Animal references in everyday English language usage – Part 1



         English, is full of expressions that relate in some way to the animal kingdom. On one level, people tend to describe inanimate objects that physically resemble animals in some way or are used for similar functions by humans using references to animals and other creatures. On another, perhaps more subtle level, human beings typically make associations between certain personality attributes and particular animals and living creatures. These may vary significantly across languages: this being one reason why language and culture are always interconnected. I do not happen to speak any Indian languages, but I can imagine that in light of the fact that cows are considered sacred animals in India, there surely must exist a variety or expressions relating to cows that bear a connotation of sanctity in languages such as Hindi and Bengali: expressions that do not exist in English.

           This week I'll start by pointing out some general vocabulary which most English learners become acquainted with before too long. Consider terms like piggy bank, zebra crossing, hotdog, cowboy and clothes horse. Can you think of some reasons why references are being made to specific animals? In some cases, the answer is obvious. The black and white lines marked on roads that form zebra crossings clearly resemble the stripes found on a zebra's body. The reason why the fold-up rack that holds clothes as they dry indoors  is called a clothes horse is of course that it is reminiscent of a horse's ability to carry humans on its back.

          In terms of the other examples, where the meaning is clearly less obvious, it is interesting to look at the social history and cultural context behind the words in order to gain a broader understanding. First of all, we should remember that cowboys were originally boys or men who tended to cows while on horseback in parts of south-western America (the term having come into use in English in the early 18th century).  It is actually a direct translation of the Spanish word vaquero and represents the coming into contact of two cultures in areas of the USA where many large cattle ranches were to be found, such as Texas1.

       Far more peculiar is the origin of the word piggy bank. Its etymology is not at all connected to the animal kingdom as a matter of fact. The word pygg was an Old English word for an orange-coloured pot of clay dating back to the 15th century. At this time, people would place small quantities of savings in such pots. Over time, the word pygg disappeared from the English language but the concept behind the term remained and evolved into piggy bank: becoming represented by the figure of a pig since the Old English word for pig (which was 'picga') transformed into 'pigge' before becoming 'pig'.

      The origin of the word hotdog is actually quite mysterious, but some prominent historians maintain that it originated as a humorous allusion to the long, small dogs kept by many German immigrants in America in the late 19th century. These were dachshunds, and their body shape somewhat resembles the shape of the snack comprised of a sausage wrapped in a bun that we know nowadays3.

Did this blog help you understand some of the ways in which language and social history are closely interrelated? Hopefully it has left you with a curious mind. In my next blog, I will present a variety of examples of common phrases and idioms that refer to animals, with particular focus on how the English language and its cultural standpoint ascribe certain human personality traits to certain animals. That's all for now. Until next time!






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