Some of my favorite metaphors for slowness are:
- He’s a snail
- He’s a turtle
- He’s a sloth
Some great slowness idioms are:
- Slow and steady wins the race
- Get a bomb under you
- More haste less speed
Below is the full list with explanations of each.
Related: Metaphors for Fast
1. He’s a Snail
Snails are some of the slowest moving animals, moving at just 1 millimeter per second. In our culture, we have come to use snails as the typical placeholder for something that’s slow. For example, we call postage ‘snail mail’ to compare it with the much faster method: email.
So, to call someone a snail is to say that they’re incredibly slow, either at moving (like in a race) or at doing a task.
2. He’s a Turtle
Turtles are similarly known to be incredibly slow movers. Some estimates show they walk at about 0.25 mph. Compare that to a human’s walking speed of 3 to 4 mph and you can see they’re quite cumbersome creatures!
Ironically, a turtle is actually quite a fast creature. It’s just that they’re designed to swim, not walk! So on sand, they’re at a bit of a disadvantage.
Turtles also have a reputation for being “chilled out” – meaning they are relaxed creatures – which adds to this idea that they’re generally quite slow creatures.
Read More: Turtle Symbolism
3. He’s a Sloth
Sloths are known as ‘nature’s slowest animals’, traveling at just 30cm (one foot) per minute. They also move their hands really slowly, giving the sense that they move in slow-motion. It’s their slow metabolism that makes them such slow creatures.
Sloths’ languid movements are their most defining feature. So, when you call someone a sloth, it’s quite clear that you’re saying they’re incredibly slow!
4. Like being Stuck in Mud
Mud pulls you down and sucks you in. It’s a bit like quicksand (in fact, you could also say ‘like being stuck in quicksand’). If you were to try to run through mud, you’d find it hard work. You would find that you were moving really slowly.
For example, you could say “I’m in a traffic jam. It feels like my car is stuck in the mud!”
5. Moves like Molasses
Molasses is a very thick substance made of refined sugar cane. It’s one of the slowest moving liquids. (Interestingly, there was a molasses flood in Boston in 1919 that killed several people).
But because it’s so thick and moves so slowly, we have developed a saying that something ‘moves like molasses’ to describe something moving slowly. For example, a teacher asking a student to quickly get their textbook and go back to their desk might say: “hurry up Tommy, you’re moving like molasses right now!”
6. He’s Carrying a Bag of Rocks
Imagine two people in a race. Both of them are perfectly healthy and quick runners, but one of them has a bag of rocks on their back. That bag of rocks is clearly going to slow down that runner, giving him a big disadvantage.
So if you’re in a race and feeling very slow that day, you might say you feel like you’re carrying a bag of rocks in order to express that feeling of lethargy.
7. Like Turning around an Ocean Liner
Ocean liners are notoriously difficult to stop and turn around. This is shown in the movie Titanic where the ocean liner knows it’s going to hit an iceberg a long way before it hits, but the ocean liner is so heavy that even turning the propellers into reverse didn’t help.
In fact, some estimates say that you need 3-5 miles of extra space to stop and turn around the average ocean liner.
This term is often used when referring to the bureaucracy of government or changes in culture, which both often change incredibly slowly.
Read More: Ocean Metaphors
8. Like Running Underwater
Imagine running in water. The resistance of the water makes you feel like you’re really pushing against something tough. It slows you down a whole lot. So you could refer to a situation where you’re feeling a lot of resistance slowing you down as a situation that’s ‘like running underwater’.
9. Like Watching Grass Grow
Something that’s incredibly boring is said to be ‘like watching grass grow’.
Could you imagine watching grass grow? It would take days, maybe weeks, until you actually see any changes. Grass grows at just 2 to 6 inches per month in optimal conditions, which is actually much faster than the growth of hair, which is closer to 1 inch per month.
You could say watching a game of test match cricket is like watching grass grow, or perhaps you could say the same about a very slow movie.
10. Get a Move On
To ‘get a move on’ means to hurry up! You usually say this to someone who you’re really frustrated with.
11. Snail Mail
Snail Mail is a euphemism for postage. When email came about, a lot of things that were sent in the postage were replaced by email because it sends and arrives instantly. Because postage suddenly became seen as an incredibly slow way of sending letters, we gave it the term ‘snail mail’.
12. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
This old proverb refers to the idea that someone should go slow and make sure they get things done properly. If you go too fast, you might make a lot of mistakes and have to re-do things.
The old story about The Hare and the Tortoise explains this proverb. The tortoise goes slowly while the hare goes quick. But part way through the hare gets arrogant, stops for a rest, and as he’s sleeping, the tortoise takes over and wins!
13. More Haste Less Speed
“More haste, less speed” also refers to the idea that you should slow down and do things correctly the first time. This saying means that if you focused a little less on being fast, you’ll actually speed up because you’ll get things done properly rather than having to re-do everything.
This saying is ancient, and was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans (in their own language, of course!)
14. The Traffic is Crawling
We will often say traffic is ‘crawling’ if we’re in a traffic jam. Of course, traffic cannot crawl. It doesn’t have legs! So we’re using figurative language here. Usually, we’d assume something that crawls is moving quite slowly. This is especially in comparison to running which is clearly faster than moving on your knees.
15. Inching Forward
Something that is inching forward is a thing that makes progress very slowly. Instead of moving in ‘leaps and bounds’ or ‘miles at a time’, you’re moving in very small increments: inches.
You might use this phrase to refer to traffic, someone making minimal progress in a task, or even how long it’s taking to pay off your mortgage.
16. Get a Bomb Under You
We say to ‘get a bomb under’ someone when we mean that someone really needs to speed up. They’re going to slowly, so they need to be a bit more hastily.
Imagine if there was a bomb underneath you. Clearly, you would get moving – fast! You would run at breakneck speed as far as you can away from that bomb!
Read More: Weapon Metaphors
17. You must Crawl before you Walk
This saying ‘your must crawl before you walk’ means that people need to do simpler (slower) tasks before they can speed up and do more difficult or complex tasks. It refers to toddlers, who can’t just stand up and start walking. They must first learn to crawl and develop those skills before stepping up.
So, figuratively, we’d use this saying to refer to anything where someone needs to pause and return to simpler tasks before they can do the tougher ones.
This list of idioms, similes and metaphors for slowness is not exhaustive. I’m sure you can find many more! But it does provide a good introduction to some key examples of figurative language for slowness. You can start playing around with these phrase to explore ways of explaining slowness in ways that paint a clear picture in people’s minds of what you’re talking about.
And if none of these figurative terms help, consider making up your own metaphors and similes by creating an analogy between slow speeds and something else that you know to be slow.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.