“TheNervousBreakdown.com is like a writer’s collective, but a writer’s collective on crack!” – Thomas Wood (to no one in particular)

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.”

VS.

“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.

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THOMAS WOOD grew up in the nearly quaint, upscale town of Newport Beach, California, and left at nineteen when his father passed away. After traveling for a few years, he settled in San Francisco and got a degree in Philosophy from UC Berkeley. He lives with his beautiful girlfriend in San Francisco, works in medicine as a logistical coordinator for organ donation, and writes in his spare time, hoping to some day feel comfortable with the moniker, 'writer.' His personal blog is ModernSophist.com. You can follow him on the Twitter at Modern_Sophist

30 responses to “It’s Like an Essay, but an Essay 
“On Crack!””

  1. Haha, I’m going to be retelling this essay for the rest of my life. Seriously. My friends back in Scotland love two things: drugs, and animals.

    For some reason, though, I just picture a kid asking his stoned older brother what these animals are that he sees on TV…

    “What’s that?” “It’s like a _____ on crack.” “What about that?” “It’s basically a _____ on coke.”

  2. Thomas Wood says:

    Awsome Mr. Wills, especially coming from a fellow Scot. The thought of someone retelling an essay of mine for the rest of their life, “seriously,” is a pretty rad comment.

    And yeah, a big part of me wanted to go on and create three pages of “…on crack!” alchemy formulations.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    “Gypsy, Blue Boys, Tonix and Katies.”

    I always knew I had a very limited knowledge of narcotics, but you’ve gone and made me feel really ignorant.

    I guess I’ll have to stick to what I know: “…on Zoloft.” “…on Paxil.” “…on Lithium.”

  4. Thomas Wood says:

    Good point, Marni, the metaphor hasn’t really gone into prescription drugs, has it? I think somehow prescription drugs are sadder, maybe more real, like instead of some goofy crack addict, we picture someone’s aunt or something, and maybe that hits closer to home.

    On a lighter note: I think an elephant on zoloft would probably be a hippo.

    • Matt says:

      There’s a book out there called Elephants On Acid which is all about bizarre science experiments, many of them including some combination of drugs & animals – including the titular experiment where heavy doses of LSD were administered to pachyderms.

      And this seems as good a place as any to say: nice post, Thomas. I got quite a few nice laughs out of this.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Too funny! Well done. Of course, while popular opinion holds crack as a narcotic that invests its host with vital, manic, unbridled energy, the other side is equally humorous. For example, where you referred to a “wolverine on crack,” I pictured a wolverine that’s been up for three days walking around its kitchen naked, compulsively surfing wolverine porn on the net, periodically peeking out the window to make sure “they” are not there, and calling the occasional wolverine friend to confirm that the cracked out wolverine is, in fact, OK, and that you can’t at all tell that he’s been up for two days on crack, and by the way, what day IS it?

    Thanks for the great read!

    • Thomas Wood says:

      That’s really funny. I hadn’t even thought of the whole “druggy, shitty friend” wolverine.

      “Like a wolverine, but like a wolverine on crack…who needs to borrow ten bucks.”

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Hey there Thomas,

    I have never used that expression, however I have heard it a zillion times.

    I love this metaphor you wrote!

    “It is about teasing out an idea, the way a rolling pin presses out dough in each direction. ”

    Lovely.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      Why thank you, Irene.

      I was just about tempted to jump the shark with that one and write it as “…the way a rolling pin presses out dough in each direction (note: rolling pin totally sober/not on crack).”

  7. Mary says:

    Even NPR does this, and it irritates the daylights out of me, especially when they often report on steroid use in professional sports (rampant, disgraceful, etc.) all in concerned tones, then they report on say … a deli that serves particularly large sandwiches. “Your club sandwich has been described as ‘a club sandwich on steroids.’ Tell us about that…”

  8. Thomas Wood says:

    Yeah, no kidding. It’s really embarrassing, I think, to see a professional writer do this. There’s just got to be better ways to say something was more than it you’re thinking.

