Metaphors in American Presidents’ Inaugural Addresses: An Empirical Study

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Metaphors in American Presidents’ Inaugural Addresses

An Empirical Study


Zhang He

Under the Supervision of

Professor Chen Xinren

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements

For the Degree of Bachelor of Arts
English department

School of Foreign Studies

Nanjing University

Jan 2009

I wish to express my sincere thanks to my supervisor Professor Chen Xinren for his guidance and encouragement. I would also like to thank my teachers of the thesis writing class, Wang Wenyu and Zhou Dandan. These professors helped me choose my thesis topic, analyze my data, and revise my thesis. With out their help, I cannot complete my thesis step by step. Last but not least, my thanks go to all of my friends for their forgiveness of my dysphoria and for their support when I was struggling in the middle of writing the thesis.






Metaphor is a rhetorical device American presidents frequently use in their inaugural addresses. As shown by previous studies, metaphors help politicians clarify the abstract politic phrases, arouse audience’s emotion, and reach politicians’ political aims. However, in previous studies, scholars focus their attention either on metaphors in all kinds of politic speeches or on different kinds of rhetorical skills in presidents’ inaugural address. They pay little attention to the usage of metaphors in American presidents’ inaugural address, which does require some efforts to discover its mystery. The present study, therefore, focuses on different categories of metaphors used in three American presidents’ inaugural speeches, attempting to figure out the usage and effects of them. The data I choose are John F. Kennedy’s address in 1961, Ronald Reagan’s address in 1981, and George W. Bush’s address in 2001. In this empirical study, I classify all the metaphors in the three texts into 8 categories: metaphors of military affairs, metaphors of fire and light, metaphors of journey, metaphors of nature, metaphors of building, metaphors of physical suffering, metaphors of people, and metaphors of finance. Each category has its particular effects on the delivery of the president’s political intention. I also compare the usage of metaphors in the subjects, and find out that the differences in the use of metaphors by different presidents can reveal their different political attitudes.

These results show that there are some shared metaphors in every president’s inaugural speech, through which we can see the art of political speech and the wisdom of the highest leader of a nation. From the contrast of three subjects, we can dig out the hidden information of America’s economic, political, municipal, and diplomatic attitude in different times. We also can adopt the classification of metaphors in the future in analyzing other American president’s speech and get better understanding of their political intention.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ii

摘要 iii

Abstract iv

Table of Contents v


1.1 Definitions of key terms 1

1.2 Overview of related studies 2

1.3 Problems with previous studies 3


2.1 Research questions 3

2.2 Subjects 4

2.3 Data collection & data analysis 4


3.1 The situation in which metaphors are used frequently 5

3.2 The usage of metaphors in APIAs 7

3.2.1 Metaphors of military affairs 8

3.2.2 Metaphors of fire and light 9

3.2.3 Metaphors of journey 10

3.2.4 Metaphors of nature 10

3.2.5 Metaphors of building 10

3.2.6 Metaphors of physical suffering 11

3.2.7 Metaphors of people 11

3.2.8 Metaphors of finance 12

3.3 Causes and effects of metaphors in APIAs 12

3.3.1 Causes and effects of metaphors of military affairs 12

3.3.2 Causes and effects of metaphors of fire and light 13

3.3.3 Causes and effects of metaphors of journey 14

3.3.4 Causes and effects of metaphors of nature 14

3.3.5 Cause and effects of metaphors of building 15

3.3.6 Causes and effects of metaphors of physical suffering 15

3.3.7 Causes and effects of metaphors of people 15

3.3.8 Causes and effects of metaphors of finance 16

3.3.9 Summary 16

References 18


Presidents’ inaugural address, as a kind of political speech, is an art that includes all the skills of public speaking. How do American presidents make their addresses attractive and persuasive? Do they have some skills or secrets of success on public speaking? Yes, of course. Before the address, many people who have great talent or golden knack of public speaking make concerted effort to construct such a perfect text. They check wording and phrasing, and use all kinds of figures of speech as long as they need. As a result of collective wisdom, inaugural addresses show their special charm to appeal to millions of fellow citizens.

