Two stock similes

Briefly noted, this Leigh Rubin cartoon passed on to me by Susan Fischer on Facebook today:

To understand this, you need to recognize a bull and a young goat

Two stock expressions, both of them similes, lie behind the two images of creatures entering retail establishments: like a bull in a china shop, like a kid in a candy store. The two ideas can appear as an explicit comparison, in a simile with like; or in a metaphor, with the comparison implicit: you are a (veritable) bull in a china shop; they were (proverbial) kids in a candy store.

(There is a Page on this blog on my postings about Leigh Rubin’s cartoons.)

The second image has a feature the first lacks: it’s a visiopun, a pun presented visually (see my 11/18 posting on the visiopun): the prospective customer is a kid ‘a young goat’. But the stock simile contains (as Rubin notes) a homonym for this noun, kid  ‘a child or young person’ (informal). The first image shows a bull ‘an adult male bovine’, and the stock simile contains this noun.

And the first image has a feature the first lacks: the metaphor it alludes to is frozen rather than fresh; you can use it for its figurative content (‘a person who breaks things or who often makes mistakes or causes damage in situations that require careful thinking or behavior’ (Merriam-Webster on-line)) without working through what a literal bull in a literal china shop might have to do with this meaning. In Rubin’s wording, the first stock simile is an idiom.

The second image could be presented the same way, as Wiktionary does in defining like a kid in a candy store as ‘enthusiastic and excited as a result of having many pleasurable options to choose from’, but Rubin and I are inclined to see the metaphor as still vivid, so that Wiktionary is merely cataloguing — over-precisely, in my view (some kids are just crazed to get a lot of candy) — how kids act in a candy store, not actually defining an idiom. The distinction is a delicate one, and like a kid in a candy store could have different statuses for different people, and it certainly could ossify into an idiom over time. But for Rubin and me, at the moment, it’s not yet an idiom.

(as happy as a pig in shit is probably not yet an idiom; happy as a clam is indubitably an idiom)

3 Responses to “Two stock similes”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Is “kid” in these two senses properly a homonym? I’ve always supposed that the “child” sense is simply an extension of the “young goat” sense.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Definitely a homonym; these are (now) two completely different lexical items. Their connection is etymological only. (And they yield different sets of related items: kid leather for the goat item (never made from boys), kiddo and kiddie for the boy item (never used for goats)). Etymologically related items often diverge completely; straw ‘dried stalks of grain’ and straw ‘tube for drinking’ is a familiar example, but there are thousands in English.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Just to note that if you look at my Page on Rubin cartoons, you’ll see that many of them are linguistically very intricate — and are sensitive to the conceptual categories and distinctions of technical linguistics. As here, with Rubin’s usage of idiom, which is the linguists’ technical sense:

    ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light)’

    And not the non-technical, everyday sense:

    ‘a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people: he had a feeling for phrase and idiom

    (Both definitions from NOAD)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: