Figurative language for teaching: the Simile

Here’s the first post in a series about using figurative language for teaching. Click here for the introduction to the series.

Joseph Delvin writes:

The simile (from the Latin similis , like) is the likening of one thing to another, a statement of the resemblance of objects, acts, or relations; as “In his awful anger he was like the storm-driven waves dashing against the rock.” A simile makes the principal object planer and impresses it more forcibly on the mind. “His memory is like wax to receive impressions and like marble to retain them.” This brings out the leading idea as to the man’s memory in a very forceful manner. Contrast it with the simple statement– “His memory is good.”

Sometimes simile is prostituted to a low and degrading use; as “His face was like a danger signal in a fog storm.” “Her hair was like a furze-bush in bloom.” “He was to his lady love as a poodle to its mistress.” Such burlesque is never permissible. Mere likeness, it should be remembered, does not constitute a simile. For instance there is no simile when one city is compared to another. In order that there may be a rhetorical simile, the objects compared must be of different classes.

Avoid the old trite similes such as comparing a hero to a lion. Such were played out long ago. And don’t hunt for farfetched similes. Don’t say– “Her head was glowing as the glorious god of day when he sets in a flambeau of splendor behind the purple-tinted hills of the West.” It is much better to do without such a simile and simply say– “She had fiery red hair.”

* * * Application for teachers * * *

I think, as in writing, the teacher ought to think through beforehand ways to communicate truth that grip. Oftentimes, in the moment, the simile just isn’t there. I imagine that there are some people who can create majestic similes on the fly– Spurgeon was otherworldly in his skill to do this– but must of us can’t, and so in our preparation we must think hard about concrete imagery that rightly communicates truth.

Read the Psalms and you’ll see how powerfully this kind of imagery is used: “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for you, O Lord” and “Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?”

Or even in the prophets: “Is not my word like fire, declares the┬áLord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”┬áDid not Peter grab our attention when he reminded us that our adversary prowls the earth like a roaring lion?

Think hard about grace, think hard about holiness, think hard about wrath– and do your best to find a way to communicate it with force. Let your words be like well-driven nails that drive home truth– to the glory and honor of our great God.

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