A couple of years ago I wrote a column about the colorful language of old radio scripts, mostly the detective tales of Sam Spade, Richard Diamond, Philip Marlowe and others. They abounded with similes, metaphors and analogies, and they were especially prominent in a radio detective show called “Pat Novak for Hire” as portrayed by a young Jack Webb, who went on to television fame as Joe Friday on Dragnet.
Pat and his fellow gumshoes would say things like, “It wasn’t a bad book if you needed something to start a fire” and “The town’s got hotter than a blast furnace in Death Valley” and “I felt like my brain had spent the night in a cement mixer.” Stuff like that.
I think I used some or all of the above in that column, but in my research I had collected dozens of other similes that I didn’t have the space to fit in. Most of the others were not necessarily from radio scripts, and many are commonly used. Some of them are not politically correct, because many of them go back before there was such a thing as being politically correct. Now that I think about it, there isn’t much correct about being political in the 21st Century.
Following are a number I’ve come across, in no particular order, and some are not all that creative or they make you stop and wonder, “What is that supposed to mean?” That would apply to a simile like, “I felt like a loose barbell in a mine shaft.” You sort of know what that means, but what the heck is a barbell doing in a mine shaft? One of the cool things about similes is they can conjure up colorful visuals, and a barbell doesn’t do it in this case. I’m thinking something really small. Maybe a hummingbird in a mine shaft?
Anyway, these are all legitimate similes and/or analogies, excluding clichés like “blind as a bat,” that have been used often enough to be cited in various books and websites:
“Stuck out like a leg in a cast…” and “tangled as Grandma’s yarn…” are pretty straightforward and certainly visual. But how about the next one for visual (with a dash of audio): “There was a sense of menace, like the purr of a puma feasting on an elk.”
If you ever felt out of place, the feeling that you don’t belong in a certain setting or situation, I’d recommend, “like a violin in a marching band.” If the feeling is more like that occasional one you get when you feel like a total stranger, it may be “like having someone else’s shadow.”
Similes and analogies are simply comparisons, by the way, and they can add a lot to a conversation or a speech. I’ve heard the expression “hung around his neck like a dead skunk” before but wasn’t sure what it meant. It did get my attention. It definitely got a strong visual from it, but it really wasn’t about something hanging around one’s neck. I’d say it is describing a deep sense of shame, remorse or guilt.
Paragraphs may be devoted to describing that feeling when you confront something or someone from your past that causes memories, often unwanted, to come flooding back. Sometimes just a few words can say it better than a narrative: “Memories jumped him like muggers out of a dark alley.”
If you want to convince an employer or customer that you will be responsive to a task at hand, you could say, “I’m on it like a NASCAR pit crew.” There are variations of the “I’m on it like…” analogy, but some may too colorful, let’s say, to repeat here.
Here’s one that I really like that you might call a red-neck perspective in a digital age: “Computers are like dogs.” Say what? The rest of the analogy is, “They smell fear.” If you’ve ever encountered a technical glitch that threatens to destroy hours of hard work with a dire warning on your computer screen, you understand what that means. That’s why we yell at our laptops and smart phones even though we know they can’t hear us. Well, maybe they can. Right, Siri?
How about finding yourself in a ticklish situation where your choices are, as they say, slim and none? Any option you choose is going to be a bad one. You could say it’s “like being thrown from the 19th or 20th floor. Either way you’re a goner.”
How do you tell your wife when something on her honey-do list is either beyond your scope of competency (which, in my case, is frequently) or would require far too much of your time? I’d suggest, “It would be like putting toothpaste back in the tube.” Think of something that’s been taken apart and you have no idea how to put it back together. On a similar vein, of you are spending a lot of time and not getting much accomplished, you could say it’s “like trying to stare down a statue.”
We’ve all had to deal with that person you can’t get away from, whether it’s a door-to-door salesman, a talkative visitor or that telephone survey you agreed to take that seems to be unending. Just say that person was “dug in like a tick” and no further explanation is necessary.
Finally, if you’ve read this far, I can only hope it wasn’t “like a long walk in tight shoes.”