Category Archives: folk simile

“Better than a punch in the nose!”

Text: “Better than a punch in the nose!”

Minor Genre: Folk Speech – Simile


M said, “My grandmother would always say that [proverb] whenever we would complain about something that we didn’t like. She lived through the Depression, and I think she grew up fairly poor. There are a lot of those proverbs and euphemisms about ‘hard work’ from her generation.”


This piece of folk speech reminds me of the saying, “I’ll give you something to cry about.” They both are used to shut down a complaint with the implication that the situation at hand could be made worse, and therefore it is not something to complain about. I think my father [M] is probably correct about its popularity within the generation that lived through the Depression; in trying to raise the subsequent generations who did not need to endure the same levels of hardship, it is likely that those who lived through the Depression shared a mindset that the newer generations didn’t have anything to complain about, as they had not experienced true struggle.

I heard this phrase a few times growing up from my grandmother (M’s dad). However, she would always use it in a comedic tone, getting people to laugh while accepting the situation at hand rather than interpreting the phrase as a true threat of physical abuse.

Folkspeech – Pennsylvania Saying

“A horse a piece”

Informant’s family is from Erie, Pennsylvania, used and heard the saying “a horse a piece” which worked similar to “six of one, half dozen of another.” This saying was used when debating between two objects that were described as being compatible to use either way, hence… a horse a piece – a measurement of 1:1.

Drunk as a Skunk


“Drunk as a skunk”


My father, M, grew up in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where he was first introduced to this phrase at a young age. The phrase refers to someone showing visible signs of heavy alcohol consumption and would be used when gossiping with others or seeing someone heavily inebriated. He laughed a little when telling me the saying, questioning what skunks have to do with being drunk, but stated that everyone in his community knew and would use it. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington, where I grew up; I don’t remember hearing him use the phrase in conversation during my childhood.


The actual comparison within this phrase seems to be more a matter of humorous rhyme than truth – like M, I am not aware of skunks having anything to do with drunkenness. Nonetheless, this saying seems to be a lighthearted way of discussing someone’s socially questionable behavior and reveals the cultural attitudes towards drinking in my father’s childhood community. The saying’s use in gossip and in pointing out the drunk person to others gives the phrase a somewhat negative, albeit teasing, connotation. That usage, combined with M’s explanation that it refers to someone “really drunk,” indicates that someone who is “drunk as a skunk” has surpassed a socially acceptable level of drunkenness. However, the humor in the saying’s rhyme indicated by my father’s explanation leads me to believe that the offense is not necessarily considered serious or deserving of punishment – or perhaps the subsequent gossip is seen as consequence enough.

Dead as a Doornail


“Dead as a doornail”


M, my father, grew up in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and dates his introduction to this saying to “sometime in the 80s.” He stated that everyone in his community commonly used the phrase to describe something that was “really dead”; when asked to elaborate, some examples provided of “really dead” things were “birds that hit windows, long dead pets of friends, bugs, mice, and movie characters that get found dead after days.” M also expressed confusion about the origins and meaning of the phrase, saying that he “[didn’t] know what it actually means” before asking “what’s dead about a doornail?” He currently lives where I grew up in Seattle, Washington; I don’t remember hearing him say the phrase in conversation. 


I suspect that my father’s (and my own) confusion about the saying’s practical meaning indicates its original context has since been lost. The saying is therefore likely quite old in nature and feels like a testament to the lasting nature of elements of folk speech. Despite the unclear nature of the saying’s origin, it nonetheless reveals a lot about attitudes towards death in my father’s childhood community. Many examples M provided, like a dead movie character or long dead pet of a friend, convey a degree of distance or emotional detachment to the deceased being. That detachment is contrasted with the lack of deaths relating to close family, friends or pets. It seems as though this saying is only used in reference to beings whose deaths are considered less tragic or important to the person using the phrase. I also find it interesting that my father no longer seems to use it and has not passed it on to me or my sister, perhaps due to regional or generational differences.

Korean Simile: Cats and Fish

Nationality: Korean
Primary Language: Korean
Age: 50
Occupation: Country Branch Manager
Residence: Seoul, South Korea
Performance Date: 16 February 2024

Tags: cats, fish, Korean, simile, proverb, stupidity


“고양이에 생선 맡긴꼴.”

Literal: ‘It’s like you’re asking a cat to protect the fish’

Meaning: ‘You’re giving an important/dangerous job to someone ruthlessly/irresponsibly.’


R is a born and raised South Korean. This is one of the sayings R taught me when growing up in Korea, along with a plethora of other proverbs and lessons. Apparently he had heard it from his father before him and so on, and it’s a pretty common Korean saying. One of the first times R said this in proper context was when he was complaining about someone in his workplace being given a task that he knew the person couldn’t really handle, but management insisted on letting the person handle the task instead of R anyway.


Koreans love similes, metaphors, and all types of idioms; I had an entire unit in Korean Idioms when I was studying the language growing up. I haven’t had many chances to use them in day-to-day conversations with other Koreans, but say something like this to any Korean local and they’ll immediately know what you’re talking about. This saying in particular brings to mind many stories like ‘Inviting a Snake to your House’ and ‘The Frog on the Alligator’s Back’, in which precarious situations are likened to dangerous animals.