Would you say something you knew wasn’t true? Would you blithely use a phrase that was in fact complete nonsense? Would you state as fact something that was clearly not a fact?
Well, you would and you have. I have, too—all the time. They’re called idioms, which are loosely defined as a group of words having a meaning the words themselves don’t actually have. For instance, if you are a native English speaker, you have probably described someone perspiring profusely as “sweating like a pig.” Alas, my friend, you have sadly—not to say wildly—misspoken. Pigs don’t sweat. (Well, they do, but just a little.) That’s why they lie in the mud—to keep cool. If a pig could really “sweat like a pig” it would and leave the mud to the worms. (The Spanish, by the way, say sudar como un pollo—“sweat like a chicken”—which makes even less sense since chickens don’t even have sweat glands, but at least it gets the whole thing out of the dirt.)
Or perhaps you’ve said someone “eats like a bird.” Is that so? You’re trying to say the person consumes very little food, when the words themselves describe a species that eats six to seven times as much as a human every day! (in proportion to their body weight). If I “ate like a bird,” I’d be as big as a water buffalo. All I have to do is look at the money I spend on bird seed. It makes me want to yell out the window, “Hey, all you robins and cardinals and sparrows and finches! Would you please just eat like a bird?!”
“Sick as a dog” is another one. My family dog lived for 16 years and was sick exactly once. And even then he just lay there quietly and got over it—unlike his owner, who gets a cold and moans and groans like a dying sea cow. Can you blame my wife for saying, “Could you please just be sick as a dog?”
There are so many more. How about “clean as a whistle”? Are you kidding? People blow into a whistle with their mouths. How clean do you think that is? Pass the bottle of disinfectant, please. And then hit it with a blow torch.
“Easy as shooting fish in a barrel. If they’re in a barrel they’re probably already dead.”
One of my all-time not favorites is “sleep like a baby.” What’s the first question you ask the parent of a newborn? Is he/she sleeping? Of course not! Why? Because it’s a baby! The chances of getting an infant who sleeps through the night are roughly equivalent to pi multiplied by the square root of infinity times two.
“Dead as a doornail.” Where this came from remains a mystery, and rightly so. Who would take credit for complete nonsense? There can be no death where there has not first been life, and nails are not alive.
“Happy as a clam.” Why? Because its shell curves slightly upward like a human smile? How happy is the clam when somebody says, “Hey, let’s have a clam bake!”
“Crazy as a loon.” This comes from the tremolo or “crazy laugh” that loons make to signal alarm and frighten off predators. Hey, if saving your life is crazy, count me in.
“Drinks like a fish.” Only if you have gills, and even then a fish doesn’t put a lampshade on his head and think he’s the funniest fish in the ocean. (The French say boire comme un trou, which means “drinking like a hole.” Now that’s drinking too much.)
“Drunk as a skunk.” Skunks don’t consume alcohol and if they did, I’m not sure who would be more insulted, the drunk or the skunk.
“Easy as shooting fish in a barrel.” If they’re in a barrel they’re probably already dead. And so on.
I’ve mentioned Spanish and French sayings along with these American beauties to show that idiomatic absurdity knows no borders. And if I were giving prizes, the trophy would have to go to the Poles for madry jak salomonowe gacie (“wise as Solomon’s underpants”). Wow! The guy’s so enlightened even his clothes are smart. Imagine the scene:
“I wish to see King Solomon.”
“I’m sorry, the king isn’t in but I can give you 15 minutes with his boxer shorts.”
You can be fit as a fiddle, sly as a fox or snug as a bug in a rug, and you’ll never beat that one.
John Cadley is a former advertising copywriter, freelance writer and musician living in Fayetteville, New York.