Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?

Every language has a set of crystalized similes that help speakers emphasize common qualities. A simile is a metaphor that compares, e.g. clumsy as an ox, black as soot, and so forth. These are ‘crystalized’ because they have become clichés, used by everyone all the time. There are hundreds of them that we all memorize in the process of language acquisition:

All the languages I have ever studied prefer comparing human qualities with those perceived in animals. In fact, psychologists know that, when testing, they must control for words referring to animals since human reaction to these words is always emotinally stronger than to inanimate words.

However, it would seem that humans perceive animals as reflecting only the bad traits we exhibit. The most common animals get a consistently bad rap from English similes:

clumsy as an ox
crazy as a loon (but sane as you are)
dirty as a pig (but clean as a whistle)
fat as a pig (but skinny as a rail)
greedy as a pig to hog something
mean as a snake
slow as a snail
stubborn as a mule
stupid as a cow
yellow as a chicken

There are exceptions, however; similes that suggest positive attributes among our furry friends:

brave as a lion
faithful as a dog
fast as a rabbit
fierce as a tiger
funny as a monkey
innocent as a lamb

Similies even identify human targets occasionally:

old as Methuselah
sane as you are (I love this one—who would argue with it?
soft as a baby’s bottom

There seems to be a case for a preference for animals in English similes and a culturally determined prejudice against those animals. The case is bolstered by a large number of positive similes that choose inanimate objects as their targets:

pretty as a picture
smart as a whip
sweet as sugar
sharp as a tack
white as snow
black as soot
pure as the driven snow
hot as hell/a firecracker/a pistol
warm as toast
cool as a cucumber
quick as a wink, flash
cold as ice
high as a kite
hard as a rock

Admittedly, there are a few negative inanimate similes:

slow as molasses on a cold winter morn
sour as a lemon
ugly as homemade sin
guilty as sin
dumb as a stump, post, sack of hammers

Still, I would submit, there is a distinct pattern we need an explanation for.

We have many ways to interpret this pattern. I won’t plough through all of them. The important points are that humans identify more closely with animals than with anything in the inanimate world and we project our frailties on them. We see our imperfections in the animals around us and our ideals in a world that is a bit colder and more distant. Familiar animals come off as ‘scape goats, beings that can carry our sins away with them, making similes a vehicle of atonement, among its various other functions.

6 Responses to “Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?”

  1. Larry Says:

    I don’t think we project our bad traits upon animals. I think we project traits upon things that we perceive to have those traits.

    “Sly as a fox” is often a compliment. Pigs and rails (as well as beanpoles) are, by their nature, fat and skinny, respectively. Winks and flashes are inherently quick, but so are bunnies (ever try to catch one?), and snails are really, really sloooooooowwwwwwww. Mules tend to be stubborn (remember the scene on the bridge in “Patton”). Ice by its nature is cold, kites are high if there’s enough wind (as were hippies in the 60s if there were enough, well, you know, “stuff.” 😉 ), tacks really are sharp, and most rocks are hard. If a loaf of bread is hard as a rock, is that a positive trait? Only if you want to make bread pudding or breadcrumbs.

    “Deaf as a post” (which is most certainly an inanimate object) is not necessarily a compliment; a mid-August day that is “hot as Hell” is not normally a pleasant one unless you’ve just returned from a polar region.

    For stubbornness, our late beagle could put a mule to shame, and he would bark at anything, even larger dogs. I was walking him once and he started to bark at a couple of big Chessies (Chesapeake Bay Retrievers), male and female, that were wandering loose down the street. He continued to challenge their parentage and manhood (doghood?) as they approached. They looked him him over and sniffed the air, all but saying “We could kick his butt, but he’s not worth it.” as they turned and sauntered away. Buddy continued to cast aspersions upon their ancestors as they made their way home. I’m not sure if that was being brave as a lion or mearly foolhardy. Or dumber than, well, the stuff one finds at the bottom of a latrine.

  2. Larry Says:

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    Gee, I thought it was pretty moderate as it was! 😀

  3. Margaret Collier Says:

    I can understand what “bad rap” means – I think – but where did the phrase come from?

  4. Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog » Blog Archive » Why Bad Raps are what they are. Says:

    […] Margaret Collier read the blog “Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?” and came up with an interesting question about the title itself. Margaret writes, “I can understand what “bad rap” means—I think—but where did the phrase come from?” […]

  5. rbeard Says:

    Dr. Goodword’s response to Margaret Collier’s question about “bad rap” is at:

  6. danielle white Says:

    u suck

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