War metaphors and idioms are often used throughout our language. We might not even notice it because it’s so common.
Some examples of war metaphors include:
- In the trenches.
- Dodged a bullet.
- Uphill battle.
- Drop a Bombshell.
- Powder Keg.
Below is an extensive list of war metaphors, idioms and similes with explanations of each.
A List of War Metaphors, Idioms and Similes
1. All’s Fair in Love and War
This idiom means that the usual rules do not apply to a situation. It refers to the idea that during war (and when people are in love), things happen that wouldn’t usually be allowed. In war, in particular, people are killed! But usually, this saying is referring to a more mundane situation where there are no rules.
2. Aussie Battler
The phrase ‘Aussie Battler’ was coined by politicians to refer to working-class people who work hard and expect no help from the government. It harks back to a colonial notion that Australians in battle got little to know help from the British, but were nonetheless hard-working underdogs in war. Today, it’s used proudly as a reference to the work ethic of the Australian working class.
AWOL stands for “Away WithOut Leave”. It is military speak for someone abandoning their post. But in civilian life, we say someone has gone AWOL if you don’t know where they are and you can’t get a hold of them.
The ‘battlefront’ has been co-opted as a term for cultural disagreements that are at the forefront of the news. Typical cultural battlefront issues include issues around drugs, sexuality, and immigration.
5. Bite the Bullet
Supposedly, soldiers injured in battle used to be given a bullet to bite while medics were working on their wounds. The bullet, like a leather strap, was used as something to clench to help endure pain. Today, we use the saying when we want to refer to doing something painful in order to get it over and done with.
6. Cannon Fodder
In World War I, foot soldiers sent over the trenches to storm enemy trenches were called ‘cannon fodder’. As far as the higher-up soldiers were concerned, these foot soldiers were ‘fodder’ (or food) for the cannons. In other words, their lives were considered worthless. So, today, we can call anything that’s seen as worthless as cannon fodder. For example, if your boss was treating you poorly, you can say “he just considers me to be cannon fodder”.
7. Caught off Guard
If you’re caught off guard, it means you were surprised and unprepared for something. The saying comes from the idea that guards need to be alert and ready at all moments. So literally if they were caught off guard, they were caught being unprepared. Today, you might use this phrase if you were, say, on the toilet when the fire alarm goes off.
8. Close Ranks
Closing ranks refers to when soldiers come together to make sure there are no gaps in their line of attack. It dates back to the 1700s, when wars were fought with large armies walking toward one another in lines. Now, we use it to refer to the action of coming together as a group to unite. For example, a group of unionized workers might ‘close ranks’ when they all come together to insist on a pay rise or else they will strike.
9. Dodged a Bullet
This means to only just avoid a very bad outcome by pure luck or happenstance. The origins of this one are pretty obvious. If a bullet just misses you, especially if you’ve just stepped out of its path, you’re clearly very lucky: you dodged the bullet.
10. Dropped a Bombshell
When a bombshell drops from an airplane, it will cause a lot of change and damage. But today, when we say “drop a bombshell”, we mean that someone has said or done something that is shocking. For example, if a newspaper reports a scandal about a politician, it might be a “bombshell report”.
11. Friendly Fire
Friendly fire literally means that you are being shot at by your allies (usually by accident). But you can say you’re taking friendly fire in everyday life if your friends have done something to harm you. Similarly, in politics, it might be used when a supposed ally is leaking damaging information about you to the press.
12. Front Line Worker
This term comes from the idea that soldiers in combat were working on the front lines of the war. They were the ones on the battlefront dodging bullets and at risk of death. But now we often use this term to refer to people who are administering services in vital industries such as health care.
13. Hold Fire
In war, to hold fire simply means not to shoot your weapons. But today we will often say this outside of a wartime context to explain that we’re waiting to do something, but not ready to do so yet. For example, you might consider investing in the stock exchange but choose not to, or ‘hold fire’, because you think there might be some volatility in the market.
14. I Surrender
This phrase is so regularly used that we don’t even realize that we’re using it figuratively. A surrender is a military term meaning to admit defeat and accept the wishes of the enemy. But today, we widely use the term to refer to giving up on anything. For example, if you give up on a relationship you might say: “I can’t keep fighting anymore, I surrender.”
15. In the Trenches
People ‘in the trenches’ are people who are working hard every day to get things done, just like soldiers who are fighting a war in the trenches. They’re not the managers or administrators, but the people doing the hard labor. We also call them ‘front line workers’, which is another war idiom.
16. It’s a Minefield
Something that is a figurative minefield is anything that could be difficult to navigate. If you were to cross a literal minefield, you are likely to get blown up. You need to pick your steps wisely. When used figuratively, you could say that a difficult task like having dinner with an ex-spouse without getting in an argument is a minefield that needs to be handled delicately to avoid an argument.
17. It’s a Powder Keg
Kegs full of gun powder are liable to blow up if a spark gets anywhere close. So we call anything (or anyone) a powder keg if we think a disaster is brewing.
18. Keep your Powder Dry
To keep your powder dry means to be patient but prepared. The term was coined by Oliver Cromwell who asked his followers to make sure they always have dry powder ready so they can load their muskets at short notice. Today, you might use this term to refer to any moment when you need to be patient and prepared, such as in firefighting where a firefighter is waiting for a call-out to a fire emergency.
