Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Horse as Small as a Dog is Big

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2005

From yesterday’s article by John Rogers of the Associated Press, on the death of Bob Denver, best known as Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island:

[Gilligan] was as lovable as he was inept.

That reminded me of a followup that I’ve been meaning to write for a previous post that talks about comparable and incomparable adjectives. An article by Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally noted that adjectives whose measurement scales measure the same property can be compared. For example, He’s as wide as he is big is OK, since wide and big measure linear extent. In contrast, He’s as wide as he is punctual is questionable, since wide and punctual measure different properties. My counterexample was John Mellencamp’s song lyric “You ain’t as green as you are young,” where adjectives measuring greenness and youth are compared.

Fellow blogger Blar was on the case. In a comment, he wrote:

Does the phrase “as * as the day is long” count as a comparison with gradable adjectives that map onto different dimensions? The problem with using different dimensions in the ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples is that the original versions use absolute numbers, not relative position on the scale. That is, they are implying that The Bus is high on the scale of width and Marino and Elway are high on the scale of time excelling, but they are not doing this by saying that The Bus is tall and Manning is old. They are suggesting (with some hyperbole) that the number of inches of width (or the number of years of excelling) is the same number as the number of inches of height (or the number of years of life). It is easier to use different dimensions if you are comparing the relative position on the two scales and if the comparison is metaphorical, as in “as happy as the day is long”. The Mellencamp example is an interesting one, because it fits in between the purely metaphorical “…as the day is long” and the highly concrete and quantitative ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples.

His observation fits the data well, including the data he went out and collected later, and put in a subsequent comment:

“…King was as much despised as he was respected.”

“But the ataman was as crafty as he was cruel.”

“During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.”

“Roisart’s mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry.”

There are many, many more. “Was as generous as he was * ” shows hits for rich, successful, mean, talented, technically brilliant, brave, sometimes enigmatic, tall, and several other adjectives.

In fact, I think we can add one more restriction to his two: To compare adjectives that measure different properties, (1) the comparison must be of positions on the scales, not absolute numbers; (2) it must be metaphorical; and (3) the position on the scale must be high, not low or in the middle. That is, when you say,

He’s as rich as he is mean,

you have to mean that he is very rich and very mean. You can’t mean that he’s not at all rich or mean.

That last restriction seems to be at work even when you compare antonymous adjectives, too. A few weeks ago when I was thinking about the Mellencamp example, I asked my wife to imagine that my glass was completely full, and hers completely empty. In that case, I wondered, could you say this?

Your glass is as full as mine is empty.

“I guess I could on an SAT test,” she said.

“OK,” I said, “and how about if they were each half-full?”

“No, not unless you were making a joke about optimists and pessimists.”

And if my glass was 75% full and hers was 25% full (i.e. 75% empty)? No. Not a chance.

And for another example of antonymous adjectives that have to obey this restriction, here’s the song lyric I said in that other post that I’d talk about. It’s another one from Ralph Covert (other lyrics are discussed here and here), called “Animal Friends“:

Dinosaur babies and cows and pigs
And a horse as small as a dog is big

Wha…? The only way I could get a comparison where X is as big as Y is small would be, once again, one where we’re talking very big and very small. So we could say something like, “A horse as big as a flea is small” to talk about a very big horse. But a horse as small as a dog is big? Covert has constructed some quite clever nonsense here.

7 Responses to “A Horse as Small as a Dog is Big”

  1. Blar said

    I approve of this post. 🙂

    Do I approve of your third restriction, though? I’ve been looking for exceptions. What do you think of the following example, set in a stereotypical scene:

    Husband, Wife, and Mutual Friend are together. Wife is trying to share her feelings/problems with Husband, but he isn’t being a good listener. Mutual Friend accuses Husband of always being insensitive to Wife. Husband says “I’m as sensitive as she is faithful.” Implication: I’m not being nice, but she’s been cheating on me.

    It sounds like good English to me, though I don’t have anything more than my intuitions to go on. I googled a bit, fishing for similar examples in actual usage, but nothing turned up.

