So far we’ve covered the history of proverbs, the history of idioms, the history of portmanteaus and now we move on the history of similes.

Clean as a Whistle

Meaning extremely clean or pure, one theory as to it’s origin is that the ‘whistle’ is actually a reference to the whistling sound of a sword as it passes through the air. This theory is backed up by a quote from the early 19th century – “A first rate shot.(his) head taken off as clean as a whistle”.

There is also the chance that the phrase used to be “as clean as a whittle”, referring to a piece of smooth wood after it is ‘whittled’.

Another, and perhaps more likely theory is that the simile is in referring the pure sound a whistle makes, or perhaps, the smooth surface of a willow stick that is used to make a whistle.

To describe a person or organisation as ‘clean as a whistle’ implies that they are honest, guiltless or flawless. This use of the phrase may come from the fact that wooden whistles are easily damaged and have to be absolutely clean to make the sounds intended.

Some also think that the phrase originates in trains; where the brass, especially the whistle was always bright and gleaming.

A variation of the phrase is used in Robert Burn’s poem ‘Earnest Cry’, the line being “Paint Scotland greetan owre her thrissle; Her mutchkin stoup as toom’s a whissle”, using ‘toom’ (meaning ‘empty’) rather than ‘clean’.

As Daft as a Brush

This phrase seems to originate in the north of England, meaning silly, foolish or stupid. One theory is that the phrase originated as ‘as soft as a brush’ as ‘soft’ is a northern English term for stupid, and the ‘brush’ is actually the tail of a fox.

Another theory is that ‘brush’ was another name for a chimney sweep, the idea being that the boys were often dropped on their heads when being lowered into chimneys and it made them stupid.

It seems that this simile started appearing in the 1950s . One example is in ‘The Sociology of an English Village: Gosforth’ by William Morgan Williams from 1956.

‘Daft’ itself was used long before this however, and can be dated back to 1859 (William Dickinson’s ‘A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Cumberland’) and was used in the variation ‘daft as a besom’ – a ‘besom’ being a brush made from twigs. In William Brockett’s 1846 ‘A Glossary of North Country Words’ lists ‘fond-as-a-buzzom’ meaning ‘fond, silly, foolish’ with fond then meaning foolish (the present day meaning of fond comes from ‘displaying a foolish affection for’).

Drinks Like a Fish

A pretty obvious one, alluding to a fish swimming open mouthed and taking in the water (most fresh water fish take in water through absorption but salt water fish do actually drink the water).

The first known recording of this phrase was in 1640 when it appeared in Fletcher and Shirley’s ‘The night-walker, or the little theife’, as “Give me the bottle, I can drink like a Fish now, like an Elephant.”

Pleased as Punch

‘As pleased as Punch’ comes from the puppet character Mr. Punch. This name itself comes from Polichinello, which was the name of a puppet that was used in 16th century Italy in a theatre production called Commedia dell’arte.

Punch and Judy were puppet shows originating in Italy too, but from the 17th century they became a tradition often held on British beaches in the summertime.

The phrase ‘as pleased as Punch’ appears late in the story, the earliest known recording being in William Gifford’s ‘The Baviad, and Maeviad’ in 1797 where it
“Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe”.

Initially, the expression was ‘as proud as Punch’, both variations were used in Charles Dickens novels interchangeably, for example in David Copperfield (1850) – “I am as proud as Punch to think that I once had the honour of being connected with your family” and then in Hard Times (1854) – “When Sissy got into the school here.. her father was as pleased as Punch”.

Sleep Like a Log

The original phrase was actually to ‘sleep like a top’. A ‘top’ being a spinning top; the children’s toy. This comes from the fact that when a top is spinning the ‘precessional effect’ can cause its axis to remain stationary and it can appear to be still, that is, ‘sleeping’.

The expression ‘sleep like a top’ can be traced back to at least 1693, when it appeared in William Congreve’s ‘The Old Batchelour’ – “Should he seem to rouse, ’tis but well lashing him, and he will sleep like a Top”.

