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Similes as Sour as an Ex-Girlfriend’s Glare

September 12, 2010

Ah, rhetoric. Used wisely, rhetorical devices -anaphora, apostrophe, synecdoche, chiasmus,  et. al- make prose a delight to read and strengthen the author’s arguments. However, rhetoric is like a clichéd magical artifact. In the wrong hands, it can do a lot of damage. This happens most frequently with simile. True, we like the old clichés (“Raoul was as strong as an ox!”) but I’ve noticed a plethora of new ones lately.

Here’s the thing: moving away from clichés is good. Replacing them with hackneyed, trite similes is not.

Specifically, there seem to be a lot of terrible similes in what is purportedly “news.” Well, even more specifically, they infest the “Entertainment and Lifestyle” type of news. You know, the kind that’s not too hard on your brain, speculates on celebrities, and tells you how to be a better parent/eat better/dress better, ad nauseam. As an example, I remember a review for Sex and the City 2  that complained that its plot was “as thin as Sarah Jessica Parker’s thigh.”

Ouch.

Nowadays, what passes for news is as exciting as a Miu Miu sample sale. Never mind that the writing is as naughty as a slice of chocolate cake. The thing is, simile (and metaphor) assume that the audience knows enough about the target (the thing being compared) and the domain (the thing supplying the comparison) to “get” the reference. That’s why similes like “She was as quiet as a mus musculus” don’t work. 

What does that mean here? The increasing use of these similes implies that we, the general public, are assumed to have enough awareness of these pop culture tropes to make them a viable source of simile. And don’t get me wrong, they can be viable- for certain audiences at certain times. Remember, similes imply certain qualities about the target and the domain.

Look at “It’s a romance naughty as a piece of chocolate cake.” Context would tell us that the romance is naughty. Therefore, since we’re comparing, the piece of chocolate cake must be naughty as well. Subtly, insidiously, you get emotional connotations (baggage) attached to concepts. And, since you’re expected to understand the reference, the suggestion is that you know chocolate cake is naughty.

It is a chicken-and-egg type of problem. Are these new similes in response to our changing culture, or is our culture changing in response to our new similes?

So what’s the big deal? Why make a fuss that some people prefer “a face as bright as a Tiffany diamond” to one “bright as a new dawn”?

To me, these new similes just seem so vapid. There’s no imagination involved, no imagery. Instead, it’s a) purely empty, shallow comparisons, and b) reinforcing concepts and stereotypes that I just don’t buy into.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to read about “swords as sharp as Simon Cowell’s comebacks.”  Language is a powerful tool. Why use less than its full potential?

-Arvik

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One comment

  1. Excellent post!

    I no longer finish reading books that don’t appeal, often from the overuse of bizarre similes:

    “I sat at the empty drafting table next to my mother’s, drawing the way the venetian blinds sliced the light like cheese. I waited to hear what my mother would say next, but she put her headphones back on, like the period after the end of a sentence.”

    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/the-clean-bookplate-club/

    Thanks!



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