Top Ten Metaphors of 2008

2008 was an 11.

After overdue consideration and numerous recounts, The Metaphor Observatory has reached a reluctant concensus among staff. The 2008 Top Ten Metaphors list was particularly difficult due to the enormous diversity of metaphors used to describe the candidates of the American election and the causes of the financial crisis. While the crisis brought out many metaphors of disaster, the election brought out the most disastrous metaphors.

In 2008, the two most dominant headlines were the crisis and the election. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became editor’s backfill; the once-gripping rhetoric slipping into redundancy. Despite this, “surge“, the adopted metaphor child of the Iraq war, continues to rear offspring of its own. However, due to the now lengthy nature of the troop surge, the semantics of the word “surge” became quietly extended to include any rise in quantity for an “indefinite” period of time (see: escalation).

The year spawned mobs of animal metaphors, perhaps most timely was Blagojevich’s depiction as a rat. The over-the-toppedness nature of his hair, his underhanded deeds and his smug-induced euphoria all made for easy targets. In a normal year, he might’ve taken center stage in our top ten for this. Not this year. For the first time in ages, the press flooded the sewers of high society, forcing many other unscrupulous characters to the surface, hogging Blaggy’s stage. While describing the nature of their swindling was at times lengthy and complicated, a description of the perpe-traitors themselves was a curt curse away.

A massive groping search for words to explain the financial crisis led to one of the largest metaphor spikes in recent history. Clumsy hosts were serving up mixed metaphor and butchered simile in the TV feed trough and calling it pudding. We could only find one singular, comprehensive, coherent description of the crisis, and so awarded its author with the 2008 Metaphorist of the Year. It was the least we could do, despite all efforts.

We at the Observatory felt fulfilled filing our own description of the crisis, “economic souffle“: in our insatiable appetite for consumption, we relied on a few bad eggs who whipped up a delicate dish of an economy; one which is mostly hot air, and one in which the slightest shock would leave us deflated, hungry and angry. Observatory kitchen staff even cooked up our own saucy description of the current economy: “Smokin’!“.

And just as the economic meltdown was worthy of metaphor, so too was the multizeroferous fix. Simply titled the bailout bill (we preferred the Rube Goldberg bill), metaphors describing its vastitude would fail to stimulate our minds after years of constant exposure to Americainous hyperbole. Of course, the sticker shock alone already had us feeling senseless and outnumbered.

Meanwhile, there was some business to do on the soapbox – the presidential race. Like the crisis, this topped headlines around the world. Only in America, the devil in the details was in the demographics. There was never a shortage of such sensational material, whether it was the He V. She on the D side, or the shunamitistic groin pull McCain got from his right hand man.

Overall, 2008 was an 11. That is, there was so much activity in metaphor, and in so many subjects – and to such extremes – that the Observatory felt it needed to somehow, metaphorically represent the year. Thus, and in keeping with the tone, we borrowed our metaphor from Nigel, of Spinal Tap fame, when describing the virtues of his Marshall amplifier:

“You’re on Ten, all the way up, all the way up…Where can you go from there? Nowhere. What we do, is if we need that extra push over the cliff…Eleven. One louder.”

The annual Top Ten List of Metaphors in the Media for 2008 was compiled from a casual observation of headlines, new product names, advertisements and discourse in several forms of media around the world. The general treatment of a given story is reflected metaphorically by the tone of the description we provide. For example, we offer the tone of carelessness, incompetence and disaster to our description of “bailout“, since this was the common rhetorical frame used to describe its necessity, and the implication made by the term itself. We try our best to capture and reflect the broadest public sentiment, or the noble efforts made by the media to sway it.

As usual, the Metaphor Observatory’s top metaphors are chosen based on a magical combination of the following:
- 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 2008 (ie: Is it contemporary?).

The Metaphor Observatory’s Top Ten Metaphors for the year 2008:

