Monday, February 9, 2015

Figures of Speech

Ana muses on common and less common figures of speech:

The list of figures of speech in the English language is long and growing. Before I moved to a farming community and became a writer, I heard and used phrases that I didn't fully appreciate how they came about.

"Can't hit the broad side of a barn." Old fashioned dairy barns are very long. Modern poultry and hog confinement barns are huge. If you can't throw a stone at a building 100 feet long and hit it, something's wrong with your aim or your eyes.

"Crowded as a whorehouse on nickel night." Self-explanatory.

"Can't catch a weasel asleep." Something that is impossible or unlikely. Someone who is always alert and seldom caught off guard. "You can't sneak up on that guy any sooner than you can catch a weasel asleep."

"Dead as a door nail." Nails don't show many signs of life.

"Hot as Hades." Evokes images of fiery cauldrons and sinners roasting on spits.

"Didn't have a tail feather left." Describes someone who is penniless. Probably came from a time when feathers were sold for income.

"Egg money." Locals used this term when we moved to our farm. Farm women sold eggs to the feed store in town and got to spend that money themselves.

"Don't get your dander up." I think of a cat in fight mode, hair standing straight up, dander being the fine under layer of fur.

"Walk the chalk." If you were drunk, you couldn't walk across a room on a line drawn with chalk. "Toe the line," is similar.

"Nervous as a cat in a roomful of rockers." Gotta be careful and protect your tail.

"Steal the coins off a dead man's eyes." Coins were used to weight the eyelids of the deceased.

"Uglier than a newly sheared sheep." Have you ever seen a sheep that's just been sheared? Ugly!

"This knife wouldn't cut hot butter." Living in Germany as a child, I remember that a man regularly came around on his bicycle and sharpened knives for all the housewives on the block.

"Slow as molasses in January." Average daytime high temperature in January where I live is -1 degree. Not much molasses flows at that temperature.

To describe a long period without rain: "It's so dry, bushes are chasing dogs."

The list is endless and fascinating.


  1. Anna, there are so many of those I've never heard of. What a fascinating post.

  2. I'm familiar with a few of these, but think many of them are American, rather than English! We have plenty of our own! In Lancashire, we 'cotton on' to something (i.e. understand it) - which is totally different from 'cotton-picking' for example!
    I wonder how many of these would be considered as clichés - which we are supposed to avoid at all costs in our writing!

  3. The agricultural ones go way back, I think. Common on both sides of the pond with some evolution.
    We'd say, "I don't cotton to something," too. But that's an outdated expression. Maybe because I write and read so much historical, I love figuring out the derivation of phrases.
    Don't ask me to translate twitter and texting abbreviations. I have no clue what most of them mean. And I usually guess wrong.

    1. Our phrase is 'cotton on' not 'cotton to'. I once went to a talk at one of our local medieval halls where someone explained how many of our phrases go back to the Middle Ages. It was fascinating!

  4. Cotton on meaning understanding. I wonder how that came about. What does cotton have to do with understanding something?

    1. Here you go, check this one out:

  5. These are really interesting, Ana. I remember watching Dan Rather on the news and he would use all kinds of "Texas" phrases that people loved hearing. They're definitely regional, but to Paula's point, I think if you're careful, you can use them even if they are sometimes considered cliche.

    1. I think you can use clichés in dialogue because people DO speak in clichés quite often, but it's probably better to avoid them in narrative.

    2. Agreed. The cliches in dialogue help to show the type of person they are.

  6. Figurative language is a great way to show character. Like mentioned with Dan Rather, those were things particular to him that showed his background. In my last book, my heroine was a gardener, so I used a lot of growing, blooming, flower comparisons and analogies. Even in narrative, it can help you dig deep into your characters' POV.