n the ancient days of television there was a game show called What’s My Line. A panel tried to figure out the guest’s line of work by asking a series of yes-or-no questions. Often the questions centered on some object that was key to the guest’s job. Panelist Steve Allen came up with the question to gauge such an object’s size: Is it bigger than a breadbox? And because that was kind of a weird question even back then, the phrase caught on for a while.
Most people alive today don’t remember breadboxes, or What’s My Line, or even Steve Allen. But the basic idea is a good one: Name a familiar object when you want people to get a mental picture of height, length, weight or volume. Not everyone can remember how heavy 8.6 pounds feels, but most people can imagine holding a gallon of milk.
Two items have become especially popular for comparisons: football fields and cans of soft drinks. They’ve become so popular, in fact, that they are ambling toward cliché territory. So if you want to stand out for a length comparison, try something else, like a baseball diamond or a box of oatmeal.
Size and length comparisons don’t have to be utilitarian. P.G. Wodehouse knew how to get some mileage out of them:
“Do you know,” said a thoughtful Bean,”I’ll bet that if all the girls Freddie Widgeon has loved were placed end to end—not that I suppose one could do it—they would reach half-way down Piccadilly.”
“Further than that,” said the Egg. “Some of them were pretty tall.”