Eyes the color/colour of warm whiskey/whisky

On the English Language teachers’ email list last week someone asked:

Subject: Quick question on rhetoric

“Eyes the colour of warm whiskey”

What figurative language is being used here, if any?

and within a few minutes they got the response:

None as it’s a literal description. The intended connotations, however, given a particular literary context, might suggest some use of metonymy.

Hmm – quick question yes, with a quick answer, but I couldn’t accept it was that simple, and responded to that effect.

I think this is the kind of issue where the desire to pin a specific label (and I love labels and classifying and categorising more than most) can get in the way.

I imagine that what triggered the question is the fact that the expression somehow feels figurative, but “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” seems not be a simile (as it doesn’t us ‘like’ or ‘as’), and it doesn’t quite seem to be a metaphor, because the eyes aren’t being described as if they in some sense ‘are’ warm whiskey. Those are the two simple tests that I think most of us probably teach our students to use to recognise the difference.

However, I can’t accept that there is no figurative language here. It seems to me much more figurative, than, say, a straightforward simile such as “the moon is like a big ball” or even a metaphor like “the moon’s a balloon”. I would certainly want to say that “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is metaphorical (even if we might not want to say that it is a metaphor.)

I think I can see what is meant by suggesting that there might be a hint of metonymy, in that the eyes could be seen as a signifier of the whole person, but I think that could be true more-or-less regardless of what is actually said about the eyes (it is an established convention that we think that we can tell important things about a person from their eyes; that the eyes can be used as a kind of metonym of the person).

Here, I think that the description of the eyes is much more figurative than literal, and I think it’s important to see literal and figurative not as simple alternatives, but as ends of a spectrum, or perhaps (better) as overlaid fields of varying prominence or transparency. At the literal level, so long as we have an idea of the colour of whiskey, then it can ‘simply’ tell us the colour of the eyes. However, if the writer wanted to describe the colour of the eyes literally, then the approach to take to ensure that it was taken merely literally would be to use colour terminology (‘light brown’, perhaps, or if greater precision were required, a term that is conventionally used for colour – especially colour of the eyes – such as ‘hazel’ or ‘amber’ – though even these have at least the potential to convey connotations that go beyond the literal, particularly if they are being used in a literary context rather than the wikipedia entry on eye colour.

However, “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” goes beyond that. Whiskey is not conventionally used as an identifier of eye colour (although it is more common in US English). See this ngram for an interesting comparison of hazel, amber and whisky/whiskey in a position of syntactical dependency to ‘eyes’. Use the drop down menu to switch between overall English, British English, American English, and English fiction for some interesting comparisons.

So describing eyes as being the “colour of whiskey” positively invites a figurative interpretation that we are likely to apply to the owner of the eyes. It might suggest drunkenness, a sense of fun, a hard-bitten cynicism, a sultry sexiness, or a number of other qualities depending on context, and the audience’s experience of and attitude toward the drink.

But it goes further even than that. The eyes are described as “the colour of warm whiskey”. Now, as it is my day off today, I have been able to experiment with a bottle of pleasantly peated Ardmore single malt, and I can confirm that it is exactly the same colour (at least to the naked eye) at a range of temperatures between 6C – which is definitely cold and 45C – which is definitely warm — well, quite hot, actually.

So this cannot be simply a literal description. The adjective ‘warm’ modifies not the eye colour, nor even just the whiskey (even though that is the word it modifies syntactically) but the whole figurative (metaphorical? symbolic? semiotic? I think any and all of these apply) qualities of the eye colour. As a colour is being described, in part, in terms of something that it is not (ie. heat) then the expression is clearly, at least in part, metaphorical. The fact that it is ‘warm whiskey’ knocks out, for me, the possibility that it is meant to convey negative connotations of alcoholism, or cynicism. No: warm whiskey is comforting; warmed in the glass with the hand it is sociable, even sensuous. Warmed to a higher temperature yet, it is restorative, reviving, even curative (the hot-toddy).

The possessor of these eyes the colour of warm whiskey is someone I want to get to know, and who is open enough (after all, the eye contact is clear enough for me to see the colour so clearly) to want to get to know me, as the dusky aroma of the whiskey, swirled in the glass, envelops us. Not only that, but because the spelling is ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’, the encounter is taking place on this side of the Atlantic (in a convivial and rather old-fashioned pub, with pitted dark oak tables and an open fire), but as the spelling is ‘whiskey’ rather than ‘whisky’ then she must surely be Irish. I say ‘she’ of course, because I am a heterosexual male, so with no other contextual information to go on, it makes sense for her to be female. And Irish. And a whiskey drinker.

(Perhaps my ‘experiments’ are getting the better of me, but, whatever it is, “Eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is not mere literal description.

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