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Frank J. Wilstach, comp. A Dictionary of Similes. 1916.


THE SIMILE is one of the most ancient forms of speech. It is the handmaid of all early word records. It has proved itself essential to every form of human utterance.

If our first parents had had a Boswell, many similes which are now in general use would be known as having been current in the Garden of Eden. Undoubtedly, on many occasions, Father Adam, when addressing Mother Eve, made use of “Cold as ice”, “Busy as a bee”, “Proud as a peacock”, “Weak as water”, “Angry as a wasp”, and “Bitter as gall.” With reliable data, many a simile which is now marked Anon. would be credited to Adam.

In the absence of a Boswell, however, we have other authorities who testify that Father Adam and Mother Eve made frequent use of similes in their Garden conversation. As Moses, in his brief account of creation, failed to report the talks of our first parents, we are deprived of his testimony; but what Moses overlooked, John Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning have supplied. Some of the most familiar similes in general use are to be found in the Old Testament. Among them are: “Multiply as the stars of heaven”, “Unstable as water”, “Still as a stone”, “White as snow”, “Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle”, “Boil like a pot”, “Firm as a stone”, “Melted like wax”, “Sharp as a two-edged sword”, and “Bitter as wormwood.” The Songs of Solomon are a rich mine of similes; including, “Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet”, “Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury”, “Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing”, and “Cruel as the grave.”

From many other sources the antiquity of the simile is proved. In the time of Rameses II of Egypt, 1292–1225 B.C., according to Breasted’s “History of Egypt”, the Poem of Pentaur was written. The Heroic Theban poet’s work was so highly prized that it was carved on the temple walls in hard stone. Pentaur was not ignorant of the simile. Thus he speaks of Pharaoh:

  • “His heart is firm, his courage is like that of the god of war.”
  • “His courage is firm, like that of a bull.”
  • “The King is dreadful as the grim lion in the valley.”
  • “He appeared like the sun-god at his rising in the early morn.”
  • Of Seti, the father of Rameses II, an unlocked inscription says: “He is as a jackal which rushed prowling through the land, as a grim lion that frequents hidden paths, as a powerful bull with sharpened horns.” Now this Rameses, Ramses, or Ramessu, was that Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites, the father of the princess who found the child Moses hid among the bulrushes.

    Homer, Virgil, Horace, and all the ancient writers, abound in similes; but the first to confine his literary expression to the making of similes alone was a Pythagorean philosopher, Demophilus, whose history is little known. His work, “Life’s Culture and Conduct”, is extant only in portions which are in the form of selections called “Dialectic Similitudes.” The first known edition of the work was printed in 1638. There were five editions in the seventeenth century, three in the eighteenth, and one in the nineteenth century. There is an interesting reference to Demophilus in “The Phoenix”, described as “a collection of old and rare fragments”, published by William Gowans, New York, 1835:

    “Demophilus appears to have enjoyed the dignity of archon at Athens, where it was no unusual thing for the character of magistrate and philosopher to be united in the same person. Respecting the time when he lived, it is impossible to arrive at an absolute certainty. The most probable conjecture is that he flourished about the beginning of the Christian era, and prior to the reign of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus. Such of his writings as are extant have come down to us in company with the philosophical works of Maximus Tyrius. Whether they owe their preservation to the latter philosopher having, from his conviction of their excellence, appended them to his own writings, is, though not unlikely, impossible to determine.”

    Thus the making of similes has gone on from age to age. The New Testament is not so prolific in the use of this figure of speech as the Old; but the writers of the New had a way, not unknown to the Old, of repeating the same similes many times. Not only that, but many that are found in the Old reappear in the New Testament.

    Since the very beginning of English literature, the simile has been a favorite figure of speech. This is particularly true of the English writings which obtained before the time of Elizabeth, and all of the great Elizabethans made happy use of it.

    This volume, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is the first attempt to collect the best similes from English, as well as from all other literatures. It was not until the present collection was finished that I found Demophilus had several rivals. There was one collection of similes made in the sixteenth century, and three during the seventeenth. These books are:

    (1) Certaine very proper and most profitable similes, also manie very notable virtues. Anthonie Fletcher, London, 1595.

    (2) A treasurie or store-house of similies: both pleasant, delightful, and profitable, for all estates of men in generall. Newly collected into heades and common-places: by Robert Cawdray, London, 1600.

