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Jim Walker: Animal idioms — if only they knew

Don't Take Me Seriously

Posted: December 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2011 1:55 a.m.

A few months ago, we took a look at the interesting intricacies of idioms, and I ended that column by noting that I had more of those little gems up my sleeve.

Well I do — and here you are:

As explained before, an idiom should not be taken literally. The phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” was given as an example. What this popular idiom means, as you know, is that “it’s raining really, really hard.” (Some say the streets of old London used to flow with the carcasses of dead cats and dogs during a heavy rain, which may have given rise to the idiom.)

Now, someday, “when pigs fly,” it might rain pigs. I mean, it is well known pigs are “road hogs” on the ground, being too busy putting on lipstick or “hamming it up,” and flying would only cause this to be even more dangerous, resulting in a lot of midair collisions and subsequent fallings from the sky. And trying to get pigs to follow air-traffic control would be like tossing “pearls before swine.”

As you can see, animals are popular subjects in idioms, probably because animals take everything so literally, and it’s fun to confuse them.

Consider dogs. When you use an idiom on a dog, he just tilts his head and looks at you quizzically. And though he might “prick up (or pick up) his ears,” he still won’t get it. This is true even if he has had many years of experience tolerating your madness, which proves “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

On the other hand, you might find out it is not true that “his bark is worse than his bite” if you don’t “let sleeping dogs lie,” especially if he’s “meaner than a junkyard dog” and “there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Now cats, on the other hand, like to keep you guessing. While they are actually as clueless as dogs are when you offer them idioms, cats just act like they haven’t heard you, and keep their eyes closed, pretending to “take a cat nap,” hoping you will go away, and imagining how wonderful it would be if the “cat got your tongue.” They “play cat and mouse” with you, unwilling to believe you might react poorly and “see which way the cat jumps” or find out the hard way there “isn’t room to swing a cat.”

Now, it only “makes horse sense” that you “hold your horses” and “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” even if he’s a “horse of a different color,” because you might get something you don’t want “straight from the horse’s mouth.”

Similarly, you “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” because you might have some “bad eggs,” most likely as a result of your rooster being “no spring chicken.”

Now, people will often tell you to “take the bull by the horns,” which is “a load of bull,” because it would be “like waving a red rag at a bull,” and he will get all “bull-headed” and bust you up like he would a china shop.

Bird idioms run the full range from highly complimentary to downright insulting. For instance, you can be “as free as a bird” or “as graceful as a swan” (awww). You can be “proud as a peacock” or “wise as an owl.” But you can also be “as silly as a goose,” “as naked as a jaybird,” “as bald as a coot,” “as crazy as a loon” or “an albatross around someone’s neck.”

And “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but if that hand “flips the bird,” well, someone could end up “dead as a dodo.”

And, finally, we are told “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” though she might wake up beside some guy if she “drinks like a fish.” And if her husband comes home early from his business trip, things could be like “shooting fish in a barrel” and they both could end up “sleeping with the fishes,” which is “a fine kettle of fish.” But the husband will be OK because “there are plenty of fish in the sea.”

Never fear, we’ll do this again.

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