A Dozen Idioms – Who Said Animals Can’t Talk?

Recently, I wrote a blog about idioms that were influenced by occupations and another one about idioms written by Alysia while taking to her mother while she was doing errands.  In this blog, I would like to share some history behind some idiomatic expressions that are based on animals. You may not be aware that many of today’s American English idioms have historically been traced to animals. Take for example chickens, crocodiles, elephants, horses, pigs and hogs, turkeys, whales and more …  Reading through a short history behind these idioms will help you have a better grasp of how these phrases originated and also their intended use throughout history until today.


Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

This common saying was first used in the sixteenth century. However, its origins can be traced to one of Aesop’s fables The Milkmaid and the Pail written in the 6th century, B.C. In this story, a young girl is walking home with a full pail of milk on her head.  As she daydreams of what to do with the milk (i.e. make cream and butter to sell, buy eggs with this money, the eggs would hatch into more chickens which would lay more eggs, etc. so she could buy a dress to attract some young men …and then she would toss her curls to tease them …) While she daydreams, the girl indeed tosses her curls causing the pail to tumble and spill the milk.  The moral of this fable is that there are disappointments to those who count their chickens before they hatch. Today, this expression is used to mean just that.  You should not be overconfident in your success until it actually happens. It is very easy and second nature to do, but counting your chickens before they hatch can lead to great disappointments.  It may be better to use that energy to actually take the steps toward your goal.


Crocodile tears

Early explorers often thought that crocodiles would cry to make tears to slide down their mouths, and in turn moisten their food.  It was believed that this would make the food easier to swallow, especially the tough meat of their prey.  However the truth is that crocodiles shed tears to lubricate their eyes, much like humans do.  They really don’t shed tears to help in eating or to show emotions.  It just looks that way.  So now the expression crocodile tears means that you are pretending to cry perhaps to get sympathy or to get your own way (as a form of manipulation).  Maybe you have heard a mother say to her child, “Don’t shed those crocodile tears” or “Come on, dry off those crocodile tears!”


White elephant

This expression comes from Burmese who believe that albino elephants are sacred.  These elephants are not used for work.  They are given the best care. So this expression white elephant means something that is very costly to maintain and has little value or benefit.  For example, if you organized a white elephant exchange at a party, it is a fun activity where the guests all bring one wrapped item that is totally worthless.  The gifts are exchanged and you take home that “useless gift” or perhaps you end up throwing it away before you even get home!  Maybe you can think of a few white elephants of your own?  That sweater or tie you never wear because it is just too ugly, a disgusting-smelling scented candle, a large framed picture of you 15 years ago with those large glasses and outdated hairstyle, etc. I’m sure if you go to a rummage sale, flea market, or estate sale you will have a clearer picture of what this means.  Or better yet, clean out your garage, attic, or basement. I’m pretty sure you’ll find a white elephant.


Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

This phrase was first written in Latin in some of St. Jerome’s writings in 420 A.D. Then, an Early English version (1510 A.D.) of A gyuen hors may not (be) loked in the tethe showed up in Standbridge’s Vulgari Standbrigi. The expression is based on a horse’s teeth. Their gum lines recede as they get older.  Therefore, older horses have longer teeth than younger ones.  So to look ahorse in the mouth meant to examine the horse’s mouth to detect the age of the horse and thereby judge the value or use of the horse.  When this phrase was first used, it meant that if you look only at a gift (like the horse’s teeth) for the value or use of it, then you miss the reason behind the gift. You miss the thought the person had when they bought or made the gift, and decided to give it to you.  Now this expression means to be inconsiderate, ungrateful and rude when given a gift that really was freely given from someone else.

Long in tooth

The phrase long in tooth means to be old, and comes from the same background as described above (e.g. the longer the horse’s teeth, the older the horse).  If someone’s grandmother is long in tooth, it means she is old or getting up there in years. If your car is described as long in tooth, it may appear old and not exactly new

Get a leg up

This expression was first used by equestrians who needed a boost to get on their horses. Even today, when you go horseback riding, it is common practice to have someone cup their hands together to make a foothold to help you mount the horse.  You then step into these hands with one foot, throw the other leg over the horse and you are mounted to ride.  The expression get aleg up used today means to get an advantage or to get a boost.  So if you decide to go and work on Saturdays at the office to get a leg up, this means you think by working harder or longer on some project that you will be noticed my your boss, succeed at work or get a raise. It might also mean that you will get a lot of work done and then you will be ahead.  Another example would be that if you wanted to get a leg up on fitness, then you would exercise daily, maybe run 1-2 days a week, and eat healthier foods.

