Like a cock's wattles

  Like a cock's wattles

In Brief

Figure of speech. When the narrative of Aeolus says of Myles Crawford that "The loose flesh of his neck shook like a cock's wattles," it is employing the poetic and rhetorical figure called simile, a comparison of two unlike things made explicit by the words "like" or "as."

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Simile (SIM-uh-lee) is the neuter form of the Latin adjective similis = like. An equivalent Latin term was similitudo = likeness. This is one of the few concepts in the rhetorical tradition that did not adopt Greek vocabulary. Aristotle treats the trope as simply a metaphor that has been weakened by a prothesis (placing before) of words such as "like" or "as." In book 3 of the Rhetoric (1406b) he writes, "A simile is also a metaphor; for there is little difference: when the poet says, 'He rushed as a lion,' it is a simile, but 'The lion rushed' [with lion referring to a man] would be metaphor"; similes, Aristotle says, "are metaphors, differing in the form of expression" (trans. George Kennedy). The Latin writers evidently were not content to treat simile as just a form of metaphor, and in the centuries since much ink has been spilled on the differences. But whatever those may be, it can hardly be denied that the two tropes are engaged in essentially the same activity. Simile could be called a spelled-out metaphor, and metaphor an implied simile.

Some people have speculated that similes must have arisen earlier in human expression, since metaphors are more compressed, bolder, more surprising. Instead of saying that two things are alike, they simply present something (e.g., a lion) in such a way as to suggest that it is something else (Achilles), leaving it up to the hearer to discover in a flash of insight that the similarity exists. In Joyce's sentence, the simile establishes its tenor ("The loose flesh of his neck") before introducing the vehicle that will carry it ("a cock's wattles"). Presented as a metaphor, there might be no more than a bare vehicle: "His wattles shook." That version might be a bit punchier, and it would require the reader to remember what wattles are and apply them to Crawford, but it would not necessarily be a more effective comparison.

Memorable similes abound in oratory and literature: "That creature, who like a snail silently hides and keeps himself in his shell, is carried off, he and his house, to be swallowed whole" (Ad Herennium); "My love is like a red, red rose / That's newly sprung in June, / My love is like a melody / That's sweet sung in tune" (Robert Burns); "Our last impression of her as she turned the corner was that smile, flung backward like a handful of flowers" (Wallace Stegner). No one has employed the figure more brilliantly than Joyce did in "The Boarding House." Learning that Mr. Mooney was ugly when he drank and "One night he went for his wife with the cleaver" prepares the reader for the implacable ferocity with which Mrs. Mooney snares Bob Doran: "She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat: and in this case she had made up her mind."

JH 2023