Queries About Colorful Expressions

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Nov 17 20:30:15 UTC 2013

On Nov 17, 2013, at 11:22 AM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:

> Two colorful expressions I saw recently were both similes: "Busier
> than a mosquito in a nudist colony" and the cliché "As happy as a pig
> in the muck". These are elaborate ways to say "very busy" and "very
> happy".
> Here some more examples expressing happiness that have become clichés:
> http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100828001945AAsOrIs
> [Begin selected excerpt]
> I'm as happy as:
> a kid in a candy store.
> a tornado in a trailer park.
> a clam at high tide.

--i.e. when you can't rake it into your bucket. This has become opaque, yielding "happy as a clam"  When I ask my students on the origin of "happy as a clam", the majority opinion (among those who are familiar with the simile) is that clams look as though they're smiling.


> a pig in a peach orchard.
> a kid on Christmas.
> a pup with two tails.
> [End excerpt]
> Some prominent writers described a state of happiness with a simile.

> Here are some examples from a 1916 book of similes
> Frank J. Wilstach, comp.  A Dictionary of Similes.  1916.
> http://www.bartleby.com/161/1160.html
> [Begin selected excerpt]
> Happy as a miner when he has discovered a vein of precious metal.
>           —Guy de Maupassant
> Happy as a rose-tree in sunshine.
>            —William Makepeace Thackeray
> As happy as birds in their bowers.
>            —William Wordsworth
> Happy as a Sunday in Paris, full of song, and dance, and laughter.
>            —Fitz-Greene Halleck
> [End excerpt]
> Ornate constructions proliferate in the domain of similes. The 1917
> book "The Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases" has a section called
> "Striking Similes" that is filled with phrases written by authors who
> were attempting to be colorful. Some of the similes listed in 1917
> have become clichés (or were already clichés), e.g., "As busy as a
> bee", "As extinct as the dodo", "As pale as any ghost", "Spread like
> wildfire".
> http://www.ansible.co.uk/misc/striking.html
> The Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent
> Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational,
> and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature,
> and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons who Read,
> Write, and Speak English (1917)
> http://books.google.com/books?id=3sgNAAAAYAAJ&q=%22book+that%22#v=snippet&
> Garson
> On Sat, Nov 16, 2013 at 4:53 PM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
>> Subject:      Queries About Colorful Expressions
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> For my column in the Yale Alumni Magazine, I am writing about "the opera ai=
>> n't over till the fat lady sings" and related sayings, and also about Bonni=
>> e Taylor-Blake's recent discoveries about "the whole nine yards."  It occur=
>> s to me that these are both examples of a simple and obvious idea ("it's no=
>> t over until it's definitively finished" or "the full extent of something")=
>> that becomes much more memorable by being rephrased in colorful language.
>> Can anyone suggest a name for this colorful rephrasing phenomenon?  Is it p=
>> articularly characteristic of the Southern United States?  Can anyone sugge=
>> st other examples besides "fat lady sings" and "whole nine yards"?
>> I hope to write the column in the next few days, so quick responses would b=
>> e most welcome.
>> Fred Shapiro
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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