In recent years, many studies found positive effects of different speech skills in inaugural addresses. In this research, I mainly focus on the usage and frequency of metaphors used in the speeches, which undoubtedly play indispensable roles in making a good inaugural address. I use three American presidents’ inaugural addresses as my samples in order to discover some common rules for the usage of metaphors through comparing and analyzing the three addresses. Here are two ways in which this research is significant. First, from the perspective of pragmatics, it seeks the practical meaning of metaphors in a real and special environment; second, from the perspective of politics, it helps us better understand politicians' real intention and their art of speech.

I hope that through this research I can find out the usage of metaphors in those addresses, and what effects they produce respectively on the theme the addressers want to deliver. I also hope that the comparison and contrast among the three different speeches will give us some clues about the change of American’s political, economic, and diplomatic tactics in different periods.


    1. Definitions of key terms

To begin the study of metaphor, let’s first look at the definition of metaphor. The following explanation comes from the American Heritage Dictionary.

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word of phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designates another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).

As two key factors of metaphors, “tenor” and “vehicle” are easy to be understood in the following example:

Tenor: the word, phrase, or subject with which the vehicle of a metaphor is identified, as life in “Life’s but a walking shadow” (Shakespeare).

Vehicle: the concrete or specific word or phrase that is applied to the tenor of a metaphor and gives the metaphor its figurative power, as walking shadow in “Life’s but a walking shadow” (Shakespeare).

——excerpted from American Heritage Dictionary

    1. Overview of related studies

The study of metaphor covers a long history that begins as early as ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago. Ever since great thinker Aristotle, people have been intrigued by the mystery of metaphor. Researchers from various academic fields have approached metaphor from very different perspectives and established an array of theories of metaphor. In the twentieth century, especially since the nineteen seventies, the academia showed much enthusiasm in the study of metaphor. Most of the studies of metaphor have mainly concentrated on lexical metaphor, and some of them have focussed on metaphors in public speeches.

“Speeches are considered as a unified strategy aimed to achieve a specific effect, informative, persuasive, or other, to the extent that it is clear, interesting, credible, and appropriate for the audience within a given time limit.”(Wilson, 1994, pp.5-6) Among the different kinds of public speeches, politic speeches seem to have more concern with the art of language. As for the function of political speech, Feldman and Landtsheer (1998, p.196) points out that language in politics can reduce the uncertainties and contractions, characteristics of abstract concepts and political maneuvers, to the extent that language becomes an important instrument of power, a weapon for winning political office, a tool for influencing society and a weapon for mobilizing the public support. In the book Politically Speaking: A Worldwide Examination of Language Used in the Public Sphere, written by O. Feldman and C. D. Landtsheer, they use different kinds of methodologies and theoretical directions to do their research. One of their focuses is rhetorical device—the oldest approach to political language.

1.3 Problems with Previous Studies

The previous researches focus either on the study of metaphor in daily life or on the study of rhetorical phenomena in public speech. They ignore the special advantage that metaphor may have in public speech in formal situations, especially when the speech has political significance. Analyses that focus on the usages of metaphor in presidents’ inaugural addresses are rare to find. This research seeks to fill this gap in the literature, and tries to get access to the heart of American presidents’ inaugural addresses.

Presidents’ inaugural address is a special kind of political language because it is usually addressed by the president of a nation to the whole country as his audience in a particular place and on a particular day. The significance of inaugural address needs not to be mentioned. Apart from the gesture and tone being practiced before the address, the text itself is tempered again and again in order to win the maximum audience. Metaphor is so commonly used that it plays an important role in persuading and convincing people. However, previous studies seem pay little attention to the usage of metaphor in inaugural address, to which I think efforts should be directed. A deep analysis of the types of metaphor used in presidents’ inaugural address also can shed light on different presidents’ political attitude hidden behind the words. That is also the motivation that drives me to do this research.

