General English

  • noun a comparison of one thing to another, using ‘like’ or ‘as’, e.g. ‘as flat as a pancake.’

Idiom of “simile”

Simile is defined as a figure of speech which expresses a likeness between two entities, in English usually by means of the words like or as. The term comes from the Latin word similis (= like). Many similes are frequently used catch-phrases, which provide a rich source of more or less idiomatic English.

If we say that we are working as hard as the Olympic rowing squad to win gold, or that we are straining like a rugby pack to win the ball, we are creating similes. But we are not using idioms. If we say we slept like a plank, or like a corpse, to indicate that we slept soundly, we are again making similes – slightly clumsy ones. In order to make the statement idiomatic, we have to say we slept like a log. This is an established or ‘standard simile’.

There are two main ways in which similes become idiomatic. Firstly there are the standard similes of the ‘slept like a log’ sort. These used to be conveniently listed, sometimes at enormous length, in old grammar books and primary school language books. There is a multitude of these semi-fixed expressions of likeness in English, some of them very colourful. A small selection follows.

With ‘like’
go at something + like a bull at a gate (aggressively and carelessly)
enter a room + like a bull in a china shop (roughly and clumsily)
grin + like a Cheshire cat (broadly and inanely)
feel + like a fish out of water (out of one’s element)
have an expression + like the cat that got the cream (look smug or slightly guilty) run + like the clappers (fast)
behave + like a lamb (obediently and submissively)
respond + like a red rag to a bull (as if provoked)
packed + like sardines (very tightly)
go away + like a thief in the night (stealthily)
get on with someone + like a house on fire (very well)
criticism + like water off a duck’s back (without impact or effect)
stranded + like a beached whale (very helpless)
mope about + like a fart in a trance/ colander (behave dreamily or ineffectively)
stand out + like a whore at a christening (look very out of place)

With ‘as’ (adjectival phrase)
as bold as brass (brazen, insolent)
as bright as a button (very clever and quick witted)
as cool as a cucumber (laid back, unperturbed)
as daft as a brush (crazy)
as dull as dishwater/ditchwater (utterly uninteresting)
as fit as a fiddle (very well and healthy)
as like as two peas in a pod (almost identical)
as nutty as a fruitcake (crazy)
as plain as a pikestaff (obvious)
as proud as a peacock (openly vain)
as right as rain (in good health)
as sober as a judge (very serious and sober)
as sound as a bell (in good condition, uncracked)
as thick as two short planks (dim, unintelligent)
as thick as thieves (conspiring, in cahoots)

Whether these similes are described as idioms or are accused of being clichés depends on who is using them and in what context. But all users of English should be encouraged to recognise them as part of the warp and woof of English, using them when appropriate and avoiding them – like the plague (to use an idiomatic simile!) – when inappropriate.

Often one adjective collocates with several others, as in: as sure as death, as sure as eggs is eggs, as sure as I’m standing here, as sure as God made little green apples – all of which are standard similes indicating shades of predictability and inevitability.

Many other standard similes are listed alphabetically in the main dictionary, under their adjective.

The second source of idiomatic similes in the language is the quotation. For example, if we say:

My love is like a red, red rose, or
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, or
I wandered lonely as a cloud.

we are making similes which are idioms. They are idiomatic simply because they are much quoted lines from Burns, Byron and Wordsworth respectively. As often as not, we use them without realising we are quoting, so deeply and widely have they percolated into and through the language.