Horse of a different color

Horses, similar to other animals that may be traded or bought, are registered when they are born.  This record includes the color of their coat and their markings.  When a horse is sold, the registration is transferred.  If the color on the record does not match the actual color of the horse, it is suspect that the horse may not be the original one.  A long time ago, this expression only referred to horses and their color differences.  Today, this phrase is said when there is something or someone completely different.  For example, let’s say there are four children in a family and three of them look alike and one looks different.  You would say that the one that looks different is a horse of a different color. But the phrase is even used more broadly than this.  It does not have to always do with how something looks.  Another example, a group or people want to go to a restaurant that serves healthy foods and one person wants to go to his favorite fast food restaurant.  You would say that this one person is a horse of a different color.  Anything that is completely different from something else can be termed a horse of a different color.

Horse sense

Did you know that a horse is one of the most intelligent animals?  Horses avoid situations to cause falls, know when there is danger, can tell if you are an experienced rider, etc.  Therefore, the idiom horse sense has always referred to how smart horses are.  Now the phrase is used to mean common sense.  If you (yes, you! – even a person) has horse sense, then you have common sense.  I think we all know people who have good horse sense and a few that may not.


High on the hog

Rich people throughout history have afforded the best meats for luxurious dinners and parties.  Apparently, the upper portion of the pig is the best, flavored meat.  This is what the richer people who afford to dine on.  While the poorer folks, the slaves and servants generally ate what no one else wanted … like the feet, chitterlings, cracklings, etc. This expression meant literally that you were eating high on the hog (the best tasting pork), but now the expression is used figuratively.  Today, we say a professional sports player or a movie star is living high on the hog or that when you get paid, you can now live high on the hog.  Or maybe it is a special occasion like a birthday, anniversary or wedding and you can say the event was really nice and everything was high on the hog.  This would mean that it was an extravagant event.  No money was wasted to have some of the best things for the guests and the celebratory memories of the occasion.


Cold turkey

This expression was first printed in mainstream media to describe drug withdrawal in a TimeMagazine article High & Light (1951).  The phrase originates from the goose bumps and the color of the turkey’s skin when it is plucked and uncooked.  Likewise, when someone is going through withdrawal of narcotics or tobacco, they get goose bumps (e.g. and feel cold) and their skin tone changes to a bland color.  This expression also stems from the holidays times of Thanksgiving and Christmas where leftover turkey is often eaten cold.  Who doesn’t have leftover turkey?  These holidays also marked a time of increased alcohol consumption to celebrate and therefore the expression cold turkey emerged.If we say someone is going cold turkey, they are not doing something gradually.  They are doing it all at once.  So if you go cold turkey and you want to stop smoking, you give up cigarettes completely. There is no tapering off.  You just stop smoking.  The expression can also be used with lots of other things besides smoking and drinking.  Any change you make in your life that is abrupt and not gradual can be seeing as going cold turkey. You merely make up your mind and you do it. You quit. Plain and simple.


Chew the fat

The Inuits who are a group of people inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, Russia and the US are known to chew on pieces of whale blubber.  This is a custom throughout their history.  The taste of fresh, raw blubber is sweet and creamy.  It takes a while to dissolve so they often did other things and chewed the blubber at the same time.  This is much like you might eat or drink something and type on your computer, or chew gum while reading a book, etc.  This expression chew the fat first meant only to be chewing on the whale blubber.  But, today it means to talk about anything and often about things that are insignificant.  If someone invites you to go down to the local pub or a café and chew the fat, you will just have a laid-back, leisurely time talking about anything that comes to your mind while drinking a beer, glass of wine or cup of coffee.  You probably have chewed the fat with a few friends now and then, and I bet most of you really had a good time (i.e. passing this time while you did so).  In fact, you can chew the fat over the phone and maybe even over emails or IM these days.

And more … Believe it or not, there are hundreds of idiomatic expressions that use animals as the base of their meanings today.  Next week, I’ll share some of these about cats, dogs, monkeys, mice, rats, sheep and goats, wolves and even a few more concerning horses and pigs/hogs.  Until then, please write to me and share a story of how you have used any of these expressions or when you heard one of them being used.  You might have a few new phrases, too.  You can chew the fat by writing to me at talktocanada.com  Our readers and I would enjoy that.

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