2.1 Research questions

The present study attempts to seek answers to the following research questions:

  1. How are metaphors used in American presidents’ inaugural address?

  1. Is metaphor frequently used in presidents’ inaugural address?

  2. Can these metaphors be categorized into groups?

  3. If they can, what are these groups?

  4. In what situations are metaphors used? Can these situations be categorized?

  1. What are the possible effects of these metaphors?

  1. Do the metaphors express the hidden meaning of the words?

  2. Do the metaphors well express the presidents’ intention?

  1. What similarities and differences are there in the usage of metaphors among different presidents’ address?

  1. Do the addresses have the same metaphors or metaphor categories?

  2. If they do share some similarities, what are they and why?

  3. Is there any metaphor category that is used in one particular address but absent in others?

  4. If there is, what is the category and why does it appear?

2.2 Subjects

The data for this study are three inaugural speeches of American presidents after the Second World War. The presidents are John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. The three speeches have more than 5000 words and spans more than 50 years. The years they delivered their inaugural address are 1961, 1981, and 2001. The intervals between Kennedy and Reagan and between Reagan and Bush are both 20 years, and the speeches are all made in their first presidential term.

2.3 Data collection and data analysis

The three speeches were extracted from a corpus of American presidents’ inaugural addresses on the Internet. While studying the speeches, I identified and classified the metaphors in them employing the definition of metaphor given in the thesis. Once quantitative data were collected, I undertook a qualitative analysis in order to explain their conceptual bases. The aim was first to describe and classify, and then to interpret and explain the metaphors.

In the process of counting the number of metaphors, I found that in some sentences, more than two tokens were used to express one metaphor, like the following one:

E.g. …and even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel. (George W. Bush)

In the sentence, “way” and “travel” were two tokens, but since they belong to one metaphor, I counted them as one. This kind of counting could avoid repetition.

In the following study, I analyzed the metaphors by incorporating its linguistic and pragmatic dimensions in order to explore why metaphor has the potential to arouse the emotion, which is very often used in persuasive language, especially in political speeches. To make my analysis clear, I divided it into two parts. First I classified situations in which metaphors were most frequently used, and then I transferred the perspective to vehicles by putting all the vehicles appearing in the three American presidents’ inaugural addresses (APIAs) in groups. A detailed analysis followed the classification.


3.1 The situation in which metaphors are used frequently

Every president is well aware of his moment of inauguration. At that moment, he has the nation’s attention, and the inaugural address offers him a chance to write his history of his administration before it begins. He can take his chance to appeal to more people to support his government and his party, for every speaker knows that if he can manipulate or limit what is possible in language, he can manipulate or limit what is possible in thought (Wilson, 2001). In fact, how well a president succeeds depends to a great extent on his crafting and delivery of the words and symbols of the moment, and the most successful presidents have been known for their strong rhetorical abilities: Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and William J. Clinton, to name just a few.

In the process of examining those metaphors in APIAs, I find that presidents like to use metaphors when they talk about three topics: political faith, international relationship, and economy. The first two can be proved in all the three samples, and we can find the last one (economy) in President Reagan’s address. Why do the three presidents all choose to employ metaphors on the topics of political faith and international relationship? Why do metaphors on economy appear only in Reagan’s address? The following analysis answers the two questions.

Look at the examples of political faith situation.

  1. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. (John F. Kennedy)

  2. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.(Ronald Reagan)

  3. It is the inborn hope of our humanity, and ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along; and even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel.(George W. Bush)

More than 50 percent of the metaphors used in APIAs appear in the context of political faith, especially when the president talks about freedom, democracy, and equality. Freedom, democracy, and equality are the aims that all Americans pursue, and the goals every American government pursues (at least they want their people believe they are working on the goals). Presidents prefer to employ metaphors there just because of those political faiths’ characteristics. The following offers three possible explanations for this observation.

  1. The American government has to give their political act a righteous excuse, to show their people what they do is done for people’s good. Nothing is better than freedom, democracy, and equality—that every person wants to own. However, these dreams are easy to be forgotten in daily life. Thus, presidents would like to grasp the chance of their inaugural ceremony to emphasize and reemphasize them. Since the total number of that politicians mention political faith is large, it is not surprising that the metaphors related to this topic amount to a large quantity.

