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Nature, sports and travelling – Danish metaphors for Covid-19

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Metaphor has been used extensively to describe Covid19 as the virus has become the topic of conversation all over the world. I have looked at some of the metaphors used in Denmark and will describe how they construct mini-narratives here (see Musolff 2016 for more on this idea) and help people to handle uncertainty.

Weather, water and a wild tiger

Metaphors are often used to describe things that are difficult to see such as diseases and abstract concepts (see Semino 2008 for more). In Denmark, metaphors have been used to describe the behaviour of the virus in terms from the natural world. This relates something new and unknown to well known ideas.

A healthcare professional combined the metaphor of the ‘silence before the storm’ to express relaxing while mentally preparing for new working conditions before her shift on the 23rd March with the metaphor of ‘a storm in a glass of water’, expressing her hope that the storm would be small enough to fit in a glass. This is a novel combination of two very conventional metaphors that draws on the idea of the virus as a storm. It has the potential to be destructive but if it is small and contained, the damage may be limited. The silence before is a time to prepare for what is coming while things are quiet.

Due to the (literally) sunny weather many people gathered in parks and other outdoor areas. This made the police more visible in the street and according to a news piece from the national media DR on the 20th March, ‘citizens worked against the damming of coronavirus’. This makes it sound like the virus is water that need to be contained with dams and citizens are able to disrupt this work.

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Another water metaphor was shared by the Danish Queen Margrethe as she said the virus ‘spreads like rings in the water’ in her speech on 17th March. This is a conventional way of expressing that something spreads in all directions. While these water metaphors do not describe still water, they do convey calmer images of the virus compared to the idea of it as a storm.

The Director of the Danish Health Agency, Søren Brostrøm, expressed himself in more dramatic terms when he on 28th of April announced a new strategy and referred to the coronavirus as a wild tiger that had been caged. This further highlights the natural aspect of the virus and the need to control it. If the tiger gets out of the cage again, there will be trouble.


Some metaphors have been used to describe how we should act. Politicians have presented extreme restrictions and guidelines including a ban on large gatherings, which meant festivals, concerts and sports events were cancelled. Some of these were presented with metaphor that related to the very things we were no longer able to actually do.

The Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, has used the term ‘halvleg’, which describes parts of a game (usually football or handball) before and after half-time, to describe distancing in public (e.g. on the press conference 30th March). This image conveys the importance of joint efforts; we all play together on the same team when we keep a distance and wash our hands. We all win or lose together.

In her closing speech for the parliamentary season, she elaborated on this metaphor by anticipating a second half of the game and perhaps even more in the future. It may be stretching the metaphor a little to expect more than two halves but most people probably understand that she is trying to encourage everyone to work together even if that part of the metaphor does not make sense.


While the borders around the world gradually closed and we cancelled our flights, trains and hotel tickets, the PM and the Queen used journey metaphors. On the 23rd March, the PM said ‘we stand on untrodden land’ conveying an idea of ‘us’ as explorers about to discover a new place. This suggests uncertainty and danger but also the idea that we may find something good along the way.

The Danish PM said ‘Danskerne lagde til’ (on the 7th May), which is an expression that refers to when a ship docks. It is an acknowledgement of the efforts put in by the population in response to the lockdown. This narrative suggests that a destination has been reached, something has been achieved. Those who have tried sailing a ship know that it requires working together and a clear line of command. In this sense the narrative aligns with that of a team sport mentioned above.

In the same speech, she talks about finding a ‘koblingspunkt’, which is the right time to push the gas pedal when driving with a manual gear. This is in reference to living in a society that is gradually reopening. In contrast to the idea of a docking ship, the car metaphor refers to continuous movement. The consequence of not finding the right clutching point is that the car stalls and it is an undesirable way to stop a car. In contrast to the metaphors of team sport and sailing, this metaphor highlights individual effort as a car only has one driver.

In these narratives, the Danes are traveling but other metaphors have described the virus as a traveler. One example of this was when Queen Margrethe described it as a ‘dangerous visitor’ in her speech on the 17th March. In her speech on her birthday one month later, she elaborates on this metaphor by adding that the visitor was not invited and has left its mark on the entire country. This seems like a contradiction because a visitor is normally someone who should be treated politely and perhaps offered coffee or food. It is not normally expected that they are dangerous. However, other diseases have been described in similar terms, e.g. cancer as an ‘unwelcome lodger’ (Graystone 2013).

Jigsaw, spelling errors and espionage

Popular science articles also contributed to the understanding of this new virus and how it is researched. An article in Weekendavisen on the 20th March states that researchers are collecting a map ‘piece by piece’ to see how the virus spreads. This suggests that like collecting a jigsaw puzzle, this research can be seen as a meticulous and challenging task that requires patience and dedication. It may also suggest that the work is an enjoyable pastime – at least to people who enjoy jigsaw puzzles.

Some researchers are occupied with surveillance of how the virus travels. The ongoing mutation of the virus is described as ‘spelling errors’ in the same article, which makes it sound like the virus is a person who can write and make mistakes just like people. These spelling errors can be used to track where the virus has been and where it is likely to go in the future.

Because the data at this point in time was limited, the WHO and individual countries still had to do ‘detective work’ to gather more data by interviewing patients. The article finally describes the work as ‘espionage’. This creates a narrative where the virus is a criminal or an agent from a hostile nation being chased around the world and perhaps conjures up images of the cold war. The fear of a devastating attack is constant but if we handle it delicately and do the detective work, we can stay safe. The work that needs to be done may even be enjoyable.

The initiative #ReframeCovid inspired me to look into how Danes use metaphor to talk about the pandemic and its consequences. It is named with a # because it started as a conversation on Twitter and you can also read more about it on the website:

This blog will be on holiday until September when Simon Devylder will write about polysemiotic metaphors.


Prime minister’s closing speech, parliamentary season

Musolff, A. (2016) Political metaphor analysis : Discourse and scenarios. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Graystone, A. (2013) Viewpoint: Did Richard Nixon change the way people describe cancer? BBC News accessed 25th June 2020

Popular science article in weekly newspaper

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