  • 1) Bailout: After a tipsy policy captain wrecklessly steered America into a red sea, the Good Ship Bubblepop was swamped by an unaccounted-for economic tsunami. Investors watched their 401K’s plunge, a raft of bewildered analysts were lost at sea and slipshod execs were summoned to swab the decks. The Admiral barged into the captain’s mess and ordered the double-diphthonged bailout, scoppeting a bounty of booty towards a briny of b’rupcy – literally $2,000 for every man, woman, child and dog in America. Salvaged from the Captain’s log: “Methinks it would be not so dear to rig ‘em all with scuba gear.
  • 2) Joe the Plumber: The Republican team tried to slip-up Obama by flooding rally floors with this living, breathing metaphor for hard-workin’ tradesdudes. Sharing the GOP’s tub with Mr. Plumber was Joe Six-Pack, the beer-swilling, a-parently unemployed partner of Hockey Mom. Together, they formed a tag team of Republican rhetorical muscle, put in the ring to wrench the spiralling campaign from the ropes. Though during the election Joe plugged McCain, soon afterwards he backed up, saying his involvement with party-head John left Joe, the plumber, feeling…dirty.
  • 3) Angry Whopper: Burger King’s spice-spiked Angry Whopper highlights an attitudinal change of trajectory in 2008. This positively negative emotion is normally found attached to darkly spirited characters, such as Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury, or powerful devices, such as Rage video cards. Metaphors describing spicy food usually refer to the heat of volcanoes, fire or hell. BK’s flaming mad cow patty joins the Samsung Rant cell phone, an increase in commercials where one is hit for little or no reason, and a surge in appearances of the outrageous pro John McEnroe. Where’s the beef? Maybe the mortgage meltdown, the financial crisis and high energy prices have left us all seeing red.
  • 4) Toxic Assets: The economy took the plunge in O’eight, dousing the Dow and diluting Widow-and-orphan stocks into widow’s mite stocks. This ‘cession began when err-do-well banks SWAPped, swiped and swindled their way to the bottom by selling sub-standard sand castles and banking on bridled bankrupcy. In turn, the bad bets on bad debts left forward players downright backed up, out in the cold and freezing their assets. Toxic assets we called them (Observers prefer accidental poison pills or the skeletons in our wallets). They threatened to corrode the economy, forcing the big-ticket bank rescue universally known as the bailout bill. It’s nothing new – execs screw up, then the Gov coughs up. But, hey – we live and loan: those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to get federal aid.
  • 5) Rock Star: What was once on the Sunrise side of the generation gap now straddles the greens and the grays. Record of choice – “she’s the rock star of the Republican party”, referring to vice presidi’n'tial candidate Sarah Palin. While this Sarabullish metaphor was being crooned to her neat-o north-of-forty herd, the prObama crowd crowed the same KoЯn-ish kernel to his fledgling under-40 flock. Rock-star – it’s a little bit country, it’s a little bit rock-n-roll, and it’s now the un-sung hero of the stage.
  • 6) Addiction: After burying the needle and reaching all-time highs, the delirious global economy took one hit too many and hit rock bottom. Yet again, it was time to draw the line and look in the mirror: we’d become addicted to oil, addicted to spending and addicted to debt; we were broke and begging for change on the Street; depression was setting in. On chronically token, stone-sober reflection, we’d wasted years on debt-enabling policies and self-destructive optimism. So what did the government do to help us with our little problem? They borrowed more money so we could buy more stuff.[See also: Motorola Krave; CNN's Energy Fix; John Oliver's "Failure Junkie"]
  • 7) Perfect storm: Over and over, it’s another day, another disaster for this over-cast meteorological star. Forced into increasingly less precipitous climes by mythomanic pressure, perfect storm is now seeded on the air and in columns to reign over pretty much anything headed south that can fill a windsock. Regrettably, our forecast is that this overblown weathaphor will not blow over anytime soon.
  • 8) Train wreck: When a situation goes off the rails and winds up a twisted mental mess, writers get off their cabooses and fire up the train-wreck express. With cognitive ties to Tsunamiville, Stormburg and Meltdowntown, this hobo-kenned vehicle made a year-long milk run through the Wires, the Posts and the Telegraphs of the press’s iron road. Complete with incompetent engineers, ill-maintained corporate boxcars and a miscarriage of justice, the last train wreck left banking bums covering their tracks, bucking for mulligans and begging for handouts. All a-board!
  • 10) Ratchet: Openly blowing smoke for years, the global economy began to sputter and lose speed, then its wheels fell off. In rhesponse, dusty gray repair vehicles were called into service, including trusty ambulances (resuscitate, CPR), tugboats (salvage, bailout) and tow trucks (jump-start, refuel). These fix-it-’phors came to a head in the fall when backbench mercanics started promising to “ratchet up” everything from soup to nuts. However, this hands-on verbal tool lost its teeth when we discovered that it was all talk – no one actually knew how to repair this heap. “It’s a real fixer-upper”, we were told. Sure, if you can find anyone who has the parts…
  • 11) Pitbull in lipstick: When VP candidate Sarah Palin tagged herself with “pitbull in lipstick“, many Observers were sure she was barking up the wrong cognitive tree. Instead, this image sunk its teeth into a rural crowd seeking protection and loyalty during this time of war. But soon afterwards, Palin tore off from the Republi-pack by con-cur-rent-ly running her 2012 presidential campaign, helping guide underdog McCain from the Whitehouse to the dog house. After the election, talk shows managed to fetch the pitbull to sit and speak, though we’ve heard the first few times have been a bit, um – rough.