  2. Freedom, democracy, and equality are all abstract concepts. They are hard to understand or imagine. This feature influences the encouraging effects presidents intend to create on their people. Metaphors here do a big favor. Changing the abstract concepts into concrete and visual image usually help the speaker arouse the audience’s emotion and encourage them to make effort for the mutual good.

  3. Usually, political faith such as freedom and democracy cannot be fulfilled in a short time, and the way to freedom and democracy must be set with all kinds of obstacles, so as a president, he has the obligation to remind his people of all these difficulties. Metaphor plays an important role in telling people to be patient, brave, and persistent, as well as warning them to be ready for potential threat and accept temporary failure.

Then we examine the situation of international relationship.

  1. …and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.(John F. Kennedy)

  2. …and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.(Ronald Reagan)

  3. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.(George W. Bush)

Many Americans are concerned about the internal economy, unemployment, and social welfare, because these are closely related to their life. However, politicians try to persuade them into looking outside, since the international relationship influences the government’s political trend and economic benefits. Thus, presidents employ metaphors when they talk about international relationship for the following reasons:

  1. They attempt to let audience better understand the political environment in the world.

  2. They attempt to give their audience a clear impression of friend and foe, allies and enemies, or sometimes just countries which support or oppose their policies.

  3. They want their people to have the feeling of home—America, and abroad—other countries.

Metaphor related to economy only appears in President Reagan’s address. It has something to do with the economic situation in that time. At the beginning of the 1980s, America faced severe inflation and people had to bear a more than 20% interest rate. More than 80 million people were unemployed. The national debt came to 1,000 billion dollar. The biggest task of Reagan’s first government was to revive economy. The economic policy he carried was called Reaganomics. Since economy was what worried him most, he certainly put this topic a conspicuous and important place, and tried to win people’s support. As a consequence, we can find several examples in his inaugural address.

  1. In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity.(Ronald Reagan)

  2. Is it time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.(Ronald Reagan)

    1. The usage of metaphors in APIAs

I count the metaphors in all the three addresses, as shown in Table:

Here one thing should be mentioned. When the same metaphor appears in one speech more than once, it is counted as one metaphor. For example, in George W. Bush’s speech, the word “defend” appears in different forms several times—“defending, defenses, defend”, I count them as one.

Table 1


J. F. Kennedy

Ronald Reagan

George W. Bush

Military Affairs




Fire and Light
















Physical Suffering
















From the calculation result, we can see that metaphor does play an active role in the speeches. If we carefully examine every metaphor, it is not difficult to classify them into the flowing categories.

      1. Metaphors of military affairs

The most frequently used metaphor in presidents’ inaugural address is metaphors of military affairs, which means the words the presidents choose point to something comparable to military affairs while the context itself is not related to military affairs.


  1. We renew our pledge of support: to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(John F. Kennedy)

  3. Now the trumpet summons us again…(John F. Kennedy)

  4. In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.(John F. Kennedy)

  5. As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it—now or ever.(Ronald Reagan)

  6. Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.(Ronald Reagan)

  7. Our national courage has been clear in times of depression and war, when defending common dangers defined our common good.(George W. Bush)

  8. We will build our defenses beyond challenge…(George W. Bush)

  9. The enemies of liberty and our country should make on mistake…(George W. Bush)

  10. We will defend our allies and our interests…(George W. Bush)

  11. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to defend needed reforms against easy attacks…(George W. Bush)

The metaphors of military affairs usually include three categories: metaphors of defense, metaphors of attack, and metaphors of battle. This classification can be done on the basis of the semantic orientation of the metaphor keyword. In the examples above, the words “defend” and “shield” are the metaphors of defense, in the same category of which there are words like “protect”. “Attack” is a clear sign of metaphors of attack, and meanwhile “defeat”, “hit”, “beat”, “conquer”, “destroy”, “beachhead” and “trumpet” (usually, when soldiers hear trumpet, they assault) can be categorized into this group. Metaphors of battle include “battle”, “fight”, “conflict”, and “campaign”. “Defense” metaphors are most commonly used in the presidents’ addresses.

      1. Metaphors of fire and light

Metaphors of fire and light often involve words such as “fire”, “light”, “glow”, “flame”, “torch” and something related to light, like “beacon”. Most of them deliver a feeling of brightness.


