Chaco Canyon Consulting

Bookmark and Share Metaphors and Their Abuses

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Our everyday conversation is more colorful and fun when we use metaphors. Examples: We get "revved up." We "roll out" a "product family." But metaphors have their dangers. They can be subtly abused. They can "wag our minds."


A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one concept is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. When we're excited about a new project, we might say that we're "revved up." Here the metaphor is a mechanical one. The metaphor is suggesting that, like a piece of rotating machinery, we're fully motivated and ready to go. People don't actually "rev up" like motors do, so the figure of speech is literally incorrect. It makes sense only in terms of an analogy.

Straight flushWe understand metaphors so easily that they sometimes escape our notice. For example, we use the term "ante up" in the workplace environment to denote an act of supplying an initial commitment of resources. "Ante" is a term actually taken from the world of gambling, specifically poker. I don't know about your organization, but most organizations I've worked with don't really think of their projects as gambling.

As a second example, when we gently introduce someone to an insight or idea, with the hope that they'll consider it and elaborate upon it or take some future action, we talk of "planting a seed." No physical seed is actually planted — we don't have to come back to water it, or supply nutrients or control pests. The analogy is just that.

To "get a reading" of the frequency of use of metaphors in speech in your organization, keep track of them for three days. You'll be astounded. If you send them to me, I'll add yours (anonymously) to this list.

Because metaphors suggest analogies, they can be dangerous. The danger arises Turbinewhen we apply the analogy without thinking, in ways that really aren't supportable. For example, even though we talk about "revving up" people, motivating people requires much more than flipping a switch. And once people are "revved up," they can become very creative — so creative that it sometimes happens that they see even better ways to do what you might have wanted, or they might even find something wrong with the original idea. Rotating machinery hardly ever does that kind of thing. When we think about real people as if they were as simple as rotating machinery, we can go dangerously wrong — the metaphor "wags our minds" like the metaphorical tail wagging the dog.

Some metaphors come in groups — a whole set of terms that fit a single analogy. These are especially powerful, because they can become pervasive. One example is the analogy between products and people.

Product Families

Few of us recognize that the term product family is a metaphor — but it is. When we hear the term "family" most of us think of our birth families. We have a set of strong ideas about what it means to belong to a human family — ideas that include love, respect, and a long life together, even if we didn't personally experience these gifts.

Family bike outingSome of this thinking can carry over to our organization's products, when we think of products as belonging to a family. This raises a difficulty when it's time to terminate a product. For example, if a product is under development, and market conditions change so as to make it unwise to continue development of the product, we speak of aborting it, as if it were one of our own offspring. Thinking in terms of this analogy can make it difficult to reach an obvious decision to terminate a product.

Similarly, when a product is no longer right for its market, we talk of "retiring" it, as if it were Grandpa, or a beloved racehorse. It isn't. It's a product. If the time has come to terminate it, we should. But thinking about it as a member of a "family" whose time has come to "retire" makes it much more difficult to make the termination decision. The metaphor influences our decision-making.

What you can do

Keep a log of metaphors you hear in your organization. After a month or two, examine the collection for signs of powerful analogies that might be leading you and your organization astray. Look carefully for metaphors that hide features of the things you're actually talking about.

Metaphors in common use

Here's a list of metaphors in common use in today's workplaces. Send me more!

  • Missing a piece of the puzzle
  • Bring to the party; Bring to the table
  • Take a stab at; Take a cut at; Take a whack at
  • Stab in the back
  • Blow me away
  • Kill with kindness
  • Level the playing field
  • Dry hole
  • End of the rope
  • Run out of steam
  • Up to speed; Revved up; Firing on all cylinders
  • The long pole (in the tent)
  • Clean sheet; clean slate; green fields; turn the page
  • Over the top
  • No brainer
  • All your ducks in a row
  • Push the envelope
  • In the zone
  • Distance yourself; Keep your distance
  • On my dime (or nickel, depending on your age)
  • Reinvent yourself; Turn your life around; Turn over a new leaf
  • Draw a line in the sand; Make a stand
  • Be the first cab off the rank
  • I'm pumped; get pumped; fired up

