December 6, 2004 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word for the literary concept of "a simile that uses paradox to exaggerate a comparison"? Similes like "quiet as a rolling sea", "soft as nails", "smart as a brick" [+]

'Ironic', 'oxymoronic', and 'sarcastic' all cover the concept in a general way. But those words also cover concepts beyond "paradoxical similes". Is there a single word that captures the specific type of simile I described?
posted by deshead to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Interestingly, not that I could find in the usual excellent resource.

Closest appears to be antiphrasis, although that's not quite right, because of the simile aspect.
posted by felix at 2:26 PM on December 6, 2004

"clear as mud" seems like the iconic example. Maybe that'll help with Googling?
posted by scarabic at 3:27 PM on December 6, 2004

It smacks of both metonymy (referring to something by a single attribute, like referring to an executive as "a suit") and metalepsis (characterizing something by a far-fetched association), but I've never heard of a specific term that describes exactly what you're talking about.

I find it hard to believe, though, that medieval rhetoricians didn't eventually dwell obsessively on this particular trope. Three hundred years of very slow intellectual advancement, just the finer and finer splitting of hairs--there's got to be some mention somewhere.
posted by LairBob at 3:35 PM on December 6, 2004

I can't help you, but my favourite example of this is from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"The ships hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't."

posted by Mwongozi at 4:09 PM on December 6, 2004

HAhaahAH. That's a great quote, zany absurdities and sci-fi is a perfect match.
posted by eurasian at 4:35 PM on December 6, 2004

I'm not sure if you're searching for a technical term, but I have -- for the obvious reason -- always called these phrases "Foghorn Leghorn-isms."
posted by majick at 4:48 PM on December 6, 2004

Perhaps catachresis or catachresis is what you're looking for? The second link is better, IMO.
posted by clockzero at 6:12 PM on December 6, 2004

It seems there should be a term for it; the mention of "clear as mud" reminded me that there is a German equivalent for that phrase, "klar wie Tinte" (clear as ink). But I can't think of one.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:46 PM on December 6, 2004

"The ships hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't."


my fav too, :c)
posted by kamylyon at 8:08 PM on December 6, 2004

Irony seems to fit the bill.
posted by LimePi at 8:22 PM on December 6, 2004

It seems to me that it's just simile. Mud isn't clear, and the phrase in question refers to something that isn't clear. Likewise, "dumb as a brick." It isn't, so far as I can tell, any different than "green as grass." Un-clearness is an attribute of mud just as greenness is of grass. The two might well be different kinds of rhetoric (oh, how I long for old-school rhetoric education in today's secondary schools!) but seem to be the same figure of speech.
posted by hoboynow at 9:00 PM on December 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

yea catachresis
posted by raaka at 10:00 PM on December 6, 2004

"quiet as a rolling sea", "soft as nails", "smart as a brick"

Like the Hitchhikers' Guide line, these are examples of litotes, in which an attribute is imputed by the denial of its opposite or negative.
posted by nicwolff at 10:13 PM on December 6, 2004

I always liked 'sharp as a ball of wool' which I think I read in a translation of one of Villon's poems.
posted by misteraitch at 11:56 PM on December 6, 2004

I would've said catachresis too, but now that litotes has been mentioned, I suppose it is more like catachrestic pseudo-litotes (or antiphrastic metalepsis, for that matter).

All this is giving me flashbacks to my Latin teacher's 'fun' end-of-term lessons...
posted by jack_mo at 7:26 AM on December 7, 2004

Response by poster: > antiphrastic metalepsis

That sounds contagious.
posted by deshead at 12:19 PM on December 7, 2004

nicwolff: The definition you give for litotes is correct, but I think this is not an example of it. Litotes would be something more like "it was not bad," meaning it was in fact good. It is used with adjectives, not imagistically.
posted by clockzero at 3:32 PM on December 8, 2004

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