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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.[1]
  • The very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric.[2]
  • Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.[3]

Explicit similes[edit | edit source]

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 [4]; 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.

Stereotypes[edit | edit source]

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.

Irony[edit | edit source]

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[5]

Subversive use of irony[edit | edit source]

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

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