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Apples and oranges and pears, oh my
Monday, December 17, 2007   5:59 PM

I've been convalescing for the past few days (on vicodin — though I couldn't appreciate the generification at the time), so I'm just now catching up on my podcasts.

Today on the BBC (i.e. last week for you) I heard the following exchange:

BBC: If someone in the Army drinks so much alcohol that they are incoherent, which I'm sure happens, what happens to them?

Government guy: Well, first of all, of course, alcohol is a legal drug, therefore you are comparing apples with pears.

I hadn't encountered the idiom comparing apples with pears before, but a quick Google search shows that it isn't new. Moreover, Wikipedia claims that the "Danish, Dutch, German, Spanish, Swedish, Czech, Romanian, Luxembourgish and Turkish" expressions all involve pears.

The delightful Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions explains apples and pears thusly:

Describes an unfair comparison because what are being considered are too fundamentally different for the comparison to make sense. Thus, comparing apples and pears is a foolish thing — they taste different and which one tastes nicer is a matter of personal opinion, not objective fact.

I found it odd that the apples and oranges entry refers you to apples and pears, rather than vice-versa, so I was relieved to discover that the more familiar comparing apples and oranges is indeed much, much more common. I'm not in an episode of Sliders after all.

Textbook definitions aside, there's obviously plenty of connotative difference between apples and oranges and apples and pears — from the way this guy said it, you got the impression that a comparison with pears would beyond inadvisable. And even if some or all of us would still prefer to use the hoarier oranges version, there's no denying that for an English-speaker, the pears version is far fresher.

(And we could do better — no need here to get into the snowclone comparing apples and X.)

Unfortunately, their very novelty tends to make fresh-sounding idioms vulnerable to overexploitation, an idiomatic Tragedy of the Commons. Remember when bleeding edge was the hip new version of cutting edge?

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I had never heard "apple and pears"--thanks for the update!

I would never use "apples and pears," because apples and pears are actually quite a bit alike.

They have cores w/ multiple seeds. Their peels are a similar thickness. Their flesh has a similar consistency. Even the tastes are more alike than they are different.

In fact, there is a pear that tastes a LOT like an apple.

Compared with either apples or pears, oranges have vastly different structures to their seeds, their peels are different, and their flesh is hugely different, both in consistency and taste.

posted by Anonymous TootsNYC at December 18, 2007 1:23 PM  

I think apples, oranges and pears are all too similar. We need a new expression, 'apples and condolences' perhaps...

Presumably you guys could work that into the house styleguide and act like all the writers who use "apples and oranges" should know they're wrong.

I'm toying with the idea of using a random noun in the "oranges" slot in my own writing, but I doubt that I use this expression more often than once every few years.

But, of course, "apples and pears" rolls naturally off the English tongue; it's cockney rhyming slang for "stairs".

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