We may treat animals badly but our culture, our dreams, and our waking thoughts are full of them. They dominate religion, art and language. Every language is full of animal idioms. An idiom is a word or phrase which means something different from what it says, its meaning is not literal, but can be understood by the users of that language and region.
Lets look at some today.
Some of them have a history for instance in English No Room To Swing a Cat is a maritime idiom: sailors were punished by being whipped with a whip called a “cat o’nine tails” and a space was cleared on the ship so that the person doing the whipping had room to swing the cat. Some are nonsensical but rhyme like the Bees Knees which means a person of importance. Dog’s breakfast is an idiom used to describe a total mess or disaster. If a particular recipe was botched so badly that no person would eat it, it would be given to the dog.
Going after the wrong solution to a problem? “Barking up the wrong tree.” This goes back to the practice of hunting with dogs. If a dog followed the wrong scent it might find itself barking at a tree that held nothing.
The “dog days of summer” are the hottest days of the season. It dates back to the ancient Romans who first noticed that the hottest days of the summer coincided with the appearance of Sirius, the “dog star” . They called it the Canicular Days. One Australian idiom refers to the practice of sleeping alongside a dog for warmth during cold evenings. A particularly cold night might require more than one companion; hence it is a “three-dog night.” Heavy rains bring the phrase its raining cats and dogs.” This goes back to the bad sanitation of Britain in the 17th century. Garbage, including animal dead bodies collected in the streets. When it rained the water would carry the bodies and it became fashionable to say that the animals had fallen from the sky.
Strangely enough, many of them are the same all over the world and were used long before travel began. As cunning as a fox, fight like cats and dogs, water off a ducks back, crocodile tears, eat like a bird, like a cat on hot bricks, mean the same in Vietnamese as it is in English.
Agricultural countries, nomadic countries, maritime countries all of them look at animals differently and this reflects in the idioms.
In some countries dogs help human beings. They watch the houses, herd sheep & goats, help in hunting. Therefore the idiom mans best friend originates from there. Old dog for a hard road (a faithful companion), love me love my dog. In countries where the dog is not regarded as anything other than food, the idioms used to describe it refer to it as stupid, cruel, unscrupulous,: Being kind to dogs makes them disrespectful.
The same applies to horses. In English, horses represent strength, willingness to work. As strong as a horse, eat like a horse (eat a lot). However, in the East horses represent stubbornness. The young horse is always aggressive; as stubborn as a wild horse.
In Asian countries the dragon represents power, excellence, and a benevolent force. In England it represents villainy, cruelty. In Vietnam, if someone passed the national exam and became a mandarin, the phrase the fish turns into a dragon is applied. When someone with a high social status visits a lower one, then they use the idiom the dragon visits the shrimp. The dragon is associated with royal families. In English a dragon lady is a woman who is domineering or belligerent. A dragon lady in the east is someone who is extremely genteel.
A vast number of English idioms and proverbs originate from the Bible, especially sheep which were important to the Hebrews. They represent God’s people: a lamb to the slaughter (unaware of catastrophe), a wolf in sheeps clothing (an enemy disguised as a friend), black sheep (the least reputable member of a group).
These also originate from the Bible:
– a fly in the ointment: a little flaw that ruins something good.
– a little bird told me: to keep secret a source of information.
Language is very powerful and sometimes we use it to be mean to animals, to assault our relationship with the animal world. So many similes and idioms are detrimental, and as the world changes we should try and change them. Violence in language leads to violence in deed. A nasty woman is not a cow or a bitch or a pig. Sick as a dog, sly as a fox, fat as a pig or filthy pig, drunk as a skunk.
Here are some that need to go:
Beating a dead horse to carry on long after the battle is over.
Albatross around your neck something preventing you from succeeding or accomplishing a task.
Cook someones goose to ruin their plans.
Lame duck – weak.
Her bark is worse than her bite – someones words are worse than their action.
Bull in a china shop – a person with no tact.
Cash cow – a good way to make money.
Curiosity killed the cat – being too nosy may lead a person into trouble.
Dog-eat-dog – willing to hurt others to get what one wants.
Dumb bunny – stupid or gullible person.
Go ape – become highly excited or angry.
Horse trading – hard and skilful bargaining.
Hit the bulls-eye be absolutely correct.
Let the cat out of the bag – reveal a secret.
Live high on the hog – live extravagantly.
Rat out on – betray.
Rat race – confusing way of getting ahead.
Road hog – car driver who takes more than his share of the road.
Scaredy-cat – someone who is easily frightened.
Buy a pig in a poke – buy something without knowing anything about it.
Throw someone to the wolves – send someone into danger without protection.
Be a guinea pig – to be tested on.
Take the bull by the horns – take decisive action and not worry about the results.
Call off the dogs – to stop threatening or chasing or hounding someone.
Cast pearls before swine – to waste something on someone who will not care about it.
Champ/chomp at the bit — to be ready and anxious to do something (a bit is put into a horse’s mouth for control of the horse).
Dog in the manger – someone who prevents others from doing anything.
Go hog-wild – to behave badly.
Go to the dogs – to deteriorate, to become bad.
Hit the bulls-eye – to reach the main point.
Keep the wolves at bay – to fight against some kind of trouble.
Kill the fattened calf – to prepare an elaborate banquet for someone.
A lone wolf – someone who spends time alone and has few friends.
Make a monkey out of – make someone look foolish.
A monkey on one’s back – a serious problem that stops someone from being successful at something.
A white elephant– something that is not useful and costs a lot of money to maintain.
To hound someone – to pursue or chase someone, to harass someone.
Hindi has thousands of ones that should be removed. Ullu Ka Pattha (the son of an owl) – stupid.
Bandar kya jaaney adrak ka swaad (what does a monkey know about the taste of ginger) is the same as Cast pearls before swine.
Ghar ki murgi (a chicken in the house) – something of high value is always taken for granted at home.
Think about the language you use because all attitudes start from there.
Maneka Gandhi is a politician and animal rights activist. She writes weekly column Heads & Tails for the Kashmir Observer. To join her animal rights movement contact: [email protected]
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