    (3) A century of Similes, Thomas Shelton, London, 1640.

    (4) Things new and old; or a store-house of Similes, John Spencer, 1658.

    Of these four books, three, namely, Anthonie Fletcher’s, Robert Cawdray’s, and John Spencer’s, are in the Library of Congress. Only one, John Spencer’s, which is a reprint, is in the New York Public Library. All four are to be found in the British Museum. I have been able to examine three of the four books, missing that compiled by Thomas Shelton. The three I have seen are not, as the titles suggest, collections of similes, but are religious dissertations. Of the three, Robert Cawdray’s is the only one with a savor of humor. There is, indeed, some justification for stating on his title page: “Similes: both pleasant, delightful, and profitable.” By turning to the index, and examining some of the similes taken from his book, the reader will discover that while Robert Cawdray was an uncompromising “devil-chaser”, he was possessed, at times, with a pungent wit. His statement, “Newly collected into heades”, does not, as one might suppose, mean that he had collected the similes of the great writers of England up to his time; but merely that they are his own original efforts. His quotations are taken almost entirely from the scriptures. John Spencer appears to have known nothing of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, or Butler. In fact, his book shows that he was intimately acquainted only with the ecclesiastical writers of his time.

    Perhaps some student of literature,—a hundred years hence,—will turn to this book to discover if I were acquainted in any degree with some writer now unknown to fame, but whose name will then be on everybody’s lips! This, to me at least, is an interesting speculation. Who will then be remembered? Will it be George Ade or Henry James; O. Henry or Mrs. Humphry Ward; Joseph Conrad or George Meredith; Alfred Henry Lewis or Ambrose Bierce; Maurice Hewlett or Walter Pater; John Davidson or Rudyard Kipling? Robert Cawdray, in ignoring Shakespeare,—and indeed all the great Elizabethan writers,—thus missed his chance for a niche in the Temple of Fame.

    The first to make a collection of similes was John Ray, botanist and miscellaneous writer. His “A Collection of English Proverbs” was published in 1670, and there have been many subsequent editions. It was not Ray’s purpose to group together the proverbs and incidentally the similes to be found in English literature, but rather those in colloquial use by the people of England. The “Proverbial Similes” which he collected comprise but eight and a half pages of the two hundred and eighty, of the fifth edition of his book. Many of those gathered by Ray are of a character too gross for modern taste, while others are of a distinctly local character. Other collectors added many which came into general use after Ray’s time; but all avoided making use of similes to be found in the works of the writers of preceding ages. The first to overcome this reluctance was Vincent Stuckey Lean, whose great work, “Lean’s Collectanea”, in five volumes, was published at Bristol, England, in 1903. A part of the second volume of this erudite compilation is given over to “A New Treasury of Similes.” Lean not only embodied in his work all of the similes to be found in the various books of proverbs, but added very many from the old English writers. It is evident that he had a very considerable Elizabethan library to delve in; but, oddly enough, he made use of but three modern similes,—one each from Dickens, Tennyson, and George Eliot. Of the four simile books mentioned, Lean knew of but one, and that by Robert Cawdray.

    I began this Dictionary of Similes in 1894. It did not occur to me at once that there might be any particular need for such a book,—nor had George Moore yet written: “It is hard to find a simile when one is seeking for one.” One day in the spring of that year, when in Boston, I was looking over the morning papers and, being interested in some incident at the State House, read that “the news spread like wildfire.” Having noted the coincidence of all the newspapers using this simile, and having observed its frequent use in the press, I asked a journalistic acquaintance if there was no substitute for “spread like wildfire.” He replied that he had never heard of news spreading in any other way. My curiosity aroused, I stepped into the bookstore of Little, Brown & Company, then located in Washington Street, near the Globe newspaper office, and asked for a “Dictionary of Similes.” The clerk looked in vain over the shelves; then, having fumbled through the leaves of a huge volume, returned with the information that such a book had never been published. As I was actively engaged at the time, I had then no intention of supplying the apparent omission. But from that day I began to copy into a large blank book the similes in every book I read. Finding this collection of use to others, as well as to myself, it occurred to me that as opportunity presented I would begin with Chaucer and gather all the useful and picturesque similes from all of the important poets and prose writers, down to the present time. It seemed an endless undertaking; but I pursued the work with growing interest and delight. As my occupation during the intervening years took me back and forth from New York to San Francisco and hither and thither to all parts of the country, much of the work was done on railroad trains, and many an evening hour was spent in the libraries of Boston, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St. Louis, and other cities.

    Victor Hugo, in “Les Miserables”, tells of an old man who never went out without a book, and who seldom came back without two. This has a humorous application to myself. Year after year I have carried about with me some volume or other on which I had set my covetous eyes, hoping during an idle moment in a busy day to rifle it of its similes. And often, like the character in “Les Miserables”, I have ventured forth with a single volume and returned with a precious arm-load. So this work has been carried on through sheer love of the chase.

    To shake all the similes, as leaves from the forest, of English Literature would be a task beyond the possibilities of one human life. Therefore, such a collection must necessarily be incomplete, except in so far as the great masters are concerned, and to have excluded the best from modern writers would have deprived such a collection of very much of its interest and charm. I have not been influenced by the reputation of any contemporary writer; but have selected those similes which seemed really worth while.

    When I came to collate the similes under headings,—similes collected during nearly a quarter of a century, and from thousands of volumes,—I discovered that there were hundreds of duplicates. So, I credited the simile to that writer who was the one farthest back in point of time. When any simile was used by a group of authors of the same age, through necessity I have marked it anonymous.

    In numerous instances, it will be discovered that I have given credit for many similes to authors far back in the reaches of time which are usually attributed to modern writers. There is no certainty, of course, that many of these similes were really original with the authors to whom they are credited. To have examined the writings of all authors would have been an impossibility. While I have been able to find many an apt simile as having been used hundreds of years before any collector has so far discovered them, I have no doubt I shall find, in time, that many similes in this Dictionary, credited to a modern writer, have been “picked from the worm holes of old time.”

    Although I have drag-netted the ocean, as well as the numerous narrow streams and wide rivers of literature, for similes, many a rare and curious specimen has doubtless escaped me. Had all been secured this collection would be of too great a size for general use.

    To discover the authorship of many curious similes has been a matter of long quest. Here are three examples: “Cold as an enthusiastic New England audience;” “Noisy as a living skeleton having a fit on a hardwood floor;” and “About as much privacy as a goldfish.” The first of these I had from the lips of James Whitcomb Riley, in 1886. But when I lately wrote to the Hoosier poet and asked him if he were its father, he disclaimed ever having heard of the child. Years ago, I noted that Opie Read had been given credit for “Noisy as a living skeleton having a fit on a hardwood floor”; but Mr. Read, some years back, denied the authorship. On the other hand, Irvin S. Cobb informs me that he accepts all blame for having made merry with the privacy of the goldfish.

    Much of an interesting nature might be said on the subjects chosen for similes during different periods. This will be apparent to any reader who has curiosity enough to examine this volume. Nature it will readily be observed, had well nigh the sole appeal for the ancients,—for Homer and Virgil particularly. As we come down to modern times, we find that new and novel inventions have been seized upon as means for comparison. Byron, shortly after the introduction of gas for illumination in the playhouse, wrote in Don Juan:

  • “Grand a sight
  • As is a theatre lit up by gas.”
  • Then came the adding machine, and Oliver Wendell Holmes made use of Mr. Babbage’s calculating machine as a comparison for certainty; Morgan Robertson wrote “Faint as the voice of the telephone”, and, lately, a play was advertised as “Crackling with wit like a Marconi.” Then too,—“Sly as a submarine.” The moving picture also furnishes interesting examples. Its first form was the magic lantern. Thomas Moore made use of it:
  • “But now ‘a change came o’er my dream,’
  • Like the magic lantern’s shifting slider.”
  • The next invention was the diorama, and we have George Eliot saying: “Shifts its scenes like a diorama.” Finally, when the moving picture was perfected, William Archer wrote: “Feverishly accelerate, like the movements we see in the cinematograph.”

    It would be unwise to credit a dramatist with a simile used in a play, for the reason that actors have, more especially in musical comedy, a way of introducing some happy phrase with or without the author’s consent. It is astonishing how quickly a simile heard in a play will come into current use. Not long ago I overheard two persons talking in a street car, and one said: “It was as cruel as a barren stepmother’s slap.” I had no notion that this was an original phrase with the person in the street car. That night I went to see a play by Lady Gregory, and then discovered the source of the simile; the authoress, however, had written not “cruel”, but “Hard as a barren stepmother’s slap.”

