Idiomatica with Michael Kwan

In the first ever edition of Idiomatica last month, we looked at the phrase “pardon my French” and how it came to be. No one ever said the English language made a lot of sense. Idioms like that demonstrate just how far modern usage has strayed from the more literal understanding. Perhaps another good example is when you say something “goes like stink” or “runs like stink.”

Used idiomatically, “like stink” is an adverbial phrase (a group of two or more words that operate like an adverb) with a couple of related interpretations.

First, it could relate to speed, particularly in the context of starting and accelerating. For instance, you might say the highly modified cars in a drag race “go like stink.” If we were to look at the current context of the Olympics in Brazil, you might say that Michael Phelps really “goes like stink.” You might say that 100-meter dash gold medalist Usain Bolt really “runs like stink” too.

Alternatively, the idiomatic phrase could also describe how someone (or something) is doing something intensely or furiously. This intensity usually takes on the form of doing something quickly and with great haste, so that really just relates back to the first meaning. You could sweep the floor like stink if you wanted.

But how did this phrase come to be in the first place? If we think about it in a very literal fashion, it could describe how an unpleasant odor can spread quickly. That would give us the connection to both speed and intensity, even though a smell doesn’t really move that quickly in a room unless it is aided by an unfortunate draft.

Another possible explanation is that cars were once derided as “stink chariots.” I guess people found the stench of exhaust fumes to be worse than the smells left behind by their horses. And if the cars are moving around faster than their equine predecessors, you can see how the turn of phrase could come to be related to increased speed.

Based on a quick search around the Internet, I get the sense that “like stink” is mostly Canadian slang. It doesn’t appear to be used as widely by Americans, though I’m not exactly sure whether people in Australia or Great Britain use it. Any of my international readers want to offer some insight?