Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Short, Powerful Lesson in Metaphor and Simile


Long-lasting country expressions use figurative language. The one that follows is a simile.

“Slippery as a hog on ice”

Persuasive speakers also use figurative language. President Barack Obama did in his State of the Union address, 2016.

America has been through big changes before
wars and depression,
the influx of new immigrants,
workers fighting for a fair deal,
movements to expand civil rights.
Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future;
who claimed we could slam the brakes on change;
who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea
that was threatening America under control.
And each time, we overcame those fears.”--

These expressions and speeches live in our minds, hearts, and memories because they make great use of language. In the two examples offered, that language is the language of metaphor and simile.

Somewhere in Alabama--or was it Georgia?
Photo provided by Al Griffin

We comprehend better and understand when writers and speakers compare something we know little about to something we know well. For example, I’ve never tried to catch a hog, but I’ve seen video from county fairs and know that squealing pigs are hard to hold--perhaps even harder to pursue and hold when both human and hog are on ice. Even if no one tries to hold that hog on the ice as the simile suggests, I can well imagine how impossible the task.


Similarly, the President created a metaphorical car named “Change” to critique those who contend we can simply apply the brakes to arrest its forward progress. Anyone who’s lived and reflected knows that change will come whether we will it or not.

A fine little book makes outstanding use of figurative language, metaphors and similes in particular. It’s a Bitter Little World: The Smartest Toughest Nastiest Quotes from Film Noir by Charles Pappas is that book. Here is a sample:

“In the beginning there was the word, and it came out of the mouths of babes named Velma. Or mugs like Chuckles or Dix or Verbal. They weren’t
plain-melba-toast,
Jello-mold,
PG-rated,
barbershop quartet,
malt-shop,
white-picket-fence,
Wonder-bread with-mayonnaise,
‘Honey, I’m home,’
in-separate-beds-by-ten-o’clock words, either.

They were the words of film noir--The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Clock, Double Indemnity, The Big Combo, White Heat, The Usual Suspects, The Big Steal Blue Velvet, The Big Carnival, The Big Knife, The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski. So many of them have big in their titles because they use bulked-up, big-mongous words that
bruise like King Kong on crack . . . 
burn like arson . . .
and sear like a fresh-brewed pot of 7-Eleven coffee splashed in your face . . . .

The words of film noir aren’t

packing peanuts like the words between crashes in The Fast and the Furious,
or the bubble wrap of English before and after the explosions in Armageddon.
They are the crashes.
They are the explosions.
They are howls of lust and
electric shocks of greed,

with quotations and dialog so overheated you could
cook a frozen Tombstone pizza on them.”


I am responsible for the set-right formatting that separates many of the metaphors and similes from the rest of the paragraph. I altered the format to highlight the author’s abundant uses of figurative language, to render them as poetic prose so that readers may recognize them for what they are: images that tell, reveal, and inspire. Pappas’s use of language packs a punch as powerful as any blow Phillip Marlowe took to the gut.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” any of the films Pappas lists as he explains the “bitter little words of film noir.” Better still, read Pappas’s book.

Flint Hills Cattle Pens
Photo provided by Al Griffin

Writing Challenge:

Write a description of the language used in the Coen brothers’ films, No Country for Old Men or Fargo. Strive to invent as many fresh adjective phrases, metaphors, and similes as Pappas did for film noir.