Animal-inspired Idioms

As I write this, I’m looking out of my window at the pouring rain. It seems to have been quite a regular occurrence lately and someone at the practice commented the other day that it was ‘raining cats and dogs.’ I laughed and agreed at the time, it certainly was a very heavy shower… but it wasn’t until I thought about the exchange again later that I began to wonder what that common saying actually means?! We all understand it to mean ‘it’s raining very heavily’ but why cats and dogs? How did the well-known and well-used phrase come into being, and why?

 

I decided that this topic required some further research and, while I was at it, I decided to look at some other common idioms about animals that I’ve frequently heard, and probably used too, without much thought about what on earth I was actually saying!

 

Raining cats and dogs

As I began to look into this, it became apparent that there wasn’t one single answer to my query, but rather a few possible explanations, so courtesy of theguardian.com, here are a few options…

 

It could be that this saying dates back to Tudor times, when roofs were often thatched, made of thick straw with no wood underneath. Small animals (cats, dogs, rats, mice) would huddle in the straw to keep warm but when it rained heavily the water could leak in causing it to be slippery, so the animals would fall from the roof – hence ‘raining cats and dogs.’

 

Another explanation, which sounds equally as plausible but far less appealing, is due to the poor street drainage in the olden days meaning that when it rained particularly heavily, drowned stray cats and dogs could be washed down the streets. Needless to say, I’m very glad that things have improved since those days.

Historyextra.com also suggests that it could be a mispronunciation either of the Greek ‘cata doxa’ meaning ‘contrary to belief or experience’ (so, an unbelievable amount of rain) or the Old English word ‘catadupe’ meaning ‘waterfall’ (it’s raining waterfalls).

 

So, no definitive answer there I’m afraid but some interesting explanations. Pick your favourite!

 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

This common proverb is widely used to mean ‘it’s better to have the certainty of one thing, than risk it for more.’ According to grammarist.com, some people belief the origins of this phrase are quite literal, relating to the sport of falconry, where the ‘bird in the hand’ is the falcon and the ‘two in the bush’ are the prey.

 

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

– meaning don’t assume or rely on something good happening before you know for certain that it will. You can’t count the number of eggs that are laid and rely on the fact that a healthy chick will hatch from each one.

The early bird catches the worm

– this one means you will have an advantage if you take up an opportunity before others, supposedly like a bird who gets their pick of the worms fresh from the ground first thing in the morning, but did you know there’s a second part to this well-known phrase, too? ‘The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.’ This part suggests that, while those who take advantage of an opportunity early will get the best pick, there are times when you should proceed with caution and if something seems too good to be true you should wait and weigh it up before jumping in (to the proverbial mousetrap).

 

Cat got your tongue?

Used to describe someone who’s unusually quiet, lost for words or stunned into silence, this idiom’s another strange one. In all my years as a vet I’ve never once seen a cat trying to grab someone’s tongue, they’re certainly not known for it, so where does this bizarre expression come from? Thankfully, grammarist.com explains that it’s a figurative expression which doesn’t literally mean what it says.

 

Again, there are a couple of explanations for the origin of this saying, and no definitive answer as to which is correct. Some people suggest, rather disturbingly, that it originates from the Middle Ages when the punishment for lying or blasphemy was to have your tongue cut out and fed to the King’s cats. Eek! I have no idea if that’s even true but I can imagine it would be a pretty good deterrent! Other people claim it has nautical origins when the whips used by the Royal Navy, known as the cat-o’-nine-tails, caused so much pain that they rendered the victim speechless, hence ‘cat (o’-nine-tails) got your tongue’.

 

It’s the bee’s knees

Used as an expression to refer to something that is truly exceptional, a really high standard or the best, this is a saying I’ve heard, and probably used, many times without giving much thought to bees or their knees. I mean, what’s so great about a bee’s knees anyway?

 

Well, some say that because a bee’s pollen storing sacks are on their legs they look a bit like yellow knees when they’re full, so the ‘bee’s knees’ would refer to a very full pollen sack – which certainly is a really great thing! However, according to theguardian.com, other people suggest it has nothing at all to do with bees or their knees and is, in fact, just an abbreviation of the phrase ‘the be all and end all of everything’ – shortened to ‘the b’s and the e’s’, and then, through common usage, ‘the bees knees’.

Phrases.org.uk suggests that ‘the bee’s knees’ is just one of many wacky, nonsensical phrases coined in the 1920s in east-coast USA, along with others like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ which has a similar meaning but makes even less sense. At least bees do have knees! I have yet to meet a cat who has pyjamas (although I’ll never say never, stranger things happen! Imagine if next week a cat comes into the surgery for an overnight stay with their PJs packed!)

 

A bull in a china shop

This one creates some pretty clear imagery – imagine a big, powerful bull, in a shop full of ornate, delicate china and, well, you get the picture! We all know someone who’s like this – a bit clumsy of heavy handed, or someone who totally lacks sensitivity and finesse in handling delicate situations. Yeah, they’re the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop’. Again, it’s a well-known and popular saying but where did it come from? Well, bookbrowse.com says the first recorded use can be traced back to 1834 in Frederick Marryat’s ‘Jacob Faithful’ although it’s not clear whether he initially coined the phrase. It’s an idea that certainly predates this work, with other variations of the same concept cropping up much earlier, such as Aesop who spoke of ‘an ass in a potter’s shop’. I have to say, I’m glad that wasn’t the version that stuck around!

 

Another bovine inspired saying is ‘take the bull by the horns’, meaning to deal confidently and decisively with a difficult situation, or tackling fears head on. It’s thought that this phrase has quite literal origins, from the American mid-west and rodeos where cowboys would tackle a young bull head-on by grabbing its horns and wrestling it to the ground. Certainly not something I’d recommend professionally, for man or beast.

 

It’s a dog’s life

Now, here’s a saying with an interestingly fluid meaning… from when it first began to be used, around the 16th century, the phrase ‘a dog’s life’ referred to a life that was difficult, unpleasant and hard because that’s the type of existence that working or hunting dogs had at that time. They lived outdoors, often in cold or cramped conditions, and they were required to work hard to earn their keep. Dogs in those days weren’t treated as pets as they are now. Nowadays, however, in line with the way dogs are viewed in society and their status as an integral part of the family, the phrase ‘it’s a dog’s life’ is beginning to be used with exactly the opposite meaning by the younger generation – referring to the well-cared for, loved, often pampered existence that most pet dogs enjoy nowadays.

 

They say a leopard can’t change its spots … but it seems a saying can change its meaning!

 

I hope I haven’t put the cat amongst the pigeons with this blog. I nearly chickened out of writing it but now I’ve done it, I feel like the cat who got the cream! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my little etymological exploration into some well-known animal-inspired idioms.