Simile (SIH-muh-lee) is a figure of speech that directly compares two dissimilar things. Similes are most commonly signaled by the words like or as. The term, which originated in the 14th century, stems from the Latin similis, meaning “similar” or “like.”
Figures of speech like simile are examples of figurative language, which uses nonliteral expressions to better convey a message or idea. Writers use simile, metaphor, allusion, and other literary devices to better persuade, educate, and captivate readers. Simile can be also combined with other figures of speech like hyperbole and irony to achieve greater symbolic effect.
Types of Simile
There are two primary types of simile in the English language: the traditional rhetorical simile and the Homeric (or epic) simile.
From ancient times to today, countless writers have wielded simile to great effect. One particularly notable proponent of the device is the Greek poet Homer, for whom the Homeric simile is named. Similes abound in The Iliad and The Odyssey, where Homer regularly uses word-picture analogies to help readers relate to and understand the text.
While rhetorical similes are economical comparisons that create compelling descriptions with just a few words, the more detailed Homeric simile develops across several lines. Homeric similes are most common in poetry, particularly epic poems, where they emphasize the subject’s grand or heroic nature.
Take this example from The Odyssey:
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
Straight into the monster’s eye the rammed it hard—
I drove my weight on it from above and bored it home
as a shipwright bores his beam with a shipwright’s drill
that men below, whipping the strap back and forth, whirl
and the drill keeps twisting faster, never stopping—
so we seized our stake with its fiery tip
and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye
The Homeric simile begins in the fourth line, but it continues to develop throughout the rest of the stanza, with words like whipping, whirl, twisting, and seized all contributing to a more graphic image that intensifies the drama.
Similes in Other Languages
Similes concisely identify commonalities between disparate subjects, making them a useful writing tool in several languages. Vietnamese, for example, has two main types of simile: the meaning simile and the rhyming simile. Meaning similes are simply rhetorical similes, much like you see in English. Rhyming similes build analogies using similar sounds.
Thuy Nga Nguyen and Ghil’ad Zuckermann provide several rhyming similes in “Stupid as a Coin: Meaning and Rhyming Similes in Vietnamese.” This example achieves the intended effect by repeating the anh sound: “nhanh ư bát canh.” This translates to “quick as a bowl of soup,” which parallels the English phrase “quick as a wink.”
Why Writers Use Similes
Similes are powerful analogies that spark the imagination. Writers use them to paint vivid images, evoke emotion or memory, and clarify or explain ideas through comparison. In doing so, similes give readers a fuller understanding of the subject and help them connect to the text. “He was hungry” is a plain assertion, but “He was as hungry as a pig” leverages common perceptions to express a more robust idea of hunger, one characterized by gluttony and greed.
Writers also use similes to make intangible concepts more accessible to readers. “Happiness” is abstract, but “Happiness is like sunshine” uses the concrete image of sunshine to convey a sense a warmth and light.
Similes most commonly use the connecting words like and as to make comparisons. You’ll probably recognize these common examples:
- “As cold as ice”
- “Run like the wind”
- “As tough as nails”
- “As fast as lightning”
- “As busy as a bee”
- “Eat like a bird”
- “As slow as molasses”
- “Swim like a fish”
- “As white as snow”
- “Work like a dream”
Similes are highly versatile, and they can be combined with other figures of speech to achieve specific effects. Writers use ironic similes to express the opposite of what they mean:
- “The bed was as soft as concrete”
- “Her thesis was as clear as mud”
- “He roared like a lion”
- “She was as thin as a twig”
Simile and metaphor are both figures of speech that compare disparate things, and it can be tricky to tell them apart. Remember that similes are distinguished by a unique characteristic: connecting words, such as like or as.
Metaphors, however, explicitly refer to one thing to describe another. These figurative descriptions are used to achieve symbolic effect, and like simile, they can clarify ideas, emphasize subtle similarities, or create compelling imagery. Metaphors are often signaled by verbs like is, are, and was (e.g., “She is a star”), but this is not a hard rule (e.g., “road to freedom”). As writer F.L. Lucas succinctly puts it: “The simile sets two ideas side by side; in the metaphor, they become superimposed.”
Consider this simile:
- “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
Like pairs life with a box of chocolates to illustrate its inherent unpredictability.
Now check out this metaphor:
- “America is a melting pot.”
The melting pot image helps readers visualize cultural integration in the US. You could turn this into a simile—“America is like a melting pot”—but the effect is subtly different.
Similes in Other Literary Works
The simile’s utility extends well beyond literature. Poets and playwrights regularly use this literary device to connect with their readers or audience and help them visualize an image or idea.
Similes in Poetry
Many readers will recognize poetry as a literary form that uses figurative language to communicate certain ideas and concepts. Poetry’s layered, open-to-interpretation nature lends itself to figures of speech like simile. It allows the reader to create their own understanding of a poem’s subject or meaning.
