Lexicon Valley: “Fiscal Cliff” is a flawed but brilliant metaphor.

Lexicon Valley: How Metaphor Feeds Our Unconscious Attraction to the Fiscal Cliff

Lexicon Valley: How Metaphor Feeds Our Unconscious Attraction to the Fiscal Cliff

A show about the mysteries of English.
Dec. 21 2012 4:52 PM

Why Fiscal Cliff Is Such a Powerful Metaphor

Listen to Slate’s show about the ubiquity of spatial metaphors in our language.

Lexicon Valley has moved! Find new episodes here.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 23: Good Is Up

In the weeks since the presidential election, economic news has been dominated by talk of the catastrophic-sounding “fiscal cliff,” metaphorical shorthand for a series of spending cuts and tax increases that are set to automatically begin at the turn of the calendar year. Many in the punditocracy, however, agree that cliff is a flawed coinage and have suggested words like slope or hill to conjure a more gradual decline, all to no avail. Listen to Bob Garfield and me discussing the ubiquity and unique power of spatial metaphors, and why assumptions like “up is good” and “down is bad” make more ominous, if erroneous, imagery more attractive.

You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

BOB: From Washington, D.C. this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today, Episode No. 23, titled Good Is Up, wherein we discuss a very powerful metaphor that we've all grown to despise.


MIKE: All right, today's episode. Here in the United States, if you've been paying attention to the news during the past several weeks, there are two words that you've probably heard over and over and over.


BRIAN WILLIAMS of NBC: It’s what they call, for good reason, this fiscal cliff.


JAKE TAPPER of ABC: There will be no deal to avert going over the fiscal cliff.

LLOYD BLANKFEIN of GOLDMAN SACHS: Look, if we go over the fiscal cliff, it will be very bad … hugely ba… hugely negative.

ED O’KEEFE of the WASHINGTON POST: So what is the fiscal cliff?

MONTGOMERY BURNS: I guess it’s time I explain to these good people the upcoming fiscal cliff.


BOB: [laughing] Yeah, five voices on the fiscal cliff, two of whom were cartoon characters. The last one was Mr. Burns and who was number three?

MIKE: That's Lloyd Blankfein the CEO of

BOB: Goldman Sachs!

MIKE: Goldman Sachs, yeah.


BOB: He sounds like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

MIKE: [laughing]

BOB: I can't believe this is the guy who is the sinister kingpin, robber baron, puppet master of Wall Street. He sounds like a character from Top Cat. Anyway, they're all talking about the same thing. The, uh, what do you call it, fiscal cliff.

MIKE: Exactly, and you know we're not going to debate the politics or the economics of the fiscal cliff, but for the benefit of those who either don't live in the U.S. and therefore haven't followed this or just don't know, can you Bob very briefly describe what the phrase "fiscal cliff" is shorthand for?


BOB: Yeah, it is an automatic series of draconian spending cuts and parallel tax increases which automatically go into effect if the Republicans in the House of Representatives and the President cannot come up with a grand bargain or even a petit bargain about spending and taxes in the next few days actually.

MIKE: Yeah, couple weeks. And we should point out that the phrase the "fiscal cliff" was used back in February of this year by Ben Bernanke. He's the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He used it during testimony in front of the House Financial Services Committee. Here's what he said:

BEN BERNANKE: I think you also have to protect the recovery in the near term. Under current law, on January 1, 2013, there's going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.

MIKE: Now, Bernanke didn't coin the phrase. It's actually been around for years and a lot of people have misreported that. But it was his invoking of it this year, in connection with this particular set of circumstances, that pushed it into common use in the media and since the election ended it's pretty much all we hear. Something you hear almost as often is the qualification that it's not really a "cliff." For example:



SPEAKER 1: What if the fiscal cliff turns out to be more of a fiscal speed bump?

STEVE KORNACKI: The reality is that the cliff is really more of a slope.

EZRA KLEIN: Is it a cliff, a curb, a slope? Uh, EPI wants to call it an obstacle course.

MIKE: So here's the question. If it's widely agreed that a "cliff" is not the right metaphor, why do we like it so much? But wait. Don't actually answer that question. First, I want you to forget about the fiscal cliff.

BOB: Okay, wait a second. It's forgo... no, no.

MIKE: [laughing] Don't think about elephants.

BOB: What were we talking about. I've forgotten.

