they were as different as mist and mast

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Couch Tomato

Senior Member
Russian & Dutch
My world was split. I was aware of not one but two sexes, neither of which was mine; both would be termed female by the anatomist. But to me, through the prism of my senses, “they were as different as mist and mast.”
(Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov)

I understand what the phrase means but what is Nabokov saying by placing they were as different as mist and mast between quotation marks? That he made this expression up himself? It seems to me that the last sentence works even in the absence of the quotation marks, but I do not quite sense how the quotation marks add to the meaning of the sentence.
 
  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Presumably he ~ or rather Humbert Humbert ~ was quoting someone ... or thinking he was quoting someone.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Nothing came up when I did a search for "mist and mast" (I dare say you've already done the same), other than some dreary pop group. The phrase means absolutely nothing to me, other than being vaguely nautical: if you were on watch on a ship you might not be able to see the mast for the mist.
     

    Couch Tomato

    Senior Member
    Russian & Dutch
    The phrase means absolutely nothing to me, other than being vaguely nautical: if you were on watch on a ship you might not be able to see the mast for the mist.
    Oh, I see. I was not thinking along those lines. I just noted that mist and mast are different in only one respect: the second letter of mist is i and the second letter of mast is a. Despite only one difference, the meanings of these words are entirely different. I did not consider what the phrase actually meant.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    They might be abbreviations for mistress and master. 'Mast' looks very breast-like if you see it as a Greek root, and the 'i' and 'a' that distinguish the two words - well, one looks flat or even masculine and the other looks very rounded. Humbert seems to prefer this to the traditional "chalk and cheese". I would go with the "mast=breast" interpretation, since he had earlier been talking about "pumpkins or pears for breasts". Even the lower-case m looks like a pair of breasts.
     
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