Animal references in everyday English language usage – Part 3

If you had a read of my previous post based on animal references, you may be starting to become aware that English is a language that is quite rich in terms of the variety of metaphors that it uses generally. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, given the huge number of speakers of English all around the world.

In this post, I'm going to divide the animal references I mention up into two categories: expressions and idioms (or sayings). Expressions often tend to be shorter in length than idioms and may be easier for learners to memorise initially. However, once you get into the habit of learning expressions it will become easier to master the many animal (and non-animal related) idioms of the English language. Let's begin!


Some Useful Expressions

Do you know which animal is most commonly associated with the concept of obedience and conformity? Perhaps you are thinking of dogs, as they are animals that can be trained to follow orders given by human beings (most notably in the case of guide dogs who help blind people to cross roads safely, among others things). It is true that lapdogs are often linked with the notion of unquestioning obedience. Nonetheless, it is sheep that are most commonly viewed as representing conformity. The expression 'to follow the herd' is an indirect reference to sheep as they tend to move about in herds (groups), usually guided by a farmer.

Which living creature is thought of as being very occupied at all times? It is the bee, since they never stop making honey of course (as well as feeding the queen bee of the beehive). Thus, if someone is as busy as a bee, then they have no time available for anything other than doing work.


How about the human quality of reliability? Which animal do you suppose is typically associated with this trait? You may be thinking of dogs once again, as they are known to be 'man's best friend' after all. But when it comes to the reliability or accuracy of information that a person receives from a particular source, it is horses, curiously enough, that are the regular embodiment of trustworthiness. If a piece of information comes 'straight from the horse's mouth', this means that it comes from the highest possible source of authority and is guaranteed to be accurate. The origin of this expression lies in horse racing itself, and seems to have come from the USA in the early 20th century, where it was (and still is) a popular pastime to bet money on horses. Each individual placing a bet naturally wanted to obtain the most reliable information about the physical condition of the horse that they were backing (i.e. placing money on) and so the horse's mouth became a metaphor for the most trustworthy information available (1).


 Some interesting idioms:



Certain types of animals are understandably associated with certain qualities. Since wolves are large animals and are also carnivores (with a big appetite), there is little real subtlety to be found in the following commonly used idiom: 'A wolf in sheep's clothing'. Yes indeed, it is true that from an early age, Anglophones associate wolves with danger and cunning behaviour. The children's tale Little Red Riding Hood - where a wolf dresses up as the grandmother of a young girl (after eating her real grandmother) in an attempt to trick her and devour her - is probably the best example of how wolves are depicted as devil-like creatures in the English language! So if the qualities of sheep are used to represent subservient behaviour, can you imagine what the expression 'a wolf in sheep's clothing' implies? The reference to clothing indicates that it comes directly from the children's tale mentioned above, first of all. Thus, the idiom refers to people who seek to deceive other people using clever means.



What other creatures in the animal kingdom do you think might be linked to the notion of crafty, sly behaviour? Think particularly of animals that can move extremely fast and can zone in on their prey so quickly that they have no chance of escaping in time. You will then understand why the leopard is identified as another animal that is fit to embody the human quality of unchanging deviousness.  Hence the expression 'a leopard doesn't change his spots'.  When someone recognises the fact that a person whom they know well possesses this devious characteristic and is never going to change their ways, they may well feel like using this expression, referring to the very spotted animal that is the leopard!

On the other hand, there are certain idioms in the English language that refer to particular animals somewhat by chance. This may have something to do with rhyming or alliteration, for example. One of the best instances of clever rhyming in an English idiom, in my view, is to be found in the expression 'birds of a feather flock together'. For a learner of the language, the meaning is not at all obvious at first. What it implies is that like-minded people (i.e. people who share similar tastes and ways of thinking) are likely to want to hang out together. Since birds do tend to congregate in very large numbers as people often do, the connotation behind the idiom should start to become clear after a while.

In this blog post, I bring my discussion on the topic of animal references to a conclusion. Starting with my next post, I will move on to describe more general types of metaphors to be found in English colloquial usage: ones that describe particular emotions, moods or circumstances.

Feel free to leave a comment below as always if you have any questions you'd like to ask about any of my blogs. I'll do my best to answer them. Until next time!


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