In the run up to Christmas, children are often asked if they have been ‘good’. Perhaps you have answered ‘I have been good as gold’, but do you know where that simile comes from?
We like to use lots of similes, expressions comparing someone or something with an item that is particularly thought to have a certain behaviour or property.
I am sure you can think of plenty of examples, like “busy as a bee”, where we are suggesting that bees are generally very busy, or “quiet as a mouse” – obviously mice are not considered to be particularly noisy!
The expression we are going to look at today is slightly different, as the original meaning of the simile is not the one we generally use it for. We have transferred the meaning to something else, and we were able to do this because the adjective, or describing word used has more than one meaning.
Let’s look at “as good as gold”. We use this to talk about behaviour, but gold doesn’t have any behaviour! It doesn’t move, it doesn’t think, it’s not alive, and therefore behaviour does not apply to it.
So where does this expression come from? The answer lies in another meaning of “good” – valuable, precious, even genuine.
Although today we think of them as a basic part of our money, we haven’t been using paper banknotes for very long in historical terms. And when they were first introduced, a lot of people were wary of them, they thought they were being conned and they didn’t think of paper as being real money.
For them, familiar gold and silver were what had worth. So, in an effort to persuade the doubtful, it was stressed that these pieces of paper were “as good as gold”, meaning “just as valuable as gold”. This arose in the early 1800s, as the use of paper money became more widespread.
But by the time Charles Dickens wrote his famous novel A Christmas Carol in 1843, the sense of the expression had shifted, and been transferred to the other popular meaning of the adjective, “good”. He wrote:
“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit…
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better.
Clearly, here the phrase refers to behaviour and not value. Does this mean we should no longer refer to this as a simile? Not at all. One way that languages grow and change over the years is through developing many meanings for one word and then gradually making one meaning more popular than the others. It is part of what enriches our language. So why should a simile not have a double meaning?
Alex Tigers is a British translator living and working in Greece. She has been interested in and studying etymology since a young age when she started learning French at school and wondered why so many words seemed similar to English. Apart from translating, Alex also writes poetry and children’s stories.