I've collected a list of sayings that describe something or someone that fails to meet expectations, such as:

  • A few bricks short of a hod.
  • A few fries short of a Happy Meal.
  • That ship never left port.

Is there a specific name for this type of saying?

  • 1
    If you're asking for a name for the "X short of Y" sort of idiom, I kind of doubt that there's a recognized term. – Hot Licks Nov 17 '18 at 2:07

These are called "pejoratives", or short phrases that express disapproval in some fashion. There are quite a few of these, including ones like:

The elevator doesn't go to the top floor.... Not the brightest bulb in the bunch.... Not the sharpest knife in the drawer....

  • This answer accepted because "pejorative" is a negative connotation so could fit the "something or someone" contexts in the question, versus "metaphorical insult" which would be specifically directed at a person (see @Sven Yargs answer and comments below). For the curious, Merriam-Webster has an an example of "normal" being used as a pejorative in a sentence. See merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pejorative – RJo Nov 19 '18 at 0:52

What members of this particular category of metaphorical insults have in common is that they all tend to be used to impugn a person's mental competence or acuity, albeit in a jocular or pseudo-jocular way. Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for "bricks shy of a load":

bricks shy of a load Mentally impaired, either unintelligent or merely eccentric. For example, He may be handsome, but he's not too bright—a few bricks shy of a load. This term, transferring a light load to a lightweight mental capacity is usually preceded by either a few or a specific number such as two. {Slang 1960s} Synonymous slangy terms include not playing with a full deck, which refers to the game of poker, the elevator doesn't go to the top floor, and having only one oar (not both oars) in the water. All of them date from the second half of the 1900s. An older and more polite synonym is not all there

According to Ammer, "not all there" is a much older expression:

all there Having one's wits about one, mentally competent, as in John may seem absent-minded, but believe me, he's all there. This phrase is often used negatively, as not all there, for being without one's full faculties. For example, I wonder about Justin; sometimes it seems as if he's not all there. {Mid-1800s}

As for what generic term might be used to describe quasi-humorous insults of the type "a few beads short of a rosary," Barbara Wallraff, "Shouldn't There Be a Word ... ?" in The American Scholar Spring 2006) indicates that (as far as she knows) there isn't one—at least not yet:

Words about words. The words in this category are undeniably ethereal. Here many old words have fallen into disuse. We as a society would be better off if everyone knew what words like pronoun, adjective, and preposition mean. I believe this because I find it nearly impossible to talk about language and how it works its wonders without employing at least basic grammatical terms. If everyone had these words down, we could move on to complaining that nowadays no one understands the likes of meiosis ("the use of understatement not to deceive, but to enhance the impression on the hearer," as H. W. Fowler explains in his Modern English Usage) and tmesis ("separation of the parts of a compound word by another word inserted between them"—for instance, un-freaking-believable). But let's not go there. Plenty of words about words remain to be coined. Here are two requests:

I am looking for a word to describe the deliberate misspelling of words and phrases for marketing purposes. For example, Citibank, Rite-Aid, Kool-Aid, and Krispy Kreme. It drives me crazy! (M. Harris, Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Is there a term for those metaphorical insults like "She's one sandwich short of a picnic" and "He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer"? (J. Blum, San Francisco)

Evidently, Ms. Wallraff is a few key terms short of a glossary.

  • 1
    Note that "that ship never left the port" might well be used to describe, say, some new concept which looked at the time like it was going to fly high but instead crashed on takeoff. It does not necessarily impugn a person's intelligence. – Hot Licks Nov 17 '18 at 13:10
  • @ Sven Yargs - Your research is great and I've added "metaphorical insult" to my phraseology toolkit! The answer from @ Thomas Quinlan came closer to what I was seeking, i.e., a name or phrase that would fit something or someone. Stackexchange will allow just one answer, so I upvoted yours as helpful, which it absolutely is! – RJo Nov 19 '18 at 0:57

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