In Burmese, informers are sometimes called “pasein yo,” literally “the handle of the axe,” signifying that the weapon used to chop down the tree is made from the wood of the tree itself.

– Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005)

In English, synonyms for informer tend to be vehement rather than metaphorical. A rat is a despised animal but not a betrayer. Comparisons to Judas or Benedict Arnold are usually of the “as bad as” type – name-calling rather than imaginative comparison. Turncoat has the idea of a group member being used against the group – as with the ax handle and the tree – but is not so much a comparison as a label or nickname referencing switched uniforms (see definition of metonymy).

Stool pigeon is the genuine article, comparing the methods of con artists to the methods of hunters. Hunters used to tie a pigeon to a perch or stool to lure other pigeons. Con artists used a fake customer to lure the unwary into rigged games of chance. This meaning is from the early 1800s, according to the OED. By the mid-1800s, stool pigeon also came to mean a police informer, a criminal used to catch other criminals.

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

Race against time

You can’t race against time – any more than a runner can race against the racetrack. A fish cannot outswim the sea, nor can a bird fly above the atmosphere.

However, it is possible to imagine a race against the clock. On the day Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes (May 6, 1954), he circled the track faster than a clock’s second hand swept around its circle. Even so, though Bannister beat the clock, he did not outrace time. Crossing the finish line, he was 3:59.4 minutes older than when the race started.

Consider an alternative scenario:

Time is a train, heading to Buffalo.

A runner in the caboose advances from car to car toward the locomotive, moving toward Buffalo faster than time itself. The runner climbs onto the cowcatcher in front and, with a hypothetical leap, arrives in Buffalo before the train of time – an achievement of infinite phenomenological significance but, alas, a very brief moment of victory (even Bannister got to hold his record for 46 days).

Is time like a train? Or is it more like a river, which is already joined to the sea before any boat can begin racing downstream?

In a search of Google Books, the earliest instance of “race against time” occurs in 1788, when the author of The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, promises he will write unhurriedly.

Photo: Karl Stull

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She promptly brought the King out of his dreams with a brisk and cordial tongue-lashing.

– Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper (1881), ch. 19

The farm wife asked the King to keep an eye on things in the kitchen, but he got distracted and all the food on the stove was burned; hence, the tongue-lashing. Tongue-lashing was still a new word when The Prince and the Pauper was published, but people had been comparing the tongue to a weapon for quite some time. As Christopher Ness observed in 1690, “Tongue-smiting is as smart as any hand-smiting.”

The poet John Milton and others complained about tongue-fencers, who pretended to rapier wit. The playwriting team of Beaumont and Fletcher cautioned against tongue-bolts, suggesting the mouth is like a crossbow (1622). Nathaniel Lee made the whip comparison in the tragedy Theodosius (1680): “And let thy lawless tongue lash all it can.”

By the early 1880s, Americans had also begun using the expression “shoot your mouth off.”

Illustration: From an 1822 advertisement for the Regent coach;

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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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[The soul] is no more than a pine nut in hot white bread.

– Luigi Pulci, satiric poet (d. 1484)

Give Pulci credit: the brain is more like a loaf of bread than it is like a machine or computer; at least bread involves biochemistry. But the soul as a pine nut seems a bit of a stretch. Or does it?

Pulci doesn’t try to explain what the soul is or how it works. He says only that the soul is a physical thing, like the loaf-shaped organ it is lodged in. If the brain can manage such intangibles as seeing and smelling, imagining, and remembering, then there is every reason to suppose that the soul too is a natural, physical object. There is no need to suppose the soul is a “ghost in the machine” (a phrase coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949).

Medieval medicine described three major areas of the brain (sense perception, imagination, and memory), and these functions were thought to be coordinated by central structures such as the pineal gland – named for its resemblance to a pine cone.

Image: Adaptation by Karl Stull of a portrait of Luigi Pulci, from a Filippino Lippi fresco at Cappella Brancacci, Florence; Wikipedia

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This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

– President Donald Trump, February 17, 2017

The image of a machine being “tuned” may have originated in the textile mills of 19th century Yorkshire. Workers there called it “tuning” when they did repairs on power looms, which looked somewhat like upright pianos and required tensioning of many strings. (Elsewhere this work was called “tackling,” according to the OED.)

By the 1930s, mechanics were “tuning” engines in cars, boats, and aircraft. There is nothing musical about internal combustion (unless you count the motor’s “hum”), but many sensitive adjustments are required to keep mechanical, electrical, and chemical systems performing in harmony – a challenge worthy of comparison to the exquisite tuning of a Steinway.

The term “fine tuning” took on a non-musical meaning in the early days of two-way radio and came into wider use after the 1950s, when TV sets had dials with an outer ring that you twisted back and forth in search of a better picture (like a piano tuner, in search of the right frequency).

Before long, any dynamic system with many small parts could be called “a fine-tuned machine”: the Army, the Dallas Cowboys, the human body, the economy, crop management… Niagara Farm and Garden News (1967) warned that using atrazine on corn crops at the wrong moment “would be analogous to throwing a monkey wrench into a fine-tuned machine.”

The Oldsmobile 98 Regency was a fine-tuned machine, according to magazine ads in 1978 – about the time Donald Trump launched his first big hotel project. Only three years later, General Motors demonstrated it was possible to run an Oldsmobile on coal dust. Here’s a three-minute video:

Photo: Dobby loom; (a teacher’s page)


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