  • Declare victory and go home
  • Running on empty
  • Blown to hell; Wrapped around the axle; Tied up in knots
  • Busting loose
  • Waterfall process
  • Whole nine yards
  • Over your head
  • Two machines talking to each other
  • Ping me
  • I don't have the bandwidth for that
  • Whole hog
  • White paper
  • Out of the woodwork
  • Media leaks
  • We're swamped; Up to our asses in alligators; In deep yogurt; On the ropes; Up a creek
  • I've had it up to here
  • Let's put it to bed; Let's can it; It's a wrap
  • Earth calling <name>; Wake up and smell the coffee; Uh — Hello in there!; Off in La-La Land
  • In Living Color
  • Elephant under the rug; elephant in the living room; 800-pound gorilla (weight varies)
  • Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks

  • Off track; Off course; Out of bounds; Off base; Off the wall; In left field; Out to lunch; In the ozone; Out in space; Off the reservation (deprecated); Off the path; Lost the thread; On drugs; Smoking something
  • Rat race
  • Down the rat hole; Down the drain
  • Knock your socks off
  • Let's face it
  • Make it happen; Make it so; Get it done
  • Get your head (brain, arms) wrapped around it
  • Buy in; Sign up; Sign off
  • Pedal to the metal
  • All-hands meeting; All hands on deck
  • What are you smoking?
  • Down to Earth; Grounded; Centered
  • 404
  • Bomb
  • Bug
  • Going postal
  • Pilot project
  • Fly on the wall
  • Climbing the wall
  • Loose cannon
  • I'm not married to the idea

  • Feeding frenzy
  • Behind the power curve
  • The hook
  • Seed the conversation; Plant a seed
  • Kick things off
  • Raise the bar; Set the standard
  • Slam dunk
  • Over my dead body; I'll do it or die trying
  • Get a life
  • Don't go there
  • Against the tide
  • Under lock and key
  • My lips are sealed
  • Until the cows come home
  • Alphabet soup
  • We're gilding the lily
  • How we can spin this; he's (she's) a spin master (spinmeister)
  • He's forward-leaning
  • Out of the gate; Out of the box
  • Home run
  • All over the map
  • Study it to death
  • What's sauce (good) for the goose is sauce (good) for the gander
  • Herding cats
  • Motor mouth
  • His/her motor is always running
  • I've got to up my medication
  • Turn the corner
  • I'm in your corner (from boxing)
  • Throw in the towel (also from boxing)
  • Ramp up
  • On the ground; In country
  • It's a lemon
  • Taken to the woodshed; Administered a spanking
  • Slap on the wrist

  • Clueless
  • At the end of the day; Bottom line
  • You do the math
  • It ain't rocket science
  • It's your call
  • At this point in time
  • Send them a message
  • On the cutting edge; On the leading edge; On the bleeding edge
  • Climb the learning curve; Learn the ropes
  • Serve notice; On notice
  • Let's review the bidding
  • Flip the switch; Start your engines; Step on the gas; Turn up the heat
  • Trial balloon; float the balloon
  • Let's boogie
  • Dress rehearsal; fire drill
  • Fire fighting
  • Drinking from a fire hose
  • Drill down, dive deep
  • Join the club
  • Let's sit down together
  • Losing my mind
  • It's just not in the stars (cards)
  • Act the part
  • Change course; Change lanes
  • Wheels up
  • In the funnel (pipe, pipeline)
  • Under the radar
  • On his/her/their radar screen
  • Run it up the flagpole