MIKE: We're not talking about the fiscal cliff right now. We're talking about metaphor. There has been research that suggests we use metaphors in our speech about once every 20 to 25 words, which averages out to about five or six a minute. I spoke recently with James Geary. He's the author of a great book that came out last year called I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. He told me that based on his casual analysis of things like newscasts and political speeches and even ordinary conversations that we, as he put it, "woefully underestimate" just how prevalent metaphor is. Here's Geary:

JAMES GEARY: I would venture to guess that there’s probably two or three metaphors for every ten words that we use, so that gives you an indication of just how pervasive metaphor is. And it’s pervasive because whenever we talk about anything abstract – our feelings or concepts, ideas, intuitions, anything that’s not literal – we have to use a metaphor to describe it.

BOB: Now when he's talking about metaphor, he's not really talking about literary metaphor per se, you know when you're really self-conscious about it: "I wandered lonely as a cloud/ That floats on high o'er vales and hills." He's talking about just colorful language which makes an abstract idea more accessible.

MIKE: Yeah, the sort of literary metaphor that you're talking about is something like "All the world's a stage,/ And men and women merely players." That would stand out as metaphor—as a kind of poetic equating of two relatively disparate things—during any conversation. What he's talking about here, though, is something so imbedded in our language that we don't even notice it as metaphor. Here again is Geary:

JAMES GEARY: So, when I say “I see what you mean,” I see, literally, absolutely nothing. But in every culture, in every language around the world, seeing – actually visually perceiving something – is equated with intellectually knowing something. And the similar expression is “I hear what you’re saying.” I see what you mean, I hear what you’re saying – psychologically, emotionally, you’re conveying to the other person that you understand them. And we never stop and think, hey, that’s a metaphor. And it’s actually one of the most ancient, most primal and most powerful metaphors that we have.

MIKE to JAMES GEARY: And it’s not hard to imagine how one might make the leap from physically seeing something or hearing it – absorbing it with your senses – to then correlating that with something more abstract like understanding.

JAMES GEARY: Exactly, and you just used another physical metaphor in what you just said, because you said “It’s not hard to make the leap.” [laughing] We have “flashes” of insight, which is another visual metaphor, and the psychological theory that explains this, or purports to explain it, is called “scaffolding.” Even simple expressions like “She’s hot” or “He leaves me cold” are metaphorical uses of very powerful physical experiences. And the theory of scaffolding posits that we use these physical experiences that every human being, every animal, shares, and we added on – we scaffolded on – to those physical experiences these metaphorical layers which are really the only way that we can communicate these abstract emotional, psychological states.

MIKE to JAMES GEARY: I guess unless you’re a Vulcan and you do a mind meld.

JAMES GEARY: [laughing] Exactly. Mind meld – you can’t talk about a mind meld without using a metaphor.

MIKE: Now, the seminal academic treatise, you could say, on this subject is called Metaphors We Live By by the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was written more than 30 years ago. In that work, which is as much a work of philosophy really as it is of linguistics, they showed that many of these metaphors that we have hiding in plain sight in our language are what they call "systematic."

Let's take the “understanding is seeing” metaphor that Geary mentioned. It's not just the expression "I see what you're saying" that accounts for that metaphor. It's a whole "system" of words and expressions in our language. I'll paraphrase from Lakoff and Johnson's book. They mention examples like "It looks different from my point of view"; "What is your outlook on that?"; "I've got the whole picture"; "Let me point something out to you." You're not actually pointing anything out.

BOB: And the structure's all based on the metaphor of using visualization to stand in for the idea of conceptualization.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. Somebody's being "clear" or not being "clear." They're being "transparent." They're being "opaque." All of this language is metaphorical and it all participates in building the metaphor “understanding is seeing.”

BOB: So, again, these are not self-conscious metaphors. If you say to mean that you're gonna get in trouble that something's gonna "jump up and bite me," that is an intentional metaphor. If you say "I see what you mean," you aren't even aware that you're using a figure of speech.

MIKE: Yeah, and often these abstract concepts - let's take another example: Time. It doesn't get any more abstract than that.

BOB: "Time, you old gipsy man, / Will you not stay, / Pull up your caravan / Just for one day?" That's from a poem by Ralph Hodgson, an early 20th-century British poet. I learned it when I was ten.

MIKE: Time. "Ticking away the moments / That make up a dull day / Fritter and waste the hours / In an off-hand way." That's from the 20th-century poet Roger Waters of the band Pink Floyd.

BOB: [laughing] Okay, you win. I am a nerd loser.

MIKE: So time is so bewildering and abstruse that we've constructed a number of metaphors to help us talk about different qualities, different aspects of time. Now, in our culture, certainly, we think of our own time—in our daily lives and in life even more broadly—as a finite entity. It will eventually, for all of us, "run out" as we say. And so we have the metaphor, as Lakoff and Johnson describe it, “time is a limited resource.” And you see this reflected, given expression, in our language.