  1. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.(John F. Kennedy)

  3. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.(Ronald Reagan)

  4. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence.(Ronald Reagan)

      1. Metaphors of journey

Metaphors of journey often rest on the word of “burden” or the phrase “bear the burden”. Though some scholars think that we should reconsider whether “burden” should be counted as a metaphor, I prefer to include it because “burden” means something that is carried, weight, and this word is often used in the context of journey. Other metaphors of journey are words related to walk, step, travel, and so on.


  1. …we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. …though our nation has sometimes halted, and sometimes delayed, we must follow no other course.(George W. Bush)

  3. It is the inborn hope of our humanity, and ideal we carry but do not own, a trust we bear and pass along; and even after nearly 225 years, we have a long way yet to travel.(George W. Bush)

      1. Metaphors of nature

Here nature means natural environment, including weather, mountains, water, plants, animal, and so on.


  1. And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.(George W. Bush)

  3. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. (George W. Bush)

      1. Metaphors of building

Building here ranges broadly, from structures built for human habitation to embankments raised as safeguards.


  1. …and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.(John F. Kennedy)

  2. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.(John F. Kennedy)

  3. …and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.(Ronald Reagan)

  4. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.(Ronald Reagan)

  5. Well, this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.(Ronald Reagan)

  6. In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity.(Ronald Reagan)

In this category, some words like “bulwark” and “bastion” can also be classified into the metaphor of military, but in case they are counted twice, I put them into the metaphor of building, because after all they are buildings in nature..

      1. Metaphors of physical suffering

Physical suffering here includes not only the agony human suffer, but also things or acts causing those sufferings, such as “chains”, “bonds”, “smother”, “stifle”.


  1. To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. …to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.(John F. Kennedy)

  3. The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades.(Ronald Reagan)

  4. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.(Ronald Reagan)

      1. Metaphors of people

This kind of metaphors includes different social states of people, different occupations, and the magic image of people, for example angels, giants, and fairies.


  1. Is it time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.(Ronald Reagan)

  2. …a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom…(George W. Bush)

  3. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm.(George W. Bush)

      1. Metaphors of finance

This category refers to something related to business, like “buy”, “sell”, “pay”, “afford”, and the phrase “pay the price” appears most frequently.


  1. …that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship…(John F. Kennedy)

  2. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.(Ronald Reagan)

  3. Some seem to believe that our politics and afford to be petty because in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small.(George W. Bush)

    1. Causes and effects of metaphors in APIAs

Metaphors have the shared effect on politic speech—make the abstract and abstruse politic language concrete and visual so that it is easy to be understood by most casual audience, arouse the audience’s emotion, and win the audience’s agreement or support. As for the presidents’ inaugural address, different categories of metaphors have their specific effects.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of military affairs

Howe says that “when politics must be portrayed as ruthless and treacherous, speakers usually resort to military metaphors.” (Howe, 1988, P95) Politicians employ military metaphors for the following reasons:

  1. They want to clarify two opposed powers, to make clear their own position and evaluation, to remind the audience of their attitude towards what they oppose;

  2. They want to emphasize the personal sacrifice and the rigorous hardship the nation needs to make;

  3. They want the audience to understand the abstract social goals in a simple and concrete way;

  4. They want to highlight the importance of some political activities by comparing them to a war.

Nearly all the metaphors of military affairs have the similar rhetorical pattern: it is either for abstract social goals that are positively evaluated such as freedom, democracy, human rights, etc, or against social phenomenon that are negatively evaluated such as poverty and discrimination.

It is not hard to find out that metaphors of defenses account for a great percentage of the whole group of military metaphors. Among Examples 1 to 11, six sentences have metaphors of defenses, and there are only two attack words. This phenomenon may reveal the truth that we are in the times of peace, and nobody wants to attack others unless his/her rights have been violated first. Both the government and the common people hope to prevent their freedom, their rights, their interest from the threat of others’ invasion. As a result, defending becomes the mainstream of military metaphors.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of fire and light

Metaphors of fire and light are used in similar ways to express something positive. For instance, “torch” has its significant symbolic meaning in Western countries, especially in America, that is freedom. The torch held by the Statue of Liberty in New York City is a typical example. Since torch relay is a common activity in Olympic Games, and it is a common sense that it should be passed to next one in public. The metaphor J.F. Kennedy uses here just tries to express that the spirit of seeking freedom has been passed from generation to generation, and will be passed down to next generation, too.

