November 11, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

An injection of metaphors

I hadn’t intended to write a blog post this week. So this is only an attempt to not let an important episode in the Covid and metaphor saga pass by without recording it for posterity. Others will have to do the difficult work of actually analysing what was going on.

On 9 November, Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had arranged a press conference about Covid-19. It was supposed to be an update on England’s second lockdown, including progress regarding mass testing and tracing in Liverpool.

A vaccine for Covid-19

However, just before they came on stage, so to speak, Pfizer/BioNTech made an announcement that their new, 90% effective, vaccine could be rolled out fairly soon. Both the PM and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam (by the way, seconded to that post from the University of Nottingham) had to react to that news rather on the hoof.

Johnson advised caution and urged people to continue with current prevention measures; so did Van Tam. Both used interesting metaphors which caused quite a stir on social and traditional media. The Guardian listed some of the most conspicuous metaphors here and The Huffington Post did here, together with a selection of tweets that reacted to them.


So, what were the metaphors they used? Here is a quick selection, based on a transcript of the PM’s speech and a selection of metaphors in The Guardian

Vaccine development/distribution is a race

Johnson: “That puts us towards the front of the international pack on a per capita basis – and I should add we’ve ordered over 300 million doses from 5 other vaccine candidates as well.”

Dealing with Covid-19 is a war and scientists are soldiers

Johnson: “We have talked for a long time, or I have, about the distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill. And tonight that toot of the bugle is louder. But it is still some way off.”

Dealing with Covid-19 is a war and vaccines and testing are weapons

Johnson: “And neither mass testing nor progress on vaccines –both vital arrows in our epidemiological quiver, both key parts of our fight against Covid – are at the present time a substitute for the national restrictions, for social distancing, for hand hygiene and all the rest.”

Dealing with Covid-19 is a basket, baseball or football ball game and vaccines are the balls

Johnson:  “I remain buoyantly optimistic about the prospects of this country next year. I just don’t want to let people run away with the idea that this development is today is necessarily a home run, a slam dunk, a shot to the back of the net, yet.”

Dealing with Covid-19 is a football game where the virus is the goalkeeper and the vaccines are the players (and partial success indicates that total success is possible (I think…)

Van Tam: “This is like getting to the end of a play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores goal. You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”

Dealing with Covid-19 is a journey and vaccines are the train, and we are waiting at the station, etc. [extended metaphor]

Van Tam: “This, to me, is like a train journey where you’re standing on the station – it’s wet, windy, it’s horrible – and two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train. And it’s a long way off. We’re at that point at the moment. That’s the efficacy result. Then we hope the train slows down safely to get in to the station. That the safety data. And then the train stops. And at that point the doors don’t open. The guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency], that’s the regulator. And, when the doors open, I hope there’s not an unholy scramble for the seats. The JCVI [joint committee on vaccination and immunisation] has very clearly said which people are going to need the seats most and they are the ones who should get on the train first.”

Use of the idiom ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’ (meaning that because one good thing has happened, it is not therefore certain that a situation is going to improve)

Van Tam: “We have seen a swallow but this is very much not the summer”.


Reactions to the metaphors were mixed, and varied between (mostly) derision and (some) delight – at least in terms of this giving fodder to scicomm people thinking about metaphor. In my view Johnson’s war metaphors are not really helpful, while Van Tam’s, although somewhat complex, are (if you understand football). There is actually an awful lot of info packed into some of these metaphors and if somebody can tell how to paraphrase all that in a succinct way, I’d be most grateful.

By sheer coincidence, I had just been reading an article by Franziska Kohlt on war metaphors and narratives and the ethics of metaphor use when the avalanche of metaphors came down. You can read her article here.

Responsible metaphor use

The metaphors used in the press conference may have debatable merits, but they are certainly not as irresponsible as the following metaphor that Andrew Reynolds spotted for me in the Washington Post: “”It is another wondrous miracle from a biotech revolution in which knowledge of genetic coding will become as important as digital coding and molecules will become the new microchips.”


Image by Memed Nurrohmad from Pixabay




Posted in infectious diseasesLanguageMetaphors