My childhood was filled with peculiar sayings and expressions. I heard them so many times that I was sure they must have meant something, and equally sure that I was just too dumb to know what it was.
Most of these phrases were employed by adults who, in the way of the mid-twentieth century, strove for efficiency and productivity. There was no need for a lot of creative thought or original language, because others had already done the work. As a result, understanding could be conveyed rapidly by choosing the appropriate off-the-shelf, freeze-dried idiom: simple adjectives that had been expanded into crisp, four-word similes.
Drunk as a skunk.
Naked as a jaybird.
Dry as a bone.
Dead as a doornail.
Communication was instant, like our rice and our coffee. It was effortless, like our Kodak cameras and frozen dinners. It was convenient, like our wall-mounted paper cup dispensers. And it was satisfying, like our Lucky Strike cigarettes.
The only problem, for me, was that I could never figure out what anybody was talking about.
“I’m as sick as a dog.” My father said this sometimes. The description relies on pure vagueness, and the difficulty of verification. No one can ever know how sick a dog feels, but we can imagine. Dogs are constantly sticking their faces where faces shouldn’t go, eating things off the ground, and going outside in the middle of winter without a jacket or gloves. A patient mentions this to a doctor — that he feels sick as a dog — and nothing more needs to be said. The doctor, in turn, is armed with a ready response. “Take one of these pills twice a day. In no time, you’ll be fit as a fiddle.” The doctor, of course, can sense that the person has never gone to medical school, and probably doesn’t know much about music, either. To the untrained ear, the prospect of acquiring the health status of a finely tuned instrument sounds appealing. Also alliteration always cranks up the effectiveness by a notch or two. Fit as a tuba wouldn’t have the same bounce.
“She’s as cute as a button.” I think this was made up, on the spot, by someone who needed to say something positive about a friend’s baby, but also didn’t want to lie. There are thousands of different buttons, so the statement is meaningless. It’s like saying, “She’s as interesting as a documentary.”
“He’s as happy as a clam.” This one was especially perplexing. Clams live buried in the mud, feeding mostly on particles of dead fish. Eventually, a person will come along and dig the clams up with a shovel, throw them onto a barbecue grill or into a pot of boiling water, then crack open their shells and eat them. Whenever I heard someone say it, I had to go find a dictionary and look up the word happy.
“When you’re finished washing the car, I want it to be as clean as a whistle.” My uncle actually said this to my cousin and me one day in the early 1960s. He was probably paying us twenty-five cents each, so he wanted to make sure he got his money’s worth. We assumed he meant that the car should be clean enough to put in our mouths, although that only added to our uncertainty. I don’t remember, but he may have also insisted that the interior be neat as a pin.
“He looked as proud as a peacock.” I suspect we’re way off on this one, too. We can’t claim to comprehend the internal life or mental state of any large bird. Specifically, we’ve learned little about a peacock’s ability to experience pride. Many could very well have real self-esteem issues, including deep-seated insecurities and inferiority complexes. Yes, most peacocks have nice feathers, but looks fade. And then what?
“We were all pleased as punch.” Being culturally illiterate, I was totally confused by the punch reference. If we don’t know how happy a clam is feeling or how sick a dog is, what can we possibly infer about the emotional state of a bowl of chilled fruit juice?
My mother was the most proficient at the use of these expressions. She described things as being clear as a bell and easy as pie, and people as cool as a cucumber, old as the hills, and slow as molasses. My little brain took it all in and stored it away. But in truth, I was as baffled as a buffalo.
I made that last one up myself.