    I think that your third restriction does represent the norm. There’s generally a strong implication of being high on the scale when this construction is used. If you accept the adultery example, though, then there seem to be exceptions. They may have to be somewhat sarcastic, ironic, or comical, and it is necessary to establish beforehand that one of the terms has a low value on the scale, but they’re still exceptions.

    The implication of having a high value on the scale is also there for most single adjective comparisons. For instance, “He’s as depressed/excited/greedy as Joe” means “he is depressed/excited/greedy, to the same extent as Joe.” This is less true when the scale is basically quantitative (e.g. “He’s as old/tall as Joe” = “His age/height is about the same as Joe’s”), but it usually holds for more vague or qualitative adjectives. If you were talking about a low value on the scale, you would use the opposite adjective (e.g. “He’s as experienced as Joe” vs. “He’s as inexperienced as Joe”). I don’t know what you’d do to talk about an intermediate value – it doesn’t seem to come up much.

    There are more exceptions for the single adjective phrases than for the multi-scale comparisons, and they don’t need to be sarcastic or joking. For instance, suppose that we both know Joe, and he is average in terms of attractiveness/intelligence/etc., and I just told you that he has a new girlfriend. If you ask “Is she attractive/smart/etc.?” then I could reply “Well, she’s about as attractive/smart/etc. as he is” in order to politely say that she’s about average as well. I could do the same if they both had a high value or a low value on the scale.

  2. Blar said

    Success! I just had to look for sobriety instead of faithfulness.

    Example 1:
    “Met [Eminem] once, when I lived in Detroit.
    Pretty shy and quiet without his big bodyguards around. Go figure.

    Kid Rock, however..heh.

    About as shy as he is sober.”

    Example 2:

    CDR9110: “President George Bush looks out for christian ideals, if you dont agree with him it is unchristian because he is the closest thing we have ever had to a god installed president and we should treat him like one”

    freeman: “yep, [Bush is] a real nice guy. I don’t believe Christians or any other god fearing people would worship a 20 ft stone Owl. He’s about as christian as he is sober.

    Heres a nice video of him drunk off his ass, and he swears he’s sober, LMAO”

    Example 3
    Homer: “Joe is real slick with the women, as slick as I am Sober [laugh.gif]”

    Daggsy: “Now, there’s no need to be THAT abusive…”

    Homer: “Why not? [tongue.gif]”

    Daggsy: “You’ve got to admit, that’s real unkind. It’s me saying Joe is real slick with the women, as slick as I am normal. Or Kev saying as he is clean.

    See? It’s dead unkind to him.”

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Blar, for the further examples. One thing I was noticing about the sarcastic comparisons to be read as being at the lower end of a scale is that they often are preceded by ‘about’. You did this in the example you constructed yourself, and it’s in 2 of the three examples in your above comment. Last night, I Googled “about as * as” and got a few similar examples, but also a lot of regular, non-sarcastic ones, too. So my (insufficiently researched) hunch is that the probability of there being an ‘about’ given that it’s a sarcastic comparison with an understood low ranking is significantly above 50%, but the probability of it being a sarcastic, low-ranking comparison given the presence of an ‘about’ is about the same as its being an ordinary comparison.

  4. Anonymous said

    “a horse as small as a dog is big”

    how big/small is it then? in both cases: “not very.”

  5. Lance said

    Pardon my wandering in somewhat late–and I’m not all caught up yet–but I wonder: does “You ain’t as green as you are young” really express a comparison of the extent to which you’re green vs. young? Or is it, perhaps, a comparison of the extent to which these words can describe you? That is: “You aren’t so much *green*, as you are *young*.”

    (Not that reading too much meaning into a Mellencamp lyric is a good idea.)

    I think that suggestion was made about another extremely strange lyrical comparison, when I posted about it: Charlemagne, in Pippin, sings “It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.” That one…I still have no idea.

  6. noone said

    Miniature horse

  7. The Ridger said

    Doesn’t “a horse as small as a dog is big” mean – with allowances for the need for rhyme, here – “a small horse no bigger than a dog”?

    (And I can see saying “and he’s as rich as he is mean” if I was debunking someone’s assertion that X was another mean rich guy. I prove he’s not mean, and then I say “and he’s as rich as he is mean, too”. But of course what that proves is that you can (almost) always construct a context in which a given utterance is possible!)

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