His second metaphor of “light” actually involves the original quality of light—illumination. When ancestors took their new exploration in jungles and caves, fire gave them light to illuminate the way under their feet, so “fire” and “glow” are usually used to symbolize guidance on the way of exploration, or faith, belief, and other spiritual power that can encourage and support people to do something. The “flames” in Reagan’s address expresses a similar meaning.

“Beacon” is a guiding device, such as a lighthouse located on a coast. When ships sail on the sea, sailors know they are close to the land as they see a beacon, which may mean food, fresh water, medicine, and, most importantly, hope.

Thus, it is not hard to find that metaphors of fire and light are always used to express encouragement, hope, guide, and freedom. When politicians try to emphasize the target they want to achieve, they use this kind of metaphor to let audience feel how great and bright their faith is, how close and wonderful the victory is, although the truth may not be as good as they describe. “Light” is also used in contrast to “darkness”, which may symbolize evil power or hostile force. However, this meaning is not reflected in the samples of research.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of journey

The metaphor of journey has some similar effects as the metaphor of military affairs. Check all the metaphors of journey, and we will find that more than a half involve a phrase—“bear the burden”. Politicians employ these metaphors for the following reasons:

  1. They want to emphasize the hardship of achieving their social goals;

  2. They remind audience in a euphemistic way that it will take long time and there will be stress, difficulties and frustrations in the process;

  3. Just like taking a journey, the steps are sometimes fast and sometimes slow. If the politician is talking about economic development or revolution phase, the metaphor of journey can help him explain the uneven speed or temporary stagnancy.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of nature

John F. Kennedy uses the metaphor of “jungle” to describe a terrible environment. Jungle means a dense thicket, and also can be explained as a dense, confused mass. Actually, when a president would like to let his people know the political or economic environment of the country is not very good, he would uses some words related to bad weather or bad natural environments, as we can see in Examples 19, 20, 21.

In the mean time, they also need positive images to represent America and Americans, so “rock” symbolize America’s faith in freedom and democracy is as solid as rock, and is taking root in many nations as a seed upon the wind. Two groups of metaphor here are two groups of contrast, making the audience clear that America’s Attic Faith will not change or shake even when encountering a bad outer environment as severe as “storm”.

The dramatic effect is then to make the serious issue vivid and easy to be understood by common people. However, there is a tendency that most of the presidents use bad natural environments to symbolize bad situations, but seldom do they use good ones to symbolize good situations. Perhaps this is because they tend to exaggerate bad conditions to warn their people and show their ability in adversity. That is politicians’ strategy.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of building

Metaphors of building perform different functions, that is to say, the kind of building shows the specific functional quality of the building. For example, “bulwark” in Reagan’s inaugural address means protection, and “barriers” and “roadblocks” mean obstacles.

It is interesting to note “home” and “house” here. Although they have a similar meaning, they cannot exchange with each other in J.F Kennedy’s address. The notion of “house” differs from the notion of “home”. “House” seems to imply a notion of control and protection, while the concept of “home” implies something intimate (Cao, 46). “Home” is used when politicians want to evoke a strong positive emotion. Maybe it is intimacy. “House” is used to emphasize the mastery and control. Besides, “home” still can be used to express the meaning of the motherland, as opposed to abroad. (please refer to Example 22)

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of physical suffering

If someone tells you a misery, you may not imagine it, but if he describes it as the misery of being chained, you probably understand it. That is why politicians use metaphors of physical suffering.

