Few linguistic formulas have enjoyed such success as the “…on crack” metaphor.Type “on crack” into any blog search and you’ll find millions of entries of people comparing myriad subjects to their potential in an intoxicated state.I wanted to look into this curious figure of speech, see how it works, examine some of its examples, and take a look at the cost of doing drugs, linguistically speaking.
How does this metaphor work?The formula is commonly expressed as, “It was like such-and-such, but such-and-such on [specify drug].” It relies upon the simple premise that drugs make things more interesting and more relatable.You don’t have to enjoy drugs to appreciate that they have a profound effect.
The metaphor benefits from beingsimple and efficient.Let’s say you want to describe your recent experience with a wolverine to someone who has had no experience with wolverines.What’s the best way to go about this?
You could spend minutes going through the animal’s taxonomy, its qualities as a forager and sometimes predator, even expound on subtle observations of its behavior as made by the great Sir David Attenborough.But describing something in such terms takes knowledge of the animal, a measure of observational prowess, and some degree of creativity.Not everyone has the skill or the resources to invest in a comprehensive description.
Instead of the full wolverine description, you could take a common, easily understood object, such as a cat, and choose an appropriately modifying drug:”Yeah, so I was being chased by this wolverine.What’s a wolverine? It’s like a cat, but a cat on crack!”
With only limited and stereotypical knowledge, any listener can immediately conjure some cat-like mammal given a dose of the mania-inducing drug. They understand that this is no gentle pussycat. They imagine that it is quick and capricious and capable of ferocity at any given moment. In short, they have pretty adequately imagined a wolverine, or at least as much as needed to understand the context of the story.
A further advantage of the “…on crack!” metaphor is its versatility.Choosing a different drug gives you a different outcome. Your choice of modifier is limited only by you and your audience’s knowledge of drugs: Smack, Crack, Crank, Coke, Weed, Gypsy, Blue Boys, Tonix and Katies all have very unique pharmacological properties which are ripe with connotations for effective metaphors, and these are only a few of your choices. Given all its versatility, the metaphor allows for a kind of linguistic alchemy.
To see this property, let’s take a fairly plain animal, a dog, as a kind of base for use in our next example. Now, we have only to pick the appropriate drug in order to describe what we’re really after.
Sloth: It’s like a dog, but a dog on ketamine.
Tiger: It’s like a dog, but a dog on cocaine.
Salamander: It’s like a dog, but a dog on weed.
Antelope: it’s like a dog, but a dog on meth.
…and so on.
As you can see in this example, we are able to roughly get from the basic animal of ‘dog,’ which anyone can imagine, to a great many number of other animals which may be harder for the average person’s imagination.
Note that the versatility isn’t just limited to animals.Many simple things can be transformed as well:
A park on acid = Disneyland
A boat on steroids = the Titanic
Hemingway on speed = Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club)
The trouble, however, is that though this method is both efficient and versatile, it’s also very cheap. An object or situation which might have otherwise been, perhaps painstakingly, described and expressed, is reduced to its simplest pop-culture form.
To see this cheapening effect, take the following descriptions of the California Redwood trees in comparison:
“The redwoods were gigantic, reaching many hundreds of feet into the air, to where I could only imagine the very tops of them.Their deep, red-brown bases, too large to take in fully by sight unless standing at a distance, were like massive walls whose slow curve teased my understanding of what size really was.They seemed more like great structures of architecture, things to be built, to be lived in, to impose, than mere accidents of nature.And then to see one fallen, its mighty limbs crushed, its impossibly dense core ripped apart as though by the hand of God, was all the more a testament to their absurd prowess.The sight of them was truly awe inspiring.”
“They were like trees, but trees on crack.”
If you’ve ever beheld a redwood before, or just imagined one from the first description, you can see how in a loose, metaphorical sense, the “…on crack!” metaphor does describe things, if not well, than at least sufficiently to move any redwood story forward – “Crack,” in this case, does the job of impressing that something is bigger and more impressive than normal.But what is the cost of this sufficiency?
Besides cheapening a description, the “…on crack!” metaphor is often extraneous to the understanding. Were I to describe a passionate lover, I might say, “She jumped on me ferociously like a wolverine.”Saying, “She jumped on me ferociously like a wolverine on crack,” does a number of unattractive things.First, it ties my subject matter to drugs where, perhaps, no drugs were intended.Suddenly, the sentiment is one characterized less by passion and more by dime-bag craving.Further, the simile is out of control in its redundancy.The drugs in the metaphor have taken something which is already unique in its ferocity and transformed it into something wholly horrific.What was once ravenously tempting is now to be kept away from at a minimum safe distance of twenty yards, preferably with a stick in hand.
Language, I would argue, is not merely about sufficiency of expression.It is about teasing out an idea, the way a rolling pin presses out dough in each direction.It is about lending the audience connections and relevance to their own lives.Drugs, while sufficient in expressing certain extremes that are generally understandable, lose much in the way of intelligent, diverse description as all connection, all relevancies, lead right back to drugs.So why do people keep using this metaphor if it is so detrimental to intelligent understanding?
The metaphor gives the user a quick fix.Where one lacks the will or the tools of language to describe something fully, they may submit to the ease of the “…on crack!” metaphor.In their desire to move a story along quickly and cheaply, the user has given up true depth of comprehension.This is a reflection of ignorance on the story-tellers part.They forget that stories are a journey.Keeping pace shouldn’t detract from enjoying the scenery, and many subjects have no business getting involved with drugs.