  • Been there, done that
  • Throw money away; Leave money on the table
  • The ball's in their (your) court
  • Take it to the next level
  • Deer caught in the headlights
  • Turning on the lights
  • Lights are on and no one is home
  • The road of Life
  • Swimming upstream; Sailing upwind; Spitting in the wind; emitting other fluids into the wind
  • Land a big one
  • It's your nickel
  • Let's rock 'n roll; Let's roll; Lock 'n load; Saddle up
  • Back to the drawing board (have you even seen a drawing board lately?)
  • Back to square one
  • Lean and mean; Cut the fat; Cutting bone
  • Lambs to the slaughter
  • Aboard a sinking ship; Rats deserting a sinking ship
  • A pebble in the stream
  • Dance with the one that brung ya

  • Thinking out of the box
  • Blue sky thinking
  • Product family
  • Ante up; Belly up to the bar; Step up to the plate; Pay your dues; Pay your way
  • A lot on my plate
  • Team player
  • Take one for the team
  • Hit the ground running
  • All on the same page; Singing from the same sheet of music (hymnal)
  • You can't see the forest for the trees; You're too close to it
  • You sound like a broken record (this one really dates you)
  • Watch your back
  • Burnout
  • White water
  • Thin the herd
  • Wrestle it to the ground; Chase it down
  • Beat the bushes; Drum up
  • A little more leeway
  • Enough rope to hang him/herself
  • Hang it up
  • Wander in the desert
  • Snapshot

  • Over the hill
  • In one ear and out the other
  • Tick off
  • Street smart
  • Head over heels
  • Under the weather
  • Dead man walking
  • Set in stone; Cast in concrete
  • Caught an eyeful
  • Chill; Cool down; Cool off; Cool your jets; Cool your heels; Keep your shirt on
  • Eatin' dust
  • Open kimono
  • Need some cabbage (money)
  • Good as dead; DOA; Stillborn
  • Lose it
  • Sit tight
  • Tail him
  • Drop a chulupa
  • On the dot
  • Burn rubber
  • Quarterback your resources
  • Soup to nuts
  • Play ball; He's unwilling to play ball
  • Cave in
  • Don't throw me under the bus

  • She has sharp elbows; Throw an elbow
  • Burn the midnight oil
  • Burn the candle at both ends
  • He's the Prince of Darkness
  • He muscled his way to the top
  • When you run with the wolves, don't trip
  • His mistress is his job; Her whole life is her job
  • Be careful whose toes you step on
  • The brass
  • Getting benched
  • This is the World Series; World Championship
  • A federal case
  • He's so button-down
  • Bone of contention
  • Heads will roll
  • Jeff just dropped a dime on Jenny
  • He's a line of sight type of guy (he's direct)
  • We were just victims of a drive by shooting

  • Brought them to their knees (feet)
  • Back on its feet
  • Went over it with a fine-toothed comb
  • Epicenter (applied outside the context of earthquakes)
  • Chinese wall; Firewall
  • Game over
  • Can't see the forest for the trees; You're too close to it
  • Lost (down) in the weeds; Lost a ball in the weeds
  • Swatting a fly with a sledgehammer; Fishing with dynamite; Bringing a gun to a knife fight;
  • A four-star coffee shop; A ten-speed tricycle; A Gore-Tex® bathing suit
  • Stir the pot
  • Is this a hill you want to die on?
  • It's a go (no-go)
  • Straw man; Stake in the ground

  • Launch (roll out, unveil) a product
  • On a collision course
  • On a collision course with the bottom
  • Under a microscope
  • Look at it through a soda straw
  • A blank check
  • On a tight leash
  • Air it out
  • Clean house; Drain the swamp
  • Dig in
  • Rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic
  • Put your thinking cap on
  • That's a wild card
  • Whack upside the head
  • In the doldrums
  • Hot technology
  • Ship it; Deliver it
  • Major player
  • Let your hair down
  • I'm on board with that
  • Plot (chart) a course
  • Now we can breathe easier

  • Behind the curtain; Under the covers
  • Road warrior
  • Downstream; upstream
  • Fasten your seat (safety) belts; Brace yourselves; Assume crash positions; Hold onto your hats
  • Come up for air
  • Moving up in the world
  • I'm buried; I'm snowed under
  • Up to your ass in alligators
  • Up a creek (without a paddle)
  • Look before you leap
  • Take a breather; Take five
  • Light a fire under them
  • His hair's on fire
  • Both feet on the ground; Grounded
  • Head in the clouds
  • Welcome aboard
  • Light the way
  • Pathfinder (pilot, trail-blazer) project