‘Sleep like a log’ similarly derives from the immobility of logs. However, some suggest it comes from the sound of sawing being like the sound of snoring.

Happy as Larry

Who was Larry? It seems that there are two likely contenders. The first is Larry Foley, the Australian boxer who never lost a fight. He retired at 32 in 1870 and collected winnings of £1,000 for his last fight.

The other theory is that it is a reference to the Cornish and later Australian/New Zealand slang term ‘larrikin’, which means a hooligan (and could also be where ‘larking about’ comes from).

The earliest printed reference is found in 1868 and is also from New Zealand. In H. W. Harper’s ‘Letters from New Zealand’ it reads “We are beset with larrikins, who lurk about in the darkness and deliver every sort of attack on the walls and roof with stones and sticks”.

The earliest known recording of the phrase itself is from the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith in 1875: “We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats”.

Fit as a Fiddle

‘Fiddle’ in this context means ‘violin’. ‘Fit’ didn’t mean healthy at this point, instead it meant ‘suitable’, similar to how we use ‘fit for purpose’ now.

In 1603 Thomas Dekker’s ‘The Batchelars Banquet’, used the variation ‘fine as a fiddle’ in the sentence “Then comes downe mistresse Nurse as fine as a farthing fiddle, in her petticoate and kertle”. Soon afterwards in 1616 W. Haughton’s ‘English-Men for my Money’, includes: “This is excellent ynfayth [in faith], as fit as a fiddle.”

Similarly to the whistle mentioned earlier, violins need to be cleaned and kept in good condition to get the best sound. This could be described as the violin being healthy or ‘fit’. Because of this, a person’s health could be compared to that of a violin (or a fiddle).

Dead as a Doornail

This phrase originates from at least the 14th century. A reference can be found a 1350 translation by William Langland of the French poem ‘Guillaume de Palerne’, it reads “For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenayl.”

Langland also used the expression in his 1362 ‘The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman’ – “Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl. [Faith without works is feebler than nothing, and dead as a doornail.]”

By the 16th century the phrase was commonly used in England. Shakespeare’s 1592 ‘King Henry VI, Part 2’ includes the line “Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”

It is thought by some that the practise of hammering in doornails and bending them at the end to secure them, therefore rendering them useless afterwards, is where the ‘deadness’ comes from.

Dickens used the phrase many times in ‘A Christmas Carol’- “Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Happy as a Clam

It has been suggested that this phrase came about because open clams can look like they are ‘smiling’. However, there is a full version of this phrase which is lesser known ‘as happy as a clam at high water’. This makes more sense, as clams are safest from predators at high tide.

It is thought that the phrase originated in the early 19th century in the north-east of the US. The earliest known citation being ‘The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky’ in 1833 which includes the line “It never occurred to him to be discontented… He was as happy as a clam.”

Interestingly, the first recording of the full version of this phrase comes from 1841 in the US newspaper The Bangor Daily Whig And Courier. It reads “Your correspondent has given an interesting, and, undoubtedly correct explanation of the expression: ‘As happy as a clam at high water.’”

By the 1840s the phrase was included in John Russell Bartlett’s ‘Dictionary Of Americanisms – A Glossary of Words And Phrases Usually Regarded As Peculiar To The United States’.

As Good as Gold

In this case, ‘good’ means genuine (not counterfeit) rather than well behaved. When banknotes were first introduced they were not used in the same way they are used now. Coins were used as real money but often notes would be used as IOUs or promises of payment, but not the payment itself.

The phrase with its original meaning is recorded in a piece from The Old Bailey which records a trial that took place in October of 1827 that was reported in The Morning Post. It reads “Child and the others then went with him to another house in Chancery Lane; they there gave him a paper, which they said was “as good as gold”, and would be paid on Monday next.”

The phrase is used multiple times in the following years, and the change of the use of ‘good’ to mean ‘genuine’ to meaning ‘well behaved’ can be found in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843:”And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit… “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better”.”

One response to “Etymology Series: Part Four – The History of Similes”

  1. *This really answered my problem, thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.