19. Laying Low
To lay low means to avoid attention or scrutiny. It comes from the idea that soldiers would literally lay low in trenches to avoid gunfire from overhead. If they put their heads up, they might get shot. Today, you might say a celebrity is laying low if they’re staying home to avoid the cameras.
20. Losing Ground
If you’re losing ground it means you’re not making any progress, and in fact are probably regressing. It comes from the concept in war of soldiers having to retreat during war. But today we will often use it in business or politics when talking about a political party losing seats or a business making less money quarter-on-quarter.
21. Putting your Head Above the Parapet
A parapet is the top of a castle wall that soldiers can hide behind during a battle. If a soldier puts their head above the parapet, they’re likely to get shot. So today we still say “don’t put your head above the parapet” as a way of warning people to not make themselves vulnerable to harm. For example, if you see two people arguing, you might be warned not to intervene because it will cause trouble for you. You might be told: “don’t put your head above the parapet. Don’t intervene.”
22. Rally the Troops
Before a big battle, a commander would give the order to get all the troops together to march off to battle. At the same time, they would also often give a big speech that would energize the troops. In civilian life, a person who is rallying the troops is doing the same: they’re gathering together their supporters and giving them a motivational speech. You might also hear a teacher saying this when they want to get all the students together for a discussion or school assembly.
23. Shell Shocked
People who are shell-shocked are experiencing alarm and perhaps even confusion that makes them feel terrible. The term comes from the feelings people get when they’re too close to an exploding bomb or cannon shell. But today, we will use the phrase whenever we’re shocked. You might say you’re shell shocked if you get a really bad grade on an exam that you weren’t expecting which completely caught you by surprise and made you feel terrible.
24. Take no Prisoners
To take no prisoners means to be ruthless and uncompromising. In war, it would mean that you are going to fight to the death and kill all your enemies. You won’t allow them to surrender even if they try. But in civilian life, it’s a way of describing someone who is ruthless in their endeavors. You could call a particularly aggressive car racing driver to be taking no prisoners. Similarly, you could say an aggressive businessperson like Jeff Bezos as a person taking no prisoners.
25. Taking Flak
If you’re taking flack it means you’re under attack from someone. Flak is anti-aircraft fire. So, airplanes that are being shot at are ‘taking flak’. Today, you will often use this phrase if someone is verbally abusing them or waging a whisper campaign against them. This is another one that’s often used in a political context.
26. Time Bomb
Something that’s a time bomb is going to blow up soon. A time bomb is usually a bomb that has a timer attached so you know exactly when it will blow up. But we will now use the term to refer to anything that is destined to blow up (or, figuratively, anything that’s going to end up being a disaster). For example, if the stock exchange is over-priced and unstable, you might say: “It’s a time bomb. Stock prices will crash any day now.” See also: Powder Keg.
27. Trade War
The term ‘trade war’ doesn’t refer to physical wars, but to government policies that involve governments using their means of production and trade policies to harm other countries or get an advantage over them in various fields. In the 21st Century, ‘cyber wars’ have also become prevalent as governmental alternatives to traditional physical wars.
28. Turf War
A literal turf war is a battle over physical space. Two nations might be in a turf war when battling over control over some land. But now, the term is widely used to describe a range of civil disputes that take place in a particular location. For example, two pizza shops who are both trying to get the patronage of people in town might be considered to be in a turf war over customers.
29. Under Fire
Being under fire refers (literally) to soldiers who are taking fire from the enemy. But today, you can say someone is under fire figuratively. You might say it if someone is getting negative press or even being yelled at or critiqued by colleagues, friends or family.
30. Up in Arms
To be up in arms means to be protesting. Its origins is in the idea that the public might take up arms to fight against the government if they are mistreated. But now we use it for a wide variety of purposes. For example, you might be up in arms about a pay cut at work. Similarly, a protest about climate change might be referred to as people up in arms.
31. Uphill Battle
If an army were fighting to take a hill, they have to run uphill toward the soldiers guarding the hill. This is more difficult because the army on the hill have a superior view of their surrounds. So, you’re going to struggle and have to fight for every inch of the battle. Outside of a wartime context, we say “it’s an uphill battle” to refer to something that will be very difficult to do.
32. War Chest
A war chest is a sum of money that is put aside to wage a war. But today, we use this phrase in many more contexts. A business might call its reserves of money for an advertising campaign or the rollout of a new product their ‘war chest’. Similarly, a government running for re-election might reserve a sum of money for a new infrastructure investment, and call this their political war chest.
33. War on Drugs
The ‘War on…’ term can be followed by anything that you’re trying to eliminate. United States political rhetoric often uses this term to discuss a ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on terror’, and so on, to imply an all-out effort to eliminate issues plaguing society.
Kegs of powder were regularly used back when cannons used to be stuffed with gun powder before each shot. Now, we have bullets that have their own dedicated gunpowder casing, so you won’t see a powder keg near the front lines anymore, but the idiom is still used in regular English language. See also: Time Bomb.
That’s the list! As you can see, there are a ton of war and military metaphors and idioms in our language. And I’m sure there are a ton that I’ve missed as well.
The good news is, if none of those metaphors or idioms above suit you, you can always make one up! Any military term can be turned into a war metaphor by applying it to a non-military context in order to get across a point in a figurative way. That’s what makes it figurative language!
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.