Everyone can feel the discomfort of their body. Politicians employ words such as “bonds”, “chains”, “ills”, etc, in order to help the audience understand abstract misery that the nation is suffering. People feel the suffering of economy as if they themselves were suffering illness.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of people

In the samples, all the metaphors of people are used to symbolize America, in a positive way. They have something in common; that is, they endow America with a fine image, no matter whether it is as powerful as a giant industry , or as loyal as a servant to fight for freedom, or as strong as an angel to confront terrible environment. Generally speaking, the presidents always try to give their people encouragement by defining America as a wonderful and unbeatable person. Here the concept of people is not limited to human beings. It also includes other spirits and living things.

      1. Causes and effects of metaphors of finance

In an economic and financial world, nobody does not care about money, and everybody more or less has some financial knowledge, even just as simple as “buy in” and “sell out”. Maybe that is the reason why the presidents like to use metaphors of finance. They think that will make people understand what they are talking about. After all, buying things is a normal activity in daily life.

Metaphors of finance have another effect. It is known to all that business includes pay on two sides. One pays the money, and then he can get the commodity he wants. In a political world, it is the same. When politicians want to achieve a political goal, they must make efforts, which can be called “pay the price”. This kind of metaphor tells people that there is no free lunch. You want to gain? You must pay first!

3.3.9 Summary

Although different types of metaphors have different functions in APIAs, they all have some functions in common, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Metaphors help the audience understand abstract and unfamiliar affairs through changing them into familiar topics. After all, many audiences are common people who do not have much political knowledge.

  2. Some political affairs are not suitable to be explained to people too clearly, or politicians are not willing to clarify some touchy subjects, so they employ metaphors to make the speech implicit. Metaphors help them avoid unnecessary troubles.

  3. Metaphors make the addresses impressive and vivid.


The present research of three American presidents’ inaugural addresses aims at studying metaphor’s effects in political speeches. Special attention is paid to analyzing the situations in which presidents use metaphors, the different kinds of metaphors they used, and their perspective rhetorical functions.

The research shows that presidents like to employ metaphors when they talk about topics of political faith, international relationship and economy. Their main reasons are as follows: First, metaphors can help their audience feel these abstract concepts in a visible and imaginable way; second, they want to give their policy a righteous excuse, so they emphasize Americans’ mutual dream—freedom, democracy, and equality through the use of metaphors; third, metaphors help their audience recognize clearly the friend and foe in the international relationship; fourth, metaphors help them explain the current economy situation, especially the macro-environment common people do not see.

The research also categorizes all the metaphors in the three addresses into eight groups according to the use of vehicles, namely: metaphors of military affairs, metaphors of fire and light, metaphors of journey, metaphors of nature, metaphors of building, metaphors of physical suffering, metaphors of people, and metaphors of finance. They have different effects and functions in delivering message and emotion.

The third finding of the research is that the use of metaphor differs from each other because of the situation of time. President Reagan’s address is a typical example. When he was elected as American president, the country was encountering severe financial crisis. As a consequence, he is the only one of the three that uses many metaphors on the topic of economy. That can be summed up in one sentence: all the political speeches reflect the politicians’ attitude and main political focus.

It is important to remember that what is reported here is only a pilot study since the findings are only drawn on the basis of three American presidents’ inaugural addresses. Also because of the limitation of time and research ability, it does not dig into other factors that influence the usage of metaphors in APIAs, for example, the background of the president. It is possible that the president who has served the army prefers using metaphors of military affairs. The result will remain hypothetical until being confirmed by further study.


Aristotle, 1952, De Poetica, In W. D. Ross (ed.), The Works of Aristotle, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cao Y.M.[曹玉梅],2006,《美国总统演说辞的隐喻性研究》,硕士论文,山东,曲阜师范大学。

Cong L.T. & Xu L.Y.[从莱庭,徐鲁亚],2007,《西方修辞学》,上海:上海外语教育出版社。

Landtsheer, C. D. 1998. Introduction to the Study of Political Discourse. In O. Feldman & C. D. Landtsheer (eds), Politically Speaking: A Worldwide Examination of Language Used in the Public Sphere. London: Prager Publishers.

Wang J.H. [王建华],1999,《美国总统就职演说》,上海:上海世界图书出版社。

Wilson D. 1994. Relevance and understanding. In G. Brown, K. Malmkjar, A. Pollict & J. Williams (eds), Language and Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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