There can be no doubt that colloquialisms which make reference to animals in some shape or form are a feature of most human languages. The stories we are told by our parents as children have a significant role to play in terms of how we ascribe certain human attributes to particular animals in our own minds. This is due to the fact that in children’s tales such as The Jungle Book or The Wind In The Willows, quite often, animals engage in human behaviour. The authors, in writing stories which feature mainly animals, have two objectives. First of all, they aim to introduce small children to the varieties of living creatures that inhabit the earth. Secondly, they aim to entertain them and fuel their imagination. Surely it is more interesting to write about all of the colourful animals that exist, each of which makes a distinct noise and moves at a different speed, than to present human beings alone.
Children’s stories aside, another, perhaps more obvious, reason why we make connections between the animal and human worlds is simply that in some cases there is a real similarity between them and in others the illusion of sameness (which can appear quite real).
Let’s look first at a number of expressions that describe human activities through the lens of the animal world. A person who works like a dog is someone who works very hard indeed. Alternative versions of the phrase are working like a horse and working like a beaver. All three animals are known for their ability to do plenty of work. While dogs and horses generally engage in work when employed by humans (e.g. for pulling heavy objects), beavers work alone and are known to busy themselves building dams and canals in fact.
Here’s another expression: laughing like a hyena. The sound that hyenas make sounds a lot like a raucous laugh to human ears, hence the meaning of the expression, which implies the act of laughing uncontrollably. However, the sound emitted is actually used by hyenas to let other members of a hyena group know that they have either been attacked or have made a kill (1). Thus, this is an example of an expression where we interpret reality in the way that it appears on the surface and incorporate it into our everyday stock of phrases.
The next phrase on the list is swanning about. This can also be written or verbalised as swanning around and it refers to the concept of wandering around aimlessly and in a carefree way, alluding to the way in which swans appear to move about in lakes or ponds in a graceful, idle manner.
Let’s now look at how physical attributes and character traits can be depicted through animal references. If someone is as strong as a horse, they are clearly very strong indeed. If they move as slowly as a snail or can run as fast as a hare the connotation is again obvious, and the person speaking is of course resorting to exaggeration for dramatic effect.
If someone has a memory like a goldfish then they are prone to forgetting things very quickly. For decades, it was believed that goldfish only had the ability to remember things for a period of a few seconds. However, recent research shows that they can actually remember for up to five months! (2) The expression persists nonetheless. If you have the memory of an elephant, on the other hand, this means that you have a very good memory.
If you are a sheepish individual, you are self-conscious and lacking in confidence. Sheep are known to be shy, quiet animals and so you can see why the expression has been adopted over time.
If someone has lion-like courage, he/she is a very brave individual. Lions and tigers, being at the top of the food-chain in the animal world, and with an ability to emit a tremendous roar, are often associated with strength in the English language at least.
A person who is as crafty as a fox is somebody who is very aware and astute at all times when it comes to decision-making. This allusion surely arises from the fact that foxes can be quite adept at snatching hens and chickens from farms without being detected, devouring them for dinner.
In many cultures, owls were traditionally believed to be wise due to the fact that they were thought to stay awake all night with their eyes wide open, sitting on top of tree branches as if they were somehow pondering deep philosophical questions, hence the expression as wise as an owl. In reality though, owls do close their eyes and sleep at night and are not as intelligent as some other birds (3).
The final expression I’d like to impart this week is this: as grey as a badger. This usually refers to a man whose hair colour has turned an intense shade of grey. The colour of a badger’s fur is generally a mixture of grey and black, similar to the appearance of a person going grey at a mature stage of their life.
Has this blog helped to expand your vocabulary with regard to animal-based expression in the English language? There are of course countless other phrases that I haven’t had space to mention here. In my next blog, I will move on to talk about animal-related sayings and idioms. These are my personal favourite, as they tend to be quite cleverly constructed and have very interesting meanings. Until next time!