After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull


Eat like a bird.

To eat like a bird is to peck at one’s food, taking very small mouthfuls. To eat like a pig is the opposite, cramming such quantities into the oral receptacle as to cause sauce to fly and snarfling noises to be emitted.

People who eat like pigs but see nothing wrong with it say they eat like lions. “[W]e eat like lions, sleep like sloths,” reported Charles Hursthouse, describing men emigrating from Britain to New Zealand in 1857.

“Eat like a human being” looks like a simile but doesn’t involve an imaginative comparison; it just means “eat the way a human being is supposed to eat” – that is, not like an animal. Animals devour their food because the next meal might be a long time coming. A human being can afford to eat politely, because the pack he runs with has overcome the uncertainties of hunting. Human beings are creatures who share food and care what others might think.

Photo: Karl Stull

Watch the order as they load the sled. It’s like layering cold cuts into a sandwich, John. It takes maximum efficiency.

– Bree Schaaf, color commentator on 4-man bobsled at the Pyeongchang Olympics (2018)

This is a simile meant for Subway employees. They work on a fast-food assembly line (no wasted motion). And the sandwiches they produce resemble a bobsled. But most of us will have a hard time seeing the urgency – much less the “maximum efficiency” – in everyday sandwichery.

We also have a hard time appreciating the athleticism, performance, skill, and strategy in 4-man bobsledding – which, of course, was the point Schaaf wanted to make. To the untrained eye, bobsledding looks like drinking buddies out for a Saturday night prank, joyriding somebody’s trashcan down an icy hill in Vermont. There they go: Ham, Cheddarhead, Turkey, and Monterey Jack.

Photo: US Army team at 2010 World Cup trials 2010, by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with jello.

– Senator Charles Schumer (January 20, 2018)

Jello – as hard to photograph as it is to nail down.

The essence of the president’s negotiating strategy is consistency – that is, avoiding a consistency which is too firm. The art of the deal is wiggle. Mercurial would have described this quality years ago, but there is less mercury around today, and fewer people have seen first-hand how it squirts away when you try to grasp it. Today we say details are difficult to nail down.

In 1984, Electronic Business kvetched: “Trying to understand IBM’s networking strategy is like trying to nail Jello to a wall.” It’s not obvious why one would try to nail a cafeteria dessert to a wall, but the image teaches us to see jello as a firm fluid. In 1971, a Society of Plastics Engineers paper characterized jello as an elastic medium: “The concept of sound can be more rigorously defined as the disturbance or vibration of an elastic medium. To visualize this, consider that a room is filled with a material such as Jello…”

So jello is like the air we breathe, and thus “soft as a breeze.” In a 1940 issue of Southern Folklore Quarterly, there is a list of similes for softness, including: soft as butter, soft as cat feet, soft as cotton, soft as down, soft as jello.

Photo: Karl Stull

I’ve got buns of steel!

– Student to fitness instructor Greg Smithey, 1985

The first baring of buns as a euphemism for buttocks came in the early 1960s. People needed a word that was neither vulgar nor clinical for a part of the body that was until then unmentionable in polite conversation. Context and the dome shape of a bakery bun made it clear which part of the anatomy was being referenced – in a coy, tittering way.

In short order, the metaphor became a dead metaphor (the reference to hamburger toppers faded away). Buns became an everyday synonym for buttocks in a new era, as ideas about the ideal body type for women shifted from soft and curvy to athletic – strong, hard, lean. Shape magazine began publishing in 1981.

In terms of imagery, buns of steel are the antithesis of bakery buns. No one is intimidated when bakery buns enter the room.

Photo: Karl Stull

Argument is war.

– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

It often feels like war, with two sides attacking each other’s positions, using facts as ammunition, blowing holes in the other’s logic, giving ground when it’s strategic to do so. (But never admitting defeat.)

Lakoff and Johnson identify several core metaphors like “Argument is war” and list dozens of allied figures of speech – to illustrate how our understanding of the world may be shaped by the imagery in everyday language. Figures of speech prepare us to think in terms such as:

  • Ideas are food (food for thought, hard to swallow, etc.)
  • Love is madness
  • Time is a moving object
  • Big = important
  • Up = good

In a nutshell, their thesis is that language resorts to imagery when a topic can’t be examined directly or defined in concrete terms. We may not understand the stock market, but we can picture going up toward heaven as good.

These influential metaphors are “dead metaphors” (in George Orwell’s phrase), because we are usually not conscious of their imagery when we use worn-out expressions. It might be better to call them undead metaphors (zombie metaphors!), still walking around with their teeth sunk into our brains.

Illustration: Lady Macbeth and husband have a “spirited discussion” about the proper placement of knives; National Education Network (UK),


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Ay, no wonder the child’s spoiled…

– Miss Pickle, aunt of Little Pickle in The Spoil’d Child (1792)

According to Miss Pickle, the child is spoiled because his indulgent father forgives Little Pickle’s every prank, hoping the boy will one day become an important man, maybe even an archbishop. For now, he is indeed a very bad boy, hooking up a string to pull a chair out from under his father as he is about to sit and, later, roasting the family parrot.

The “spoiled” metaphor is grim, for there is no hope of redemption for an egg or an apple gone bad. For a rotten apple, all that remains is to spoil the whole barrel.

A search in Google Books suggests the expression “spoiled child” first appeared a couple of decades before the 1792 play. An excerpt from London Magazine (vol. 41, 1772) identifies gradual weaning from breast milk as a form of coddling and spoiling.

I consider myself as a spoiled child, and I do not expect to be weaned from a mother’s indulgence in a single day.

Photo: Bitter rot in an apple; Ohio State University Extension (

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