    From earliest time poets have been remarkable for their intimate acquaintance with the solar system. Astronomers themselves could hardly have made so many observations on the sun, the moon, and the stars,—the moon particularly. Also, the bards, when in need of a simile, have been free in their use of the boundless ocean, and with the rippling brook as well. The flowers of the fields, the birds of the air,—of the latter the eagle being easily the favorite,—have graphically served their purpose. While the moon shows signs of waning popularity, the eagle retains an undiminished favor. Indeed, the poets have so delighted in similes that they have written whole poems, every line a simile. A small volume might easily be made of this species of poetistic ingenuity,—the most curious example being the one devised by John Gay.

    Thomas Hood, in his poem “The Tale of the Trumpet”, relates the adventures of an “old woman hard of hearing”, in which he rings the changes on the simile “deaf as a post.” By way of novelty, Sterne began the fifteenth chapter of “Tristram Shandy” with a simile, and added,—“I don’t think the comparison a bad one:”

    “An eye is, for all the world, exactly like a cannon, in this respect, That it is not so much the eye or the cannon, in themselves, as it is the carriage of the eye, and the carriage of the cannon; by which both the one and the other are enabled to do so much execution.”

    In the use of similes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Shelley and Swinburne were the most profuse. Of these, Swinburne, easily led the others in this form of expression. In fact there is hardly a page of his works that does not contain from one to three similes. The poet who made the smallest use of the simile was Walt Whitman.

    I have taken the liberty, rather broadly, of including in this book, as an aid for reference, a number of comparisons from various sources which would not technically come under the definition of simile. There is, of course, a thin shade of difference, but one overlooked by many grammarians. However, when one can, without undue license, enlarge the usefulness of a book of reference there is no necessity of allowing research to be embarrassed by unimportant breaches of definition. The reader will find, I trust, the few comparisons in this dictionary quite as welcome as the out and out similes.

    To achieve anything like correctness in quotation has proved, at times, a most perplexing matter, for the reason that the texts of many of the poets have undergone, from editor to editor, various alterations. With Shakespeare, because of the imperfect First Folio, this was necessary. But, in tampering with the text of the First Folio, there have been many curious revisions, or new readings, well known to students of the Bard. The most singular to come under my observation appears in the Blair edition of Shakespeare, which, according to its editor, J. Talfourd Blair, was “Carefully edited and compared with the best text.” In this volume one may read:

  • “How sharper than a servant’s tooth it is
  • To have a thankless child.”
  • In this case we may well rely upon the First Folio, which has it “serpent’s”, not “servant’s tooth.”

    The ideal method would have been to select only those editions of the classics which have acquired authority. But this has been quite impossible, for I have had to accept whatever I have been able to lay hands on, for my purpose. In making verifications there have been disclosed many discrepancies. Take, for example, Thomas Campbell’s verse:

  • “Like angel visits, few and far between.”
  • The words “angel visits” are often printed as a compound word, but in Hoyt’s “Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations”, in one place they are printed as two words, and in another hyphenated.

    Storms have raged around Robert Burns’ best-known simile, beginning: “But pleasures are like poppies spread.” These verses appeared first in Francis Grose’s “Antiquities of Scotland”, (London, 1791), volume 2, page 199–201, as follows:

  • “But pleasures are like poppies spread,
  • You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
  • Or like the snow falls in the river,
  • A moment white—then melts for ever;
  • Or like the borealis race,
  • That flit ere you can point their place;
  • Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,
  • Evanishing amid the storm.”
  • Chambers printed the couplet:

  • “Or like the snowfall in the river,
  • A moment white—then melts for ever.”
  • But it will be observed that Burns had it “snow falls”, not “snowfall.” The ever careful John Bartlett changed the third verse, making it read:

  • “Or, like the snow-fall in the river.”
  • Several editors have arbitrarily made the line read “Like snow falls on the river.” But Douglas says in his edition of 1877: “We suspect that Burns would have preferred: “Like snowflakes on the river.”

    In conclusion I would quote the final passage of Thomas Fuller’s preface to John Spencer’s “Things new and old, or a store-house of Similes”: “But the reader will catch cold, by keeping him too long in the porch of the Preface, who now (the door being opened) may enter into the house itself.”

    NEW YORK, July, 1916.