Similes Swing Open Doors of Meaning

By Rob Kyff

June 26, 2019 3 min read

Well-placed similes are like well-oiled hinges, allowing readers to open doors of meaning with ease and grace. By making a direct comparison using "like" or "as," a simile connects an abstract concept to a familiar object or experience.

Some similes can be sharp and sudden. New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, for instance, once observed that the sparkling swords and spears in a film's medieval battle scene "looked like an uprising in the cutlery drawer."

Other similes are subtle and sublime: "Midnights tend to magnify things, to set them in sharp relief against the empty night, like gems on a black velvet cloth," Marcus Laffey wrote.

When A. Scott Berg wanted to convey the experience of visiting Katharine Hepburn's seaside home, he crafted a maritime simile: "Sleeping at Fenwick feels like drifting on a boat at sea. The wood of the house creaks gently, in harmony with the lapping tide and the distant foghorn."

Speaking of tides, Dan Williams devised a "tidy" simile to describe the power of swimmer Ian Thorpe: "He can move water like the moon."

Noting that a recent biography debunks many myths about the western gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, reviewer Christopher Knowlton wrote that its author, Tom Clavin, "tacks up the truth like wanted posters in every chapter."

In "My Lost City," a paean to Manhattan during the 1970s, Luc Sante described a mob "that dissolved like a fist when you open your hand."

Civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis once said that "without television, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings."

Jill Lepore recently wrote that the proliferation of internet news sources has created disequilibrium, "as if the world of news were suddenly ... a bouncy castle at an amusement park."

Weaving similes into your own writing can enrich both meaning and merriment. You might write, for instance, that a misguided proposal is "like draining a lake to catch the fish," that a fresh idea is "as welcome as an air conditioner in August," or that a new sales rep is "as busy as a mosquito at a family picnic."

But be careful. A poorly chosen simile, even if it just misses the mark, is worse than no simile at all. Subtle changes in wording can make all the difference. "The negotiators caved in like a faulty roof" doesn't quite make it. "The negotiators caved in like cardboard in the rain" does.

"He's as angry as a cat taking a bath" — not quite. "He's as angry as a cat in a car wash" — yeeoowwww!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969 at Pixabay

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