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Simile (figurative language)

EF_Team [Moderator] 41 / 222 15  
Jul 24, 2006   #1
One of the most frequently occurring and natural sounding parts of figurative language is the simile. We begin using it long before we even know what it is called, and it is one of the first figurative terms we are taught in school. Unlike many such terms, the word simile gives us an obvious clue as to its meaning; simile comes from the same origins as words like similar, so we know from the outset that this term will be used in a comparative way.

The most basic and well-known definition of simile is an explicit comparison between two things using like or as. "The boy fought like a tiger" and "She was as white as a ghost" are very common examples, and have been used so often as to become cliché. However, both very clearly show the key elements of simile construction. In the first example, the two things being compared are a boy and a tiger. The comparison is made using the word like, which makes the comparison explicit; we are saying the boy is like a tiger, meaning we are focusing on an aspect of similarity, which is key to constructing a simile. In order to make this comparison more specific and easily understood, notice that it is not merely the boy and tiger which are being compared. The fighting ability of each is the main point of similarity that the simile brings to light here, rather than any of the other hundreds of characteristics that the boy and the tiger might also share. This specificity is what makes the simile direct, and also part of what distinguishes it from metaphor, which leaves more to the interpretation of the reader.

The second example uses as instead of like, but again this functions as the marker of similarity and equality between the things being compared. In this instance, we have a female person being compared to a ghost, and again we see that the simile specifies the aspect of similarity under consideration, this time being the whiteness of both entities. Notice the subtle difference between the use of like and the use of as in simile construction. In the case of like, we are told the two things are similar, but not necessarily equivalent. As, on the other hand, makes the two things equal with regard to the aspect under comparison.

An often neglected aspect of simile is the need to compare things that are generally dissimilar. This might seem to contradict the very nature of simile, which is to highlight similarity, but the difference adheres in the distinction between the general and specific. Looking back to the first example above, we can see that, in general, the boy and the tiger have very little in common, and constitute very different entities. However, in a single aspect of their being, their ability to fight, they warrant some comparison. The comparison is usually exaggerated to some extent as it is in this case (the boy may be a good fighter, but he is certainly not so good as a tiger), but this is precisely how the simile works. By taking two things that don't have much in common and putting them together, the simile forces us to imagine the situation in more vivid and unconventional ways. The exaggeration inherent in most similes also adds a certain force to the comparison, and makes us feel the power of the thing or characteristic being compared. Be aware, however, that these effects of unexpectedness and novelty are first subdued and then lost completely over time when a given comparison is used too often. The examples above, using a tiger to show fighting ability and a ghost to show whiteness, while being good models of similes, have been used so often that their effects have been all but lost. The ability to create novel similes and to rework old ones in unexpected ways is one of the marks of great writing.


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