Crooked as a barrel of black snakes

If you want to talk the idiomatic talk of a southerner, you must embrace the simile.

Now in elementary school grammar we all learned that a simile is a comparison of two things using “like” or “as.” And it wasn’t so much something we learned to do as it was learning the name for something that came as naturally to us as breathing. After all, we’d heard similes used every day in every way for as long as we could remember.

One of the first idioms incorporating a simile that I remember ever hearing was used by my grandfather (I called him “Baw”). He was talking about someone who had done something dishonest. “He’s as crooked as a barrel of black snakes,” Baw said.

I think this phrase exemplifies all that is good and right about idioms. There’s a little word play with “crooked.” On the one hand it implies someone who is shady, corrupt. On the other hand it literally describes a writhing snake’s body.

And, as the perfect idiom should, it evokes a vivid mental image. In my little three- or four-year-old mind, I pictured me standing on a milk stool looking over the edge of a big barrel — faded wood staves, knotty and gray, held together with rusty rings. It’s filled with squirming, tangled snakes, hissing, fangs bared, unable to get out, unable to extricate themselves one from another.

Then there’s the symbolism. Black invokes darkness of the soul, the unknown. And you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to know that snakes represent trickery, temptation, and evil. They are the slithering embodiment of deceit and sin.

Crooked as a barrel of black snakes. Seven words. Which brings me to my favorite thing about idioms — you can say so much by saying so little.

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