  • Take it for a test drive (flight); Take it out for a spin
  • To be a crybaby; To whine
  • Piece of cake; Child's play
  • (No) Day at the beach
  • Dive (right) in; Get your feet wet
  • Feet dry (over land)
  • Playing nursemaid (to a machine or prototype or newbie)
  • The pages of his user manual are all stuck together
  • Over the side with it; Jettison that; Let it go
  • It just hit me
  • Show and tell; Dog and pony show
  • There are no guarantees
  • Take a detour
  • It's a dead end
  • Glass ceiling
  • Glass is half full (empty)
  • Thin (thick) skinned
  • A fishing expedition
  • It's your funeral
  • Walking on air

  • Treasure hunt
  • Cellular leash
  • Hot under the collar
  • Blowing a gasket
  • Hold your horses
  • On target; Bull's-eye
  • It's downhill from here
  • False summit
  • We're not in Kansas anymore
  • Showing your cards; Holding your cards close to your vest
  • Covering the bases
  • Cracking the whip
  • Running a tight ship
  • Giving them a guided tour
  • Holding their hands
  • Walking them through it
  • It's a three-ring circus down there
  • Something smells fishy; I smell a rat
  • Plan B
  • Get them all their favorite toys

  • Fallback position
  • He's a pack rat
  • The vultures are descending
  • Throw them to the lions (sharks)
  • High in the saddle; On your high horse
  • He's a shark
  • Run up the white flag
  • Skin you alive
  • My favorite watering hole
  • He wouldn't give you the time of day
  • A tough row to hoe
  • Kickoff meeting
  • Blowback; Pushback
  • If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen
  • Out of the frying pan and into the fire
  • Count heads (noses)
  • It's your neck
  • Spaghetti code
  • A hairy (knotty) problem; a hair ball
  • In the home stretch

  • Hit it out of the park
  • Toe the line (mark)
  • Wolfing your food
  • Picking at your food
  • Click path; Click trail
  • Take the bull by the horns
  • Stuck in neutral
  • Spinning your wheels
  • Finding a needle in a haystack
  • Cleaning your clock
  • Dot the I's and cross the T's
  • Seeing stars
  • Wash your hands of it
  • Play the cards you're dealt
  • Hold your nose and get it done
  • Too much for me to swallow
  • Take your medicine (punishment)
  • Send them to Siberia (salt mines)
  • Give them their marching orders
  • Left out in the cold (out of the loop)

  • On the scent; Caught the scent
  • The smell of blood
  • Something smells (fishy, rotten)
  • The camel's nose under the tent; Slippery slope; Foot in the door; Thin end of the wedge
  • Bells and whistles; Gold plating
  • Open a new front; We're not retreating — we're attacking in a new direction
  • Throw your hat into the ring
  • Close but no cigar
  • He'll have to walk that back
  • We can't unring that bell
  • Counting sheep; sawing wood
  • Circle the drain; Give up the ghost; Float belly up; Check out; Kick the bucket; Buy the farm; Tits up
  • Push up daisies; Sleep with the fishes
  • Go pound sand; Take a hike; Buzz off
  • Bean counter; Pencil pusher
  • Slave driver; Ramrod; Cattle driver
  • Witch hunt
  • Don't let it get under your skin
  • Take no prisoners
  • We've just scratched the surface
  • We're in a race against time

  • Get this thing nailed down
  • Ironclad arguments; bulletproof arguments
  • The bible of <pick your field>
  • Red flags; Warning lights are flashing
  • Silver bullet solution
  • Keep your eye on the ball
  • When I say "jump," you ask "How high?"
  • Dead in the water; Dead on arrival; DOA
  • On the sidelines
  • A fly in the ointment; a speed bump
  • Throw sand in the gears; Throw sand in their eyes
  • Behind the scenes
  • The road to success
  • Lay a foundation
  • The jury is still out
  • Shifting gears
  • Get off the dime
  • Ratcheting up the tension
  • All options are on the table
  • I wouldn't follow him into battle