BOB: Well, not to push the point or anything but that poem I was reciting from childhood memory is on exactly that subject. It's about someone who is facing his twilight years (metaphor) and was wishing that he could somehow put the brakes on it. "Time, you old gipsy man, / Will you not stay, / Pull up your caravan / Just for one day?" See what I mean?

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: I guess he doesn't wanna die is what it comes down to.

MIKE: Selfish of him. And you know we talk also about how we can't "spare" the time. Or we "use up" our time. We "put aside" time to do things. We "waste" time and we "save" time. This is all linguistic scaffolding, as James Geary would say, on the “time is a limited resource” metaphor. Now, there's a related metaphor that’s a kind of more distilled, more specific version of this. I'll talk about it in just a second, but first I wanna take a break to mention our sponsor Audible.com.


BOB: Nice work Mike. Now, at the risk of doing something precipitous, you were gonna get us back to "fiscal cliff"?

MIKE: We're still far from the cliff. I mentioned that there's another more distilled version of the “time is a limited resource” metaphor and that of course is “time is money.”

BOB: Oh, like there's an expression "time is money."

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, and there are a whole host of phrases, again, in our language that help to sort of build this metaphor. Right, we "spend" our time well or poorly. We "budget" our time. There may be something unforeseen that "costs" you time. We talk about "borrowed" time and about "investing" our time in someone else. If you've noticed, these systematic metaphors take the form of X is Y, where X is the relatively abstract idea of concept and Y is the more physical, visceral experience or idea that is the basis of the metaphor. “Understanding is seeing.” “Time is money.”

BOB: “Economy is topography!”

MIKE: [laughing] You really wanna get to the fiscal cliff, don't you?

BOB: I just thought maybe eventually. No, no, just go ahead.

MIKE: So we talked about “time is a limited resource” and “time is money.” There's still another metaphor that gets at a somewhat different quality of time. And I'll give you a hint. This is a quote by Virgil, the Roman poet. An English translation of a quote by Virgil. "But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail." It's a great quote. I love that quote. But you see what I'm getting at, right? Tempus fugit.

BOB: C'mon, Mike. I know I'm slow but I see no reason for you to swear at me.

MIKE: The Romans may have said "time flees." We say "time flies." The metaphor is “time is motion.” Here again is James Geary:

JAMES GEARY: We can see the effects of aging, for example, and we can see a piece of fruit rotting but we can’t actually, physically describe the passage of time. And so we use a spatial metaphor to refer to a chronological event. Forwards, or what is in front of us, is the future and the more distant future is further ahead of us. We can’t see “over the horizon,” for example. Time is like a river and it flows on by and as it flows on by the past goes behind us. So for something that’s very abstract and very difficult to comprehend like the passage of time we resort to some of the most simple physical experiences that we have.

MIKE: Now, as Geary point out, if we had different physical experiences - different bodies, different senses, a different planet - then many of our metaphors would be totally different.

JAMES GEARY: So crabs, for example, they walk sideways. If crabs could talk they would describe progress in difficult negotiations perhaps as “sidling” towards agreement. And they would find that they’re best days might still be beside them rather than ahead. So you see how our physical experience of the world really deeply, deeply informs not just the way we talk about our experiences but the actual way we interpret our experiences. And I think that’s the sort of hidden power of metaphor. It’s not just the kind of clever or flowery way of describing what we feel, but metaphors really shape what we feel. They frame what we feel. They frame what we think.

BOB: So if Virgil were a crustacean, he might have said, "Time is lateral, just always so, you know, lateral."

MIKE: I think he was more eloquent than that [laughing].

BOB: Well, you know when you eat crabs you're also drinking beer and he, you know he's ...

MIKE: He was a little drunk. He's just like, "Time is sooo lateral" [mock drunk voice].

BOB: [laughing] You know the way Virge is.

MIKE: All right, so I just wanna recap with what I think is a really helpful structure in thinking about this. We have hundreds of these conceptual metaphors that are reflected in our language. There's a subcategory of them for which the Y component of the X is Y equation is very tied to our experience as human beings living on this planet with gravity and other physical laws and all of the various limitations and possibilities of our bodies. These are referred to as "primal metaphors." “Understanding is seeing” is a good example of this. A further subcategory of these primal metaphors is what are called "spatial" or "orientational" metaphors. Up/down, forward/back, things like that. These spatial metaphors are particularly powerful for us, particularly old and profoundly influential on the way we think and interact with the world.

