How metaphorical is the “blue wave”?

The political “blue wave” is a hot topic right now.

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Trends in Google searches for the term “blue wave” since just after the 2016 US Presidential election.

The idea is that the 2018 midterm elections could result in a large turnover of red (Republican) Congressional seats to blue (Democrat) candidates.

As I’ve gradually been hearing the term more and more (and so has Google, according to my search on Google Trends above), I’ve started to wonder just how metaphorical the blue wave really is.

To clarify, I know it’s not literal (though with climate change, even that seems possible). But to be truly metaphorical, the term needs to be relatively productive. When used in a linguistic sense, productive means that the comparison can be built on in a number of ways that still make sense. For example, metaphors that compare quality or quantity to height are very productive. We can apply this idea metaphorically in a many different ways — we can get our hopes up, prices can dropor products can be top-notch. Terms that are figurative but aren’t productive are more likely to be idioms than metaphors (like barking up the wrong tree).

I wondered if “blue wave” was being used productively, as we’d expect from a truly metaphorical expression, or whether its use was more standard and idiom-like.

A quick search suggests that “blue wave” is certainly productive. Writers aren’t just dropping the term in a canned way for a dose of imagery, but are instead extending the metaphor in creative ways. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Don’t get ahead of yourselves, Democrats. That ‘blue wave’ may not be that high. Here, we have a reference to the wave’s height as an indication of the number of Congress seats we might see turn from Republican to Democrat. Interestingly, though, the author doesn’t stick exclusively to the height comparison, also referring to the wave’s strength and speed as the metaphorical analogues to potential Democrat victories. The “blue wave” is carried throughout the piece, as the author ends on this colorful note (emphasis my own):

Prospects of an impending blue wave have clearly returned and Democratic leaders would be wise to ride the wave rather than attempt to get ahead of it lest it is they who are swamped and washed off the surfboard they hoped would carry them to victory.

  • Will the Democrats Catch a “Blue Wave”? As in the example above, here the blue wave is something that can carry Democrats to success. For me, this evokes the image of a woman in a crisp pantsuit surfing a big, blue Hawaiian wave. Nice.
  • 7 Ways to Power the “Blue Wave.” In this headline, the wave’s power, more than its size, is highlighted. Clearly we need a wave strong enough to make its way from the coast to the prairies, so it makes sense that we need at least 7 ways to power it.
  • Why Democrats are worried the “blue wave” might stop short of Florida. Another headline that emphasizes the spatial aspect of the blue wave — it needs to travel across the mammoth of a country to increase the number of Democrats elected in non-coastal places. The metaphor falls apart a little here, though, because if there’s any state that a wave should not have trouble reaching, it’s probably the one that’s a massive peninsula.
  • Is A Big, Blue Wave Forming Off The Political Coast? This headline references the origin of waves. They form off the coast. Upon reading the article, however, “off the coast” seems to actually be referring to the middle of the country. This is a bit confusing, as I’ve never heard of a wave forming in Indiana or Missouri, but it sounds nice, so let’s go with it.
  • ‘Blue wave’ would have undercurrent in California races. Now we’re getting into nuanced ocean metaphors.
  • Is a Blue Wave on Its Way? This article references turbulence among the President’s voters, which is another cool adaptation of a specific feature of waves… but it does make me wonder, why exactly are the Republican President’s voters riding on the blue wave?
  • With such a close race, the “blue wave” wasn’t crushed – but it might be dampened. This sentence, from an article describing a loss for Democrats, refers to another salient feature of waves — they’re wet. It’s not exactly intuitive to compare political wins to wetness, but I guess the implications is that the wetter the wave, the better (for Democrats).

To be honest, these creative “blue wave” uses don’t always make total sense to me, especially upon reflection. But they are creative, and in many cases productive, and that might be enough to get people thinking about, using, and acting on the “blue wave” this November.


Cover photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have learned that Indiana does experience large waves thanks to Lake Michigan. Thanks to a reader for keeping me informed!

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