The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)


January 31, 2012

Zoo Tales: Animal Lingo Now Part of Our Language

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 — From “raining cats and dogs” to “white elephant,” animal expressions and idioms have become a part of our language. Many of them originated in farming and animal husbandry with the characteristics of common or domesticated animals. Others come from an animal's legendary nature (stubborn as a mule, strong as an ox, sly as a fox, timid as a rabbit).

Here are some old favorites and a few of their possible origins.

Loaded for Bear (to be prepared for any possibility): Wounded grizzlies will sometime charge those who hunt them. This expression likely came from the idea that bear hunters would over-equip themselves for an extraordinary hunt. Specifically, it would mean to carry a larger-caliber weapon or, as in the days of muzzle-loaders, use more powder.

Red Herring (a false trail or misleading clue): In many parts of 19th century Britain, smoked (or red) herring, because of their very strong smell, were good at masking other smells. A red herring pulled across the trail could divert the hounds onto a false path. The phrase eventually came to be used to describe any false trail.

Hair of the Dog That Bit You: Medieval doctors believed that if a rabid dog bit you, your chance of recovery was better if a hair was plucked from the dog and placed on your wound as an antidote against the possible ill effects of the bite. Also, another drink or two after a drinking binge could sometimes be the cure for a hangover.

Happy As a Clam (to be overly happy or pleased): This is actually part of the longer saying Happy As a Clam at High Tide: Clam diggers wade through the water and use a hand-held rake to gather up the clams from the mud. If the tide is high, the water is too deep to wade into, and clams are safe from their hunters.

Room to Swing A Cat (an unconfined space): This phrase has nothing to do with feline cruelty, but the real story is at least as cruel. The "cat" was a cat-of-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors on old sailing ships. The whip had one handle to which was attached nine thin strips of leather, each as much as three feet long. The whippings would take place on the deck because below deck there was not enough ceiling height to swing the cat-of-nine-tails.

Sick as a Dog (to be extremely sick): This expression first appeared in print in 1705. Anyone who owns dogs knows that they can--and often will--eat almost anything. On those occasions when their diet disagrees with them, the results can be a little dramatic--often all over the heirloom carpet. Also, in England, where the expression is thought to have originated, it often means, more exactly, to vomit.

Eating High on the Hog (to live luxuriously): The best meat on a pig is on its upper portion. Rich people have always been afforded this luxury while the servants, slaves and poor have always had to eat pig's feet, chitterlings and cracklings--all parts low on the hog.

Horse of a Different Color (unlike the subject at hand or something entirely different from the original): When a horse is registered at birth, the registration includes its color. When it is then sold or traded, the registration is also transferred. Sometimes the color recorded on the registration may not match the actual color of the horse, leading a perspective owner to suspect the horse is not the one in the registration but an entirely different one.

In the Doghouse (to be in trouble--usually with one's girlfriend of wife): This one has many possible origins. It can come from the idea of being punished like a dog, which is forced to stay in a doghouse--away from people. Also, it was once a slang term for prison.

So, there they are; hope it’s been more fun than a barrel of monkeys. But shed no crocodile tears, it’s only my cock and bull story.

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