  9. […] -“TheNervousBreakdown.com is like a writer’s collective, but a writer’s collective on crack!” – Thomas Wood (to no one in particular)- 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. […]

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    Apparently It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ was even pitched like this – ‘It’s Seinfeld on crack, you guys!’

    It’s a pity, because it can be a fun metaphor, but, unfortunately, it’s been co-opted by culture and now it’ll get burned out and unable to be used anymore. Damn it. We’re assholes, man.

  11. jmblaine says:

    I’ve thought about this often
    because people on crack
    are not grander ebullient versions
    of themselves
    they aren’t larger
    or more vibrant
    or multiplied
    crack’s effects are quick to leave
    and sort of nulled and spacy
    a whiff of euphoria and gone
    followed by anxiety and tics.

    What could that be an effective
    metaphor for?

    Then again
    all metaphors are flawed.

  12. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Aw, man? But no mention of the best evah EVAH use of the trope:

    “People say you look like MC Hammer on crack, Humpty!”

  13. Laura says:

    This is hilarious!

  14. Erika Rae says:

    Thomas Wood, this may just be my new favorite linguistic post. And I loves the linguistics. Seriously, though – I laughed so hard during this one, I cried.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      Lovely, Erika Rae,

      I really like the language stuff too. I know my father used to pick apart words and phrasing ad nauseum (though no nauseum from me, the attentive son) and then it was dear George Carlin who taught me how funny little phrases and expressions can be.

      But cried? Next time that happens, run quick to grab your camera and send the laugh/cry image to me for my birthday (you’ve got two weeks, incidentally).

      • Erika Rae says:

        HA – You don’t know how tempted I am RIGHT NOW to go in the kitchen, splash water on my face, and take a picture. Once I got the maniacal expression down pat, you could replace that photo up top with me. I’d be Erika, but Erika on crack!

        And Happy-Early-Birthday!

  15. Amanda says:

    “Not everyone has the skill or the resources to invest in a comprehensive description”

    Precisely.

    It all comes down to laziness.

    I feel the same about swearing as a so-called means of developing character. “Deadwood” comes to mind, for instance, where a TV series was pretty much carried by the expletive “cocksucker”.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      Good point, Amanda,

      In one of my earlier drafts, I made a big comparison to swearing, especially how much my mother taught me that swearing was for people who didn’t have a very good vocabulary (a point which could be debated, but which still rings in my head when I hear a solid string of casual ‘fucks’).

      As for TV, have you seen Sparticus. I personally love it but yes, you’d have to rewrite about half of the dialog in it if you weren’t allowed to make any ‘cock’ references. Of course, the show is supposed to be very representational of the Roman times and perhaps they were a very phallocentric people for whom ‘cock’ was all the rage.

  16. 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.”

    I think John Mayer made leaps and bounds with a similar case of phraseology. When describing Jessica Simpson in the sack, he said she was like “sexual napalm.”

    Now, that could mean a few things (involving KY Jelly) but I’m pretty sure it means she was, as JJ from Good Times was fond of saying, “Dyn-o-mite!”

  17. Thomas Wood says:

    I’m not sure which of us three compared here ought to be the most flattered. Perhaps JJ for being included with John Mayer, perhaps me for the other two. I like to think John Mayer is warmed by the comparison to me.

  18. Slade Ham says:

    And all this time I thought Calvin Broadus was like a dog on weed…

  19. Man, do I feel old. I have no idea what Tonix is. But maybe not that old because I’m fairly sure I’ve seen a dog fall down a K-hole. Of course, it was an old flatmate who shorted the rent every month to increase his collection of floppy hats, but that’s another story.

    • Thomas Wood says:

      My minor confession is that I just started looking up random drug names on urbandictionary.com. I used anything that sounded like it could either be an illicit drug or the cure for some disease caught in D&D as a criteria.

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