  • Here's what we're looking at; Let's not look at that just yet
  • I didn't think he would stoop that low
  • Forward leaning
  • Tip of the spear
  • Graybar Hotel
  • The project (company, enterprise, career) is stalled
  • Go the extra mile
  • Get the item cued up
  • Down the tubes
  • Knees to knees; Eyeball to eyeball
  • His (her) head is screwed on right
  • That will never fly
  • Starve them to death
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • Drink the Kool-Aid
  • Stacking the deck; Loading the dice
  • Roll of the dice; Crap shoot
  • Stand up and be counted
  • Walk the plank
  • Playing hardball
  • Tossing him a softball question
  • A fool's errand
  • Under lock and key
  • Turn back the clock

  • Keep your ear to the ground
  • Do I have to draw you a picture?
  • Come clean
  • Horse trading (referring to negotiations)
  • Technology addiction
  • I want you to take point on this
  • We have a lot riding on this
  • Clear the air
  • Singing in tune; Singing off key; Starting off on a sour note
  • Time to hang up your spurs
  • Pull the plug
  • That's a monkey trap
  • Blamestorming
  • Circular firing squad
  • Fall through the cracks
  • Let me drive (the mouse or keyboard)
  • You just said the magic (secret) word
  • Aim for the sweet spot
  • This plan is a shell game

  • Let's not revisit that one
  • That's not in my knowledge base (I forgot)
  • He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer (brightest bulb on the tree)
  • Let's touch base
  • Slice and dice that data
  • Lock horns; Butt heads
  • Small potatoes; Peanuts; Loose change
  • Warm fuzzies
  • I have the ball
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • She's adhering to the party line
  • He's outside his comfort zone
  • With blinders on
  • Coloring inside (outside) the lines
  • They couldn't hit the broad side of a barn
  • Rube Goldberg
  • The light at the end of the tunnel
  • Satan's little frat boy (sorority girl)
  • He's toast
  • Stick a fork in me — I'm done

  • The alpha dog
  • Taking up all the oxygen in the room
  • Full court press
  • Follow the paper trail
  • When things go south
  • Do the heavy lifting
  • Don't throw the baby out with the bath water
  • I'll be out of pocket today
  • Eat the elephant one bite at a time
  • See the bigger picture; take the long view
  • Cutting off your nose to spite your face
  • He's/She's a waste of space
  • It's all gone pear-shaped
  • It's all Greek to me
  • Cookin' with gas
  • Now you're speaking my language!
  • The bottom's fallen out
  • The lunatics have taken over the asylum
  • It's running on square wheels

  • Let's just paper over the cracks
  • That dog won't hunt
  • We don't have a dog in that fight
  • His bark is worse than his bite
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Call off your dogs
  • This quarter, the wheels came off
  • He's all hat and no cattle
  • I've got too many plates spinning
  • If you catch my drift
  • She paints an interesting picture
  • Let's take a page from their playbook
  • I don't know the meaning of the word X
  • Drop the ball
  • Kick the can down the road
  • A sea change
  • Let's not weigh in on that
  • Hanging on by our fingernails
  • Negotiations are gridlocked
  • A game-changer
  • The clock is ticking
  • Agreement (the finish line, the solution, the goal) is in sight
  • Cut them off at the knees
  • Have them eating out of our hands
  • Eat their lunch

Contact me

Do you sense that people in your organization might be overusing metaphors? Would your organization benefit from being a little more aware of the use (and abuse) of metaphors? I can do a 90-minute interactive talk and demonstration of the use of metaphors that will make people more aware of how to use them more carefully. And I can assess your organization's use of metaphor to determine how metaphor may be influencing thought patterns without your being aware of it.

Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.

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