Tuesday, 31st March 2015

by Joshua Gaskell

The case against the young’s parenthetical use of the word like as a filler or ‘discourse particle’ is already strong, but a new ambiguity it introduces occurs to me. How do we know what a young person means when she uses an intransitive, verbal simile of the sort to —— like a ——, in cases where the verb can also function transitively and be done to the subject (making it an object)? For example, does eat like a bird mean ‘to eat very little; to pick at one’s food’ (OED), or does it simply mean ‘to eat, like, a bird’?: to consume a feathered vertebrate for nutriment.

I record below further examples of such phrases along with their potentially misinterpreted meanings:

  • Work like a dog: To shape or manipulate a canine.
  • Come down on like a ton of bricks: To descend upon 2240 lbs of moulded, hardened clay, with authority, severity, and hostility.
  • Run around like a headless chicken: To go with quick steps on alternate feet so as to make the circuit of a decapitated fowl.
  • Drop like a hot potato: To let fall a piping, tuberous root.
  • Spread like a rash: To disseminate hives.
  • Catch like a rat in a trap: To capture or lay hold of a member of the genus Rattus.
  • Read like a book: To inspect and interpret in thought a portable volume of printed pages.
  • Dress up like a sore finger: To attire a painful digit elaborately.
  • Stick out like a sore thumb: To jut out, project, or protrude an uncomfortable pollex.
  • Make like a Welshman’s hose: To manufacture, construct, or fashion a Cambrian’s leggings.