Queen invokes Blitz spirit in message of hope

Royal call to arms: Last night was only the fifth time the Queen has made a special address to the nation.

Can war metaphors be a mixed blessing? The Queen, last night, movingly evoked memories of World War Two. But many politicians worldwide have been less subtle in their choice of words.

Last night, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a very personal message: “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve, and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.”

It was a deliberate nod to the wartime spirit of the 1940s, when Britain came together to withstand the Blitz and the threat of Nazi invasion.

Politicians and newspapers have used war metaphors unsparingly in recent weeks.

The government wants people to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously and to unite in the face of a common enemy.

The metaphor of war is a linguistic shortcut to explain that thinking.

Some think it is counter-productive. Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins described the use of such military language as a way to “heighten panic and win obedience to authority”.

Indeed, as other experts have pointed out, hoarding toilet roll and blaming minority groups for the spread of the virus embodies the sort of siege mentality seen in times of conflict.

Instead, to overcome the coronavirus, medical experts say it is isolation and cooperation – not armies and wartime thoughts that we need.

So, can war metaphors be a mixed blessing?

Coronavirus belli

Yes, such imagery is unhelpful. War suggests activity – when the most effective action to deal with this virus is, in fact, doing as little as possible.

No, metaphors are immensely powerful ways of simplifying a complex and frightening reality. It allows people to feel part of the struggle during a time of inaction. Just by sitting at home and binging on Netflix, they can be part of the resistance.

You Decide

  1. Choose your own metaphor. A battle? A storm? A bad dream? How would you describe the coronavirus emergency?


  1. Using an image from your own favourite virus metaphor and design a poster that aims to cheer people up.

Some People Say...

“War is what happens when language fails.”

Margaret Atwood, poet and writer, in her novel The Robber Bride

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
As the zoologist and historian Matthew Cobb writes in his new book, The Idea of the Brain, it is widely agreed that metaphors allow “insight and discovery”, but “there will come a point when the understanding they allow will be outweighed by the limits they impose”.
What do we not know?
The heart of the debate is around the claim by some linguists that metaphors are, in fact, the fundamental building blocks of the way we think. It’s a view challenged by other linguists who argue that language – not just metaphor – is the basis of thought.

Word Watch

The German word for “lightning”, used to describe the period of the World War Two when the Nazi air force continually bombarded Britain – killing 32,000 civilians.
Unmercifully, severely.
Linguistics is the study of how humans use words and how different languages compare. It includes thinking about the form, meaning, and context of words.
Having the opposite effect that you want; unhelpful.
Increase greatly.
Minority groups
In this instance, racial and ethnic groups who are not in the majority of a specific area or country.
Siege mentality
A state of mind in which a person believes that he or she is being constantly oppressed or attacked.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.