Does a sitting duck actually remain in one place, even during the hunting season, when it should really be prepared to duck and dive? Unless it’s a lame duck.
Is a swan’s dying dirge its swansong, or am I thinking of opera singers? As for dogs barking up the wrong tree, shouldn’t they check to see if there’s a cat in it first?
As a young boy, I was puzzled and delighted in equal measure by figures of speech, starting from when I saw a black-and-white film in which Mae West said, “It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men.” I have since discovered that this is an obscure figure of speech called ‘antimetabole,’ which repeats a phrase in reverse order, and there’s no shame in not knowing that if you didn’t see the film.
On second thought, it’s not all that obscure. Perhaps the most famous example is President Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” The Russian equivalent would be, “In America you can always find a party; in Russia the Party always finds you.” Yakov Smirnoff said that, presumably after a few vodkas.
Animals and birds often feature in figures of speech — strong as an ox, stubborn as a mule, free as a bird (not a caged one, obviously.) We are warned against acting the goat in case someone uses us as a scapegoat. And we are told to let sleeping dogs lie in case they wake up and have a bone to pick with us. And pick on our ankle.
Our school teachers probably helped us to unravel the most frequently used means of enlivening speech or writing. Alliteration, where we find ragged rascals running round and round rugged rocks, or Sister Suzy sewing socks for soldiers. Add twelve twins twirling twelve twigs and we begin to see a pitiable picture of poverty, hazardous physical education and penny-pinching home economics. A veritable Victorian vignette.
Metaphors abound in popular music, as a way to express displeasure — “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” — to the more appreciative lyrics of Stevie Wonder: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life/Apple of my Eye.” Some express irony: “And Brutus is an honourable man.” I found it ironic that Sweden’s Ice Hotel had fire extinguishers in the corridors and a smoke detector in each room. No guest there will ever end up as dead as a dodo, although a few may feel as cool as a cucumber, and I seem to have strayed into similes.
You won’t believe this last bit, but why should today be any different, so I’ll tell you anyway. Sitting here in my writing eyrie, I just saw a group of similarly plumaged birds flocking together, and I almost dropped my crayon. Was this life imitating art, ha ha. But it’s fair to say you could have knocked me down with a ton of feathers. Is that the correct figure of speech?