Consider “London, 1802,” a William Wordsworth poem that eulogizes fellow poet John Milton:
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free
By comparing Milton to natural images, such as stars and the sea, Wordsworth both compliments Milton and alludes to his enduring cultural legacy.
Another example comes from Maya Angelou. Though this writer and activist is better known for her prose works, she wrote many poems that used figurative language to describe tough subjects, such as abuse, trauma, and discrimination. In her poem “And Still I Rise,” Angelou employs several similes to reference nature:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
These natural and celestial associations demonstrate the speaker’s inalienable strength and hope in the face of injustice.
Simile in Plays
Because plays are performed, playwrights must articulate ideas and feelings almost entirely through dialogue. As such, using figures of speech like similes helps convey characters’ motivations and emotions to the audience.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare uses similes to emphasize the youthful romanticism of the ill-fated couple. Consider Romeo’s dialogue in Act 2, Scene 2, which contains some of the play’s most famous lines:
O, speak again, bright angel! For thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Words like bright angel and winged messenger of heaven demonstrate Juliet’s ethereal beauty and its effect on Romeo. It also captures the drama and overwhelming nature of teenage love.
Similes in Pop Culture
This effective literary device can be found in places other than books and poems—really, anywhere a writer needs to facilitate readers’ (or listeners’) understanding.
Similes in Songs
Figurative language is a staple in popular music. No matter the genre, songwriters use figures of speech to engage listeners and project certain meanings.
Consider these lyrics from British pop-rock band Coldplay’s song “The Scientist”:
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
This simile highlights the power of emotion by comparing it to matters of logic. While science and the progress it enables can seemingly answer any question, it still cannot provide more clarity than the speaker’s love.
In “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel allude to a supportive relationship by evoking the imagery of a bridge:
I’ll take your part, oh,
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Bridges enable safe passage over dangerous terrain, such as violently choppy water. The song’s speaker implies that they will take care of their loved one and guide them through times of distress.
Similes in Marketing
Figures of speech aren’t limited to traditionally creative outlets. Especially apt comparisons can persuade consumers to buy a product or service, which makes simile a potent marketing tool for brands. You’re sure to recognize at least one of these ad slogans that employ similes:
- State Farm: “Like a good neighbor”
- Chevrolet: “Built like a rock”
- Doritos: “Tastes like awesome feels”
- Vault: “Drinks like a soda, kicks like an energy drink”
Examples of Simile in Literature
1. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
In Crane’s Civil War novel, protagonist Henry Fleming observes daybreak from a river bank:
In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun.
This simile compares dawn’s first light to a rug to create a more compelling description of the sunrise. It drives readers to imagine the growing sunlight covering the ground, giving it almost a tactile presence.
2. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
This Civil War novel focuses more on the war’s effects on wealthy Southerners, like protagonist Scarlett O’Hara, than the actual fighting. In this excerpt, O’Hara uses several figures of speech to reflect on Ashley Wilkes, her neighbor and the object of her affection:
Why he should have captivated Scarlett when his mind was a stranger to hers she did not know. The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.
Locked doors can be both alluring and frustrating, inspiring curiosity and determination to see what lies inside. That is what Scarlett feels in this moment as she tries to examine why she fines Wilkes so captivating. Mitchell uses simile to convey this complex emotion in a single succinct phrase. She also uses metaphor—“His mind was a stranger”—to further imply how unknowable Wilkes is.
3. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee’s acclaimed Southern gothic tale draws on vivid imagery to paint a picture of post-slavery America. When the Finch children and their best friend Dill Harris approach the rundown home of reclusive Boo Radley, it exerts an especially magnetic pull on Dill:
The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate.
By referencing the moon’s effect on the sea, Lee colors Dill’s fascination with a kind of controlled inevitability. He cannot escape the pull of the Radley home, but he can at least maintain a semblance of immunity by not yet stepping foot on the property.
4. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
In this Japanese bildungsroman, Murakami explores the life of a 1960s college student. Here, narrator and protagonist Toru Watanabe comments on memory:
The sad truth is that what I could recall in 5 seconds all too soon needed 10, then 30, then a full minute—like shadows lengthening at dusk.
Murakami evokes the image of shadows stretching in the waning light to illustrate the slippery nature of recollection. Much as shadows grow long and distance themselves from the observer, so too does the full weight and accuracy of the past break from a person’s memory.
Further Resources About Similes
Similes Dictionary shares more than 16,000 similes organized by category, to help any writer set a scene or make a point with rich, imaginative comparisons.
Intrigued by the use of simile in song? Check out this article listing 47 examples of simile in popular music.
Test your ability to distinguish simile from metaphor with this seven-question quiz.