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The Elephant in the Room: Our Odd Expressions Involving Animals


The Elephant in the Room: Our Odd Expressions Involving Animals

Matt Milligan

I’ve had an issue throughout my life deciphering sayings and expressions. I’ll use them in their appropriate form, but sometimes maintain a slightly too colorful etymology in my head… some more dumb than others. A prime example: until my mid 20’s, I’d use the term ‘make ends meet’ with the understanding that it was actually ‘make ends meat,’ and that the history behind the phrase roughly meant that you were so poor that you had to resort to the ‘ends meat’ in the dumpster behind the butcher shop to get by. Yikes.

‘Nip it in the butt,’ ‘wheel barrow,’ ‘next store neighbor’ – that’s the tip of the iceberg of my god awful misconceptions. But it got me thinking that, though I may be a bit slower on the uptake than others, that many of our everyday expressions can be interpreted in a variety of ways. ‘Paint the town red,’ i.e. go out and drink – what the hell does that actually mean to you in your head? As it turns out, the phrase is derived from one particular drunk named Marquis of Waterford, who lead a rowdy group of friends around a town in England and literally painted statues, doors, and even a tollgate red.

After some research into some of the more misunderstood (at least to me) phrases we hear on the reg, I noticed something almost immediately: animals, in general, absolutely dominate the landscape of our sayings and expressions, and we use them without thinking twice about their origin because they’re just accepted as such. Think about it… someone goes ‘cold turkey’ – in what dimension could you possibly be able to explain to me what in god’s name that actually means.

What I find most interesting is our usage of terms involving animals to describe human situations – you can be ‘under the weather,’ but you can also be sick as a dog. You could very well be drinking like a fish and wind up drunk as a skunk, in which case you’ll eventually be feeling as sick as a dog and may need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you. Though we’re often told ‘opposites attract,’ you may counter that birds of a feather flock together. Happy as a clam while telling a whale of a tail, you may start to clam up when people start to question your story. Feeling like a fish out of water, you decide your story telling abilities are just far superior and you’re just a big fish in a small pond instead.

I could list these out until the cows come home, but instead of taking the bull in a china shop approach and listing everything out randomly, I’m going to make a beeline towards three animals that seem to get all of our colloquial attention:

Before we dig a little deeper into hands down one of the most outrageous commonly used sayings ever, I want to take a second to point out how many damn phrases involve a horse. At any moment you may be engaged in horse play, on a high horse, holding your horses, horsin’ around, looking a gift horse in the mouth, or you may just be a dark horse. But let’s not put the cart before the horse: automobiles have only been around for about a 100 years, so it stands to be said that horses were about as common as people around town at one point.

That said: I will tell you straight from the horse’s mouth that the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ is far and away the weirdest of the bunch. Imagine you go through life without hearing that phrase until your mid-to-late twenties, and someone drops that one on you in the middle of a story.

“Excuse me?”
“Yea I said it, you’re beating a dead horse, move on.”
“What the hell? Screw you and the horse you rode in on, I’m calling Animal Control you MONSTER.”

You see… as I mentioned above, these sorts of sayings have a very real literal connotation via an image in my head. “Two birds with one stone” - boom, great throw! “Like a chicken with its head cut off” – uhh yea I could see a headless chicken just being generally spastic/uncomfortable to look at. “Beating a dead horse” – yup just a farmer with a baseball bat drunkenly beating the hell out of a dead horse at high noon outside of a saloon.

The etymology of this weird-ass saying varies; the earliest documented appearance occurs in the late 19th century in a speech as “flogging a dead horse,” and was used to convey a certain pointlessness (i.e. flogging a dead horse to make him pull a cart). It also has ties as early as the 17th where a ‘dead horse’ had a sort of urban dictionary status as a service being paid in advance of the work, of which I don’t truly understand.

Horses aren’t the only ones spared from our awkwardly violent expressions. I’ll let the cat out of the bag if curiosity doesn’t kill it first, but not before telling you that there’s more than one way to skin one. I mean holy shit, some of these sayings are vividly disturbing. Good thing they’ve got 9 lives ‘cuz they apparently need every single last one of them. Has anybody actually seen what a cat on a hot tin roof looks like, what material cat’s pajama’s are made from, or why someone ever would be in a position where a cat may have their tongue?

But look what the cat dragged in: dogs, i.e. “man’s best friend,” we happen to be a little friendlier about than cats, since “cats are conniving shitheads that would eat you if they could figure out a way” (that’s not an expression but it’s true). After all, we let sleeping dogs lie, and you can’t teach an old one new tricks (but they can do tricks - cats can’t because they’re psychotic narcissists).  You may find yourself doggin’ it, with your tail between your legs, or even in the doghouse every once in a while, but you’ll be top dog again soon enough because after all: every dog has its day.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief delving into the theme of animals in our expressions: the early bird may get the worm and 2nd mouse may get the cheese, but god have mercy on the horses and cats.