Awarded By The Observatory:

Golden Raspberry – Audi, Own The Road (2008): This year’s Golden Raspberry is awarded to performance auto maker Audi, for their commercial “Own The Road“, featuring eager gentlemen receiving sizable chunks of pavement as gifts, complete with bits from the shoulder and across the centerline. We give our thumbed-nose thanks to Audi, for using metaphor to justify aggressive driving, and doing away with the apparently outmoded concept of “sharing” the road.

Golden Bridge – John McCain: This award is given to the newsmaker who bridges one significant news item with another from the same period, using metaphor. We note that there were drive-by shootings occuring in both war zones at the time, and these wars and the mortgage crisis were prominent figures in McCain’s campaign.

“Homeowners are the innocent bystanders in a drive-by shooting by Wall Street and Washington.” Presidential Candidate John McCain, October 22, 2008.


Golden Watch – Meltdown and Fallout: There are two recipients of this year’s Golden Watch, awarded to metaphors that have worked hard and are anxiously awaiting retirement. Longidental nuclear siblings Meltdown and Fallout topped the world’s headlines for several years, hanging out with such stars as Mark Foley, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. So, how did typesetters keep these aging metaphors alive and looking phresh? Facelifts.

Living, Breathing Metaphor of the Year – Barack Obama: Barack Hussein Obama was a surprise entry into this year’s Top Ten List. Being black while venturing into historically white turf, he visibly symbolized change. With both black and white ancestry, Christian and Muslim lineage and his peaceful disposition, he embodied racial and religious harmony, thus hope. These are desperate times; when desperate, change is hope, hence “Yes we can”. We are forced to ask, was he really elected for his policies, or as a metaphor for hope and change?

Metaphor Discovery of the Year – Heat Makes People Warm: This year, Lawrence E. Williams at the University of Colorado published a study showing a connection between physical and emotional warmth. The research, involving conversations between people while drinking either warm or cold beverages, showed that warm beverages lead to warmer receptions. To Observers, this work furthers the notion that our brains may not distinguish bewteen metaphor and reality as much as we’d like to think. Of course, what could a bunch of neuron’s know anyhow?!

Metaphorist of the Year – Paddy Hirsch: The Metaphor Observatory recorded over 8 million different metaphors for the economic crisis during 2008. However, after an external audit, it was discovered this number was somewhat overstated by our executives. There were only seven. And of those seven, only one was good enough to win its creator the title Metaphorist of the Year. Marketplace Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch’s “Uncorking CDO’s”, though self-described as simile, was equally a worthy metaphor system, elegantly delivering a simple explanation of this complex concept. Hirsch joins fellow unnotified honorees George Lakoff, Stephen Colbert, Lou Dobbs and Jon Stewart.

1) Bailout
2) Joe The Plumber
3) Angry Whopper
4) Toxic assets
5) Rock-star
6) Addiction
7) Perfect storm
8) Train wreck
9) Surge
10) Ratchet
11) Pitbull in lipstick

6 Responses to “Top Ten Metaphors of 2008”

  1. lollypic writes:

    It seems that the health care debate has been injecting some tired old metaphors into the ailing US media… the 'skyrocketing' costs are becoming familiar in these parts…

  2. J. D. Casnig writes:

    An ironically uplifting choice of metaphor.Thanks for your Observation!

  3. lollypic writes:

    Indeed! And lets not forget our beloved 'Cash for Clunkers' (a metaphor AND onomatopoeia?!).

  4. J. D. Casnig writes:

    They should've used that phrase to describe the bank bailout!

  5. lollypic writes:

    Haha! Yes. The first time I heard it I envisioned a sad clown.

  6. lollypic writes:

    Chief whitehouse spokesman today after Obama's campaign promise not to raise taxes for the middle class was called into question:"Promising that everybody is going to be on message may be a bar that is too high for me to leap over," Gibbs said with a smile.,0,2495150.story

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