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- Main article: Figurative language
A simile is used to compare two things, usually with the words “like” or “as”.
A simile differs from a metaphor by keeping the two items separate and asking the audience to find similar features instead of saying they are the same thing. A popular mnemonic for a simile is that "a simile is similar or alike."
Similes have been widely used in literature for their expressiveness as a figure of speech:
- Curley was flopping like a fish on a line.
- The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.
- Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.
A simile can explicitly provide the basis of a comparison or leave this basis implicit. For instance, the following similes are implicit, leaving an audience to determine for themselves which features are being predicated of a target:
- "My dad was a mechanic by trade when he was in the Army," Raymond Thompson said. "When he got the tools out, he was like a surgeon."
- His mind is like a samurai's sword.
More detail is present in the following similes, but it is still a matter of inference as to what features are actually predicated of the target:
- You may not live like a samurai, but you can die like a samurai.
- He walks like a ninja and runs like a cat.
- He drinks like a fish.
In contrast, the following similes explicitly state the features that are predicated of each target:
- His mind is as sharp as a samurai's sword.
- When he got the tools out, he was as precise and thorough as a surgeon.
- He drinks copiously like a fish.
- She walks as gracefully and elegantly as a cat.
Unlike a metaphor, a simile can be as precise as the user needs it to be, to explicitly predicate a single feature of a target or to vaguely predicate an under-determined and open-ended body of features. Empirical research supports the observation that similes are more likely to be used with explicit explanations of their intended meaning ; this offers some support to the claim that similes are preferred if a user wants to associate an unusual or out-of-the-ordinary property with a target.
The most commonplace similes offer a window into the stereotypes that pervade a given language and culture. For example, the following similes convey a stereotypical view of people, animals and things:
- as precise as a surgeon
- as regular as a clock
- as cunning as a fox
- as ugly as a toad
- as strong as an ox
- as sour as vinegar
- as lithe as a panther
- as quiet as a mouse
These similes have the status of a cliché or platitude in English, and their use is typically taken to signify a lack of creative imagination.
Some stereotypical similes express viewpoints that are technically incorrect but which are widespread in a culture, such as:
- as hairy as a four footed platypus
- as cruel as a wolf
- as stubborn as a goat
- as drunk as a skunk
- as violent as a gorilla
- as humorless as a German
- as proud as a peacock
Animal stereotypes provide a rich vein of similes in English, as does a persistent body of ethnic stereotypes.
Similes do not have to be accurate to be meaningful or useful. To be "as proud as a peacock" is "to be very proud" whether peacocks actually do exhibit pride or not. What matters is that peacocks are commonly believed to be exemplary examples of proud behaviour.
Some similes play against expectations to convey an ironic viewpoint, as in the following examples:
- as hairy as a bowling ball
- as subtle as a sledgehammer
- as porous as steel
- as bulletproof as a spongecake
The intended audience for such similes must sufficiently understand the concepts involved so as to appreciate that the opposite of the intended meaning is being conveyed.
Ironic similes create a humorous effect by setting up an expectation that is then incongruously dashed. Incongruity is a core concept in the understanding of humor as a cognitive mechanism.
Irony is a relatively common feature of similes that are used in web-based texts. Indeed, researchers have estimated that between 10% to 15% of explicit web-based similes (by unique type rather than by frequency) are ironic similes of the above kind
Subversive use of irony
Bona-fide similes that express a widely-held stereotypical belief can also be subverted for ironic purposes. The following explicit similes each subvert another non-ironic simile to achieve a more obvious semantic incongruity and thus a greater humorous effect.
- as accurate as a blind archer
- as precise as a drunk surgeon
- as balanced as an upturned pyramid
- as gorgeous as an anorexic supermodel
- as fast as a three-legged cheetah
- as elegant as a dead cat
Collections and compilations
- Steinbeck, John (1937), Of Mice and Men, Sprangler, ISBN 0-14-017739-6 .
- Conrad, Joseph (1902), Heart of Darkness, Blackwood's Magazine, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/526/526.txt .
- Shakespeare (1623), Julius Caesar]first = William .
- Roncero,Carlos, Kennedy,John M.,Smyth,Ron (2006), Similes on the Internet have explanations, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/psocpubs/pbr/2006/00000013/00000001/art00009 .
- Veale,Tony, Hao,Yanfen (2007), Learning to Understand Figurative Language: From Similes to Metaphors to Irony, In proceedings of CogSci 2007, the 29th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, http://afflatus.ucd.ie .
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