BOB: What leaps to mind is what's good is up, what's bad is down.

MIKE: Exactly. And think about all of the ways that we incorporate the metaphors “good is up” and “bad is down” into our language. As Lakoff and Johnson point out “happy is up, sad is down.” Right, I'm feeling "up." That "boosted" my spirits. We talk about people being in "high" spirits of something giving them a "lift." “Conscious is up, unconscious is down.” We get "up." We wake "up." We "fall" asleep. We "drop off" to sleep. “Health is up, sickness is down.” We're at the "peak" of health. We "fall" ill. We talk about health as "declining" if we're getting sick. “High status is up, low status is down.” We're in a "lofty" position if we have high status. We "rise" to the "top." We're at the "peak" of our career. We "climb" the ladder. We talk about "upward" mobility. “Virtue is up, depravity is down.” Things are "high-minded." We take the "high road." We take the "low road." We have "high standards." We talk about people being "upright" or "underhanded." These are all a product of our bodies existing in physical space with gravity.

BOB: Angels fall, the Dow Jones Industrial average falls and, [sigh] at last, there is nothing that falls more precipitously than a drop from a cliff.

MIKE: Yes. We're there. We're at the cliff. First though, I think it's worth pointing out that the phrase "fiscal cliff" has some things going for it that are not metaphor-related. It's very pleasing phonetically. "Fiscal" begins with an "f" sound, then it has a short "i" and it ends with a hard "c" and and "l" sound. "Cliff" is exactly the opposite. It begins with the hard "c" and the "l" sound, then has the short "i" and ends with the "f" sound. It's aurally symmetrical. It also is rife with opportunity for wordplay.

BOB: Cliffhanger, cliff diving, cliff ... uh ...

MIKE: Cliff notes.

BOB: Cliff notes.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. Media loves that sort of stuff and they've taken advantage of it. But underneath all of that is a series of very powerful spatial metaphors that conjure up for us, unconsciously really, a kind of line drawing that moves along horizontally and then drops precipitously down. Now, feeding this image, as George Lakoff pointed out recently, is the metaphor that the economy, like time, is motion. Slope, hill, speed bump, all of these alternatives to cliff that were mentioned in that montage that we played earlier, still contain the notion that the economy is moving.

Then we have the metaphors “the past is left” and “the future is right,” which Lakoff says explain "why the diagram goes from left to right when the economy is conceptualized as moving 'forward.'" Then of course we have “good is up” and “bad is down,” or a more refined version of that: “Success is rising” and “failing is falling.” Lakoff believes these primal, spatial metaphors form what he calls a "neural cascade" that he says is "so tightly integrated and so natural that we barely notice them, if we notice them at all." James Geary takes it, you might say, one step further. Here he is:

JAMES GEARY: So when you think about stock prices, when they’re described as rising they’re always described as soaring or leaping or climbing – all action verbs that imply, they’re metaphors, that imply a living thing. But when we talk about house prices dropping like a stone or plummeting they’re all metaphors of dead things. Down is equated with death. Dead things fall down. They drop dead, literally. That’s not even a metaphor. And we emotionally equate that with sort of economic death or financial death. So while the “fiscal cliff” metaphor may be misinformed in terms of its pure economics, the fact that it grabs people’s attention is, hopefully, a good thing.

MIKE to JAMES GEARY: So will there be a compromise?

JAMES GEARY: [lauging] Nope.

MIKE to JAMES GEARY: [laughing] You don’t think so?

JAMES GEARY: I think it’ll just be another fudge that’ll, you know, kick the ball … see you can’t even talk about this stuff. Every other word is a metaphor.

MIKE to JAMES GEARY: [laughing]

BOB: Well, actually he's got the metaphor wrong. I think they say kick the "can" down the road, not kick the "ball" down the road.

MIKE: Well I think either one would suffice. But you know imagine if we were some kind of alien species that lived in zero gravity.

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: The idea of "up" and "down" wouldn't really have the same kind of cultural cachet that it has for us.

BOB: Yeah, yeah. And I'll tell you something. Google Maps would be pretty much useless.

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, then it would be like the maps app that Apple made.

BOB: Yeah, not that bad.

MIKE: [laughing] All right, I guess Apple's never gonna wanna be a sponsor of this podcast.

BOB: No, I hope Audible stays with us 'cause we've just crossed one off the list.

MIKE: All right, if you wanna contact us, metaphorically or otherwise, please write to us at slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.