Top Ten Metaphors of 2005

[This is the first annual Top Ten Metaphors list. The 2006 list has been released and is available here. A short version of the 2005 list appears at the bottom of this page.]

2005 was a sensational year in the media. Everything happened – from the unimaginable to the disillusioning, from the inescapable to the unreal. And when words fail to describe the world around us, we are forced into figurative language. This is why the inaugural Top Ten Metaphors list was so difficult to put together.

In a normal year, news headlines come and go like passing tourists, gaudily adorned and wandering, worthy of only passing interest. Our eyes are drawn to the hands of marketers as we are led to ask “Where’s the beef…?” or “Who shot J.R.?”

This year, however, our attention has been focussed on the news: the natural disasters such as the tsunami or the hurricanes; the social interest stories of political controversy or superstar trials; the economic issues of the rise in oil or the fall of real estate; the global threats of terrorism or the bird flu. A pope was chosen, as were Supreme Court judges. What a year.

This year’s list of top metaphors was chosen based on a magical combination of:
accuracy (ie: Does it make sense as a metaphor?)
popularity (ie: Did it catch on?)
impact (ie: Did it successfully communicate to its audience?)
relevance to 2005 (ie: Is it contemporary?).

After much consideration, here it is, The Metaphor Observatory’s Top Ten Metaphors for the year 2005:
  1. political fallout: A regurgitation of a nuclear-war based metaphor, “political fallout” was used heavily on hot-button issues such as the CIA leak, the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case and Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, among many, many others. The implication is that a significant action or decision “drops a bomb“, and further, that consequences become finely fragmented and impossible to control. Apparently, controversial issues had somehow reached critical mass in 2005, suddenly exploding into unrestrained use of the fallout metaphor.

    (see “Foley Fallout’s Long Half-Life“)

  2. road map to peace: President Bush’s Gulf War euphemism “Road map to peace” had risen to political stardom these past years. But center stage is an easy target, and the map, having fallen prey to clumsy navigators and smeared ink, was hastily folded and crammed into the glove box of history.

    (see “Folding the Road Map to Peace“)

  3. tidal wave: The year 2005 opened with the aftermath of a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. Soon after the damage had been done, the inksters and squawkers started with the metaphors. Perhaps the most rattling was the disastrous “This tidal wave of generosity will help them rebuild…” voiced by World Vision president Richard Stearns. Until then, the world had never experienced a catastrophic level of kindness.

    (see “A Tidal Wave of Metaphors“; “Raising A Tsunami“)

  4. fusion: A big year for atomic-era words, with “fusion” the hottest metaphor of all. Marketing of the 2006 Ford Fusion and Wow Wee’s robotic “fusion of technology and personality” added visibility to this already stellar metaphor. Products where two or more elements are brought together and sold to hip youth stand a pretty good chance of applying this word, and somewhere close by one is likely to find the word “reactor“. You can blame it all on Einstein and pals.

    (see “Cool Fusion“)

  5. toxic gumbo: Originally created by Ron Nixon in 2001 to describe an environmental threat to the New Orleans region, this indelicate and unpalatable leftover was quickly reheated by the media and served in gluttonous portions to describe the unspeakable Katrina deluge to a news-starved audience.

    (see “In A Stew Over ‘Toxic Gumbo’“)

  6. mix: This musical number had a good go at topping our charts, only failing to because of ambiguous comprehension. The problem? It couldn’t tell whether it was a living metaphor or a dead one. The original word simply meant “blend“, then it became a metaphor for a blend of musical elements recorded in a sound studio. Its life as metaphor was short, as is usually the case for jargon, and it became unceremoniously buried in soundroom lingo. After decades underground, grave robbing marketers dug it up and positioned it as a living metaphor for food ingredients that go together well – like a blend of musical elements recorded in a sound studio…

    (see “Cool Fusion“)

  7. catcher’s mitt: Baseball metaphors came out to play during hurricane season, with Rita playing both ball and batter. Throughout this intense game of America versus Nature, it was unknown where exactly Rita would “strike“, only that a direct “hit” would leave the home team scrambling for the dugout. Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast was well-publicized by the media as a meteorological “catcher’s mitt“. This meant that when Rita arrived as ball, she struck out as bat. We have every right to be confused.

    (see “When Rita Came to Bat“; “Relief, and Pitcher in Mudville“)

  8. iPod: A combination of intense marketing and matching demand made the iPod this year’s “must-have” item. Quietly a metaphoric gem, the iPod suggests compressed songs are seeds. Food for thought. Money in the bank.

  9. housing bubble: Among home builders and buyers alike, the big metaphor was the “housing bubble“. Key to a healthy economy, real estate may also boom or the bubble may burst. What is it with housing and metaphors beginning with the letter “b”? Let the buyer beware…!

  10. storm: Storms were a big hit this year – a record year for hurricanes – resulting in a detectible presence of “media storm” and “storm of controversy” among newscasts. We can only hope this metaphor crawls back into its grave in 2006, carrying with it “toxic gumbo” and “tidal wave“.

Special Recognition is awarded to the following:

Rap & Hip Hop Music: For its continuing contribution, as a musical genre, to the creative use of metaphor in the media. Examples include crib (home) or grill (face, teeth). Word!

George Lakoff: For his ongoing career contribution, as an individual, to the study of metaphor. A Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at UC Berkeley, Lakoff has published such influential pieces as Metaphors We Live By, where he argues that metaphor is a conceptual, rather than linguistic construction, and numerous eye-popping articles surrounding politics and metaphor. His accomplishments, publications and influence in this frontier of cognitive science are too numerous to detail.


Here’s a quick version of the list:

1) (political) fallout“…political fallout from the scandal.”
2) road map (to peace)“Unfolding the road map to peace.”
3) tidal wave“A tidal wave of generousity.”
4) fusion“A fusion of technology and personality.”
5) toxic gumbo“New Orleans became filled with a toxic gumbo.”
6) mix - “Sprite ReMix Aruba Jam.”
7) catcher’s mitt“The Gulf Coast is a catcher’s mitt for hurricanes.”
8) iPod - “I’ve got a thousand songs in my iPod.”
9) housing bubble - “The housing bubble has burst.”
10) storm“A storm of controversy.”

6 Responses to “Top Ten Metaphors of 2005”

  1. Anonymous writes:

    Personally, I’d like more simple words not such hard words. Just make it simple like,” Andrew is a cheetah,” Please make it simple. I can’t find what I’m looking for if you make it so complicated. Thank You.

  2. J. D. Casnig writes:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Anonymous! If you want lots of metaphor examples, just head over to the Metaphor Examples page. You’ll find exactly what your looking for.

  3. Anonymous writes:

    This is a good site but what do the words mean ??????????

  4. Morgan writes:

    Great list! I didn’t think they were complicated, just interesting political commentary.
    I teach creative writing to fifth graders, and found this site while looking for good metaphor examples. Unfortunately I think most of these are a little too advanced ;-)
    But thanks for putting this stuff out here!

  5. pepo writes:

    maybe you should give the examples of metaphor taken from literary from shakespeare’s works,etc,

  6. Taytay writes:

    thanks for taking your time and posting that. Personaly i really enjoyedit. and it really helped me. when i was stuck i just clicked over and the next day i got an A+ on my quiz
    so thank you soooooooooooooo much!

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