The Telegraph
Wednesday , December 5 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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You can be bright as a button and sharp as a needle, or thick as a post (or a plank, or indeed two planks, as the late Princess Diana once said, unfairly, of herself) and, in either case, daft as a brush and crazy as a coot, or indeed mad as a hatter or as a March hare. Fresh as paint (or a daisy) and pretty as a picture, or ugly as sin. Fat as butter (or a pig), or thin as a rake and light as a feather, yet fit as a fiddle, tough as nails and strong as a horse (or an ox). Drunk as a lord, or sober as a judge. Rich as Croesus, with investments solid as houses or as the Bank of England, or poor as a church mouse yet merry as a cricket and happy as a sandboy (whatever he may be; and oddly, I know of no sad as... simile).

Many of these similes reflect the Britain that gave rise to them. In the musical, South Pacific, Oscar Hammerstein did it for America: I’m as corny as Kansas in August, high as a flag on the Fourth of July. We owe Croesus to the ancient Greeks. Old as Methuselah, wise as Solomon and patient as Job bring in three biblical characters. How do these phrases, or lords, church mice, March hares, butter and fiddles play in India?

Very British

The similes of colour are a mixed bunch. Red as a rose and black as night, or as pitch, an old word for tar, are as apt in India as in Britain. White as a sheet? These days, maybe. But what about white (or clean) as the driven snow (that is, virtuous)? Fair enough in Kashmir, but hardly in Kerala, I’d think. Or green as grass? Certainly not if you’re preparing Indian Test-match pitches. Dark as the pit reflects Christian notions of one variety of afterlife; curiously so, since hot as hell reflects them much better. I imagine that silent as the grave can ring oddly in Hindu ears. And there’s something peculiarly British about a thing being as hard to see as a black cat, on a dark night, in a coal-hole — the cellar or cupboard where urban Britons used to store their fuel.

The weaponry too is mixed. Sharp as a knife, straight as an arrow (in fact, the arrow’s flight, not that missile itself) or stiff as a ramrod, OK; no cultural specificity there. But plain as a pikestaff? Few Britons today know what a pikestaff was, or what was plain about it (answer: the phrase began as plain as a packstaff, a stick used by pedlars). How many Indian English-speakers? Even fewer, I’d guess. Did Indian armies of 600 years ago even use pikes?

From outer space

Yet many such similes are not place-bound. Quick as lightning (or as a flash) and free as air are true anywhere. Ditto cheap as dirt. In any country or culture you may be blind as a bat and deaf as a post, yet what you say can be clear as daylight (or as mud, when it’s the opposite), so that even if it is still dry as dust and dull as ditchwater to your opponent, he may be struck dumb as an ox. There’s nothing especially Anglo-American in being large as life, brave as a lion, slow as a tortoise, timid as a rabbit, quiet as a mouse, cunning as a fox, slippery as an eel, blithe as a bird, proud as a peacock, or sick as a parrot (though this became a cliché in British football reporting, and thence a joke). Nor in being, metaphorically, wet as water or high as a kite. Nor in keen as mustard, nor yet bold as brass, or good as gold and strong as iron even when you find life heavy as lead and wish yourself dead as a doornail (or as the dodo).

And one or two similes seem to come from outer space. Why is anything clean as a whistle? Or easy as pie, as schoolkids still say. I’ve no idea. I suspect the answer could be as long as a piece of string, that is, any length you like, and as exciting as watching paint dry.