber, pirate, crook, thief, cement booties, bait and switch, shell game, con, the law, cops, justice, police work, vice, gambling. . .CRIME terms are also used in WAR, POLITICS and BUSINESS.

RELIGIOUS MODELS AND TERMS: to have faith, going on a wing and a prayer, to be in or get to heaven, to practice good stewardship, to be a sin or to sin, to be evil, to go to hell, to forgive, to redeem, to renew, to be saved, Armageddon, the Rapture. . .metaphors drawn from this category are used everywhere else.

HUMANISM AND SPIRITUALITY: to experience personal growth, to be connected, to embrace all being, to practice the power of positive thinking. Terms from this category may be applied to formal RELIGIOUS contexts too. . .

FAMILY: being or going home, being born, dying, being a brother, sister, father, mother. . . many from the FAMILY category often get used with RELIGIOUS or POLITICS topics.

HEALTH. THE BODY, and FOOD: being ill, healed, cured, getting a leg up, being head and shoulders above, getting fit, no pain, no gain, to be a tree, river, mountain, lake, animal, plant, or vegetable, what's cooking? If it's too hot, get out of the kitchen, being fried, . . . HEALTH metaphors get transferred to almost all other topics. See SLANG below for SEX.

LITERATURE: all the world's a stage, it was pure poetry, my life is an open book, acting a part, taking a role, it was melodrama, a tragedy, a comedy, epic. As a source of quotes from plays, novels, biographies, poetry, epics, applied in new ways: 'can't put new wine into old bottles,' The Bible, Mathew 9:16, 'dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return, Genesis 3:19;' birds of the same feather', Shakespeare, Henry V.; 'the green-eyed monster,' Othello; 'the green fuse,' Dylan Thomas, poem of that title, and so on. . .

ENTERTAINMENT: it's a dance, carnival, circus, soap opera, dress rehearsal, to sing the same old song, to trumpet, to act out, to strike a familiar chord, to be a clown, boy toy, magician, puppet, riddle, puzzle, play hide and seek, musical chairs, to have a poker face. As a source of images or quotes from tv, movies, pop music, radio or the Web, applied in new ways: 'Go ahead, make my day.,' 'We don't need no stinkin' badges., ' 'May the Force be with you!,' 'Beam me up, Scotty. . .,' 'Just the facts, ma'am,.' 'Make him an offer he can't refuse.' and so on. . .

COMICS, CARTOONS, VIDEO AND COMPUTER GAMES: be like the Roadrunner, Dennis the Menace, Garfield, Mickey Mouse, Wily Coyote, Bugs Bunny, or any popular video and computer game or anime characters. . .This category also includes all other video or computer plot, setting, or gaming terms.

SLANG, CATCH PHRASES, AD SLOGANS, AND BRAND NAMES: don't go there, be cool, be hot, be retro, be 'bad,' no way, there's no free lunch, he's on the wrong track, Got Milk?; SEX: wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am, put a bun in the oven, gang bang. . . (Any new, printable or on the air mentionable candidates for this category?
Send them to: metaphorproject@earthlink.net