To sob like a donkey - Idiom

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James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
In "Balthazar", in "The Alexandria Quartet" (p 181 of original 1957 edition), Lawrence Durrell uses the expression, I quote: "He burst out sobbing like a donkey now, and in some fantastic way his tears kept running into laughter [...]."

The character in question, Pombal, is described sobbing (and laughing) as he is told some dramatic news.

The idea seems to be that the person is crying a lot (cf "smoking like a chimnea", etc.) - not that donkeys are known to sob...

I was wondering how common - or not - the expression is. I have done an online search and there are only 2 mentions of it on Google.

Is it an established expression or not, as far as you know?

Insight welcome.
 
  • Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Two Google mentions -- and now my confirmation that I've never heard it -- probably indicate something about the foothold it has in the language. :)
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    Perhaps it is an idiom in a language other than English.

    Below is one of the two instances I find by searching the internet. It seems to me that it refers to the gasping breaths people often make when sobbing, which can sound like the braying of a donkey to an unsympathetic ear. I suspect Durrell is telling us that this ungraceful character was making a braying sound. In my opinion, 'sobbing like a donkey' is not an idiom, but rather a reference relying on the reader's knowing the sound a donkey actually makes.

    Feb 13, 2006 ... "Women should really learn not to shriek like a pig being gutted or sob like a donkey braying." Graycastle - It was a dark and stormy night
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    It could be derived from the French, now you mention it, and yet I cannot think of an exact equivalent that would include "donkey" in the phrase, in relation to crying, in French.

    I say this because, for those who know the novel, it is set in Alexandria and pre-Nasser Egypt, and there is a large French community there, and there are many references to the French language and culture in the book. Pombal, the person referred to, is himself a French diplomat in the novel.

    Or, it could just be the braying sound of a donkey that is deemed similar to the noise someone can make if they sob uncontrollably and loudly.

    I have done another search on Google with various permutations ("sob like a donkey" or "sobbing..." or "sobs...") and have found a few more: in total about half a dozen.

    We may conclude that it is not an established idiomatic expression, unlike phrases such as "to swear like a trooper" or "to drink like [a] fish", etc. I would be inclined to say, however, that L Durrell did not "invent" it as such, since it does appear to be used, although in a marginal way. In other words, it may be rare, but it is known - by some people at any rate. If it was purely L Durrell's creation, I would expect every (or 99% of) occurrence(s) to relate to (or quote) the novel. It is not the case.
     

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    It clearly is not an idiom, but similes are not uncommon as structures; there are plenty about which are not idiomatic.

    It wouldn't, on the other hand be surprising for more than one person to arrive at the same simile. This one is quite literal, really, rather than artistic and novel, so anyone could write it without realising that someone else had ever written it before.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I suppose 'simile' is more appropriate to describe the expression than 'idiom' would be. In any case, from what has been said, it would not be a commonly used or fully established expression. One can assume, if no one is going to contradict us, that, indeed, it is simply an expression various people could have arrived at independently, and it is not a 'creation' on the part of the author of the book, L Durrell, as such.

    I suppose one can consider that the image used is obvious (cf the donkey braying and the person sobbing), but it was not 100% obvious to me when I first read it in the novel.
     
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