Animal Idioms Explained
We’ve all heard the phrase “sly as a fox,” but how sly are foxes, really? Are foxes actually cunning and deceitful in their natural habitats? If not, how did this phrase enter the common vernacular? Should we really still be using this idiom?
I’ve done some basic research on the 4 animal phrases I hear a lot. With some exploration, I found the origin of sly foxes, dead horse beatings, feline tongue thieves, and cowardly chickens.
“Don’t Beat a Dead Horse”
As a precociously verbal and compulsively curious kid, this phrase piqued my interest for years. On many subjects, I would ask continuous explanations of the exhausted adults around me. “But why is it like that?” I’d harangue. “Don’t beat a dead horse” came a reply to end the conversation. From context clues, I figured it meant don’t continue talking about a subject that has become pointless or isn’t important, but where did such a gruesome concept come from? Who beats horses, let alone -gulp- horse corpses?
Apparently, it isn’t just beating and it isn’t just horses. One might figuratively ‘flog a dead horse’ as well. Or beat a dead dog. These usages are not nearly as common in my part of the world, but are alternative idioms.
One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase was popularized during an unsuccessful campaign toward British parliamentary reform. John Bright was said to have been ‘flogging a dead horse’ in Britain’s House of Commons in March 1859, and this is widely believed to be how the phrase was popularized.
The Horse Phrase Origin
Scholars believe that the phrase originated elsewhere. In the 17th century, a horse was a symbol and slang for hard work. Wages were paid after ‘horse’s work’ was finished. If wages were awarded before ‘horse’s work’ was complete, the work was less likely to get done and the work was considered a dead horse. The likelihood of a dead horse working is nil, so it goes that a prepaid worker is less motivated. It follows that beating that dead horse would be pointless.
As horses evolved alongside humanity as working animals, it is likely a phrase that has been with us dating back to the dawn of symbolic language, with perhaps slightly different meanings. One such usage can be found in the Greek tragedy Antigone:
“Nay, allow the claim of the dead; stab not the fallen; what prowess is it to slay the slain anew?”
In Antigone, this is a reference to the body of an actual dead person, and means there is no sense in punishing someone’s dead body, or, in this case, refusing them burial rites.
There is also an unsubstantiated claim that a Roman citizen and playwright Plautus coined the phrase in 195 B.C.E. It is unclear where this claim originates and, aside from being copied over, it doesn’t appear to be accurate.
“Cat got your tongue?”
This one feels like it’s out of a movie where men wear pinstriped suits, drive oversized Cadillacs, and call the women ‘dolls’. “Hey doll, I got you a present,” a gent might say, brandishing a mink stole. The receiver of the gift, being so stunned into silence by the expense of the gift (or the horror of the nickname) might stand slack-jawed, eyes darting from fur to face and back again. After a beat, he might say, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” The audience understands that he’s acknowledging that she is at a loss for words, at the beauty of the gift, at the rent check wasted, or at the heavy, bribing hand of the patriarchy. But what do cats have to do with speechlessness?
There are a lot of false, unsubstantiated claims on the internet for this one. Explanations involving Ancient Egyptian delicacies or punishments for British sailors have no direct evidentiary link — meaning they are internet hoaxes or the creation of the confused. What is known is that the phrase became popularized in the 1960s, but it existed as far back as 1859 where a Wisconsin newspaper reporter used it colloquially to mean ‘was not going to say.’ As such, the phrase likely originates from the American West in this time period.
Don’t chicken out! and I’m not chicken are classic, obscenity-free ways to indicate risk-taking is in play. The exchange might involve a bullying brute standing at the bottom of a tall slide, daring a smaller, younger, or generally nicer kid to climb up and jump down. From the ground, the daree might have agreed, but from the dizzying height of a slide ladder, perhaps had second thoughts. It’s at this point that the darer will yell out, “Don’t chicken out!” as in don’t back down from doing the risky thing you said you’d do, at which point the daree will call back, “I’m not chicken!” before taking the risk and proving that they were not scared.
Real-life chickens have never seemed particularly risky to me, but I’m not a farmer or chicken sanctuary caretaker or anything. It seems like there are plenty of other animals that are skiddish, nervous, or timid, so how does the chicken cross the road and into our dialect?
According to the Independent, the chicken’s cowardly reputation began in 1600, where William Kemp wrote, “It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! A hebber de hoy! A chicken! A squib!”
It can be found in the works of Dickens and Godwin following this first appearance in print. Personally, I may start using “hoddy doddy” on a regular basis.
The chicken is so ubiquitous today that we hardly notice the diminutive and disempowering nature of calling a woman a “chick” or “chicken”. According to some writers, however, women have reclaimed chick as their own, coining female-friendly movies ‘Chick Flicks’ for instance, but I’m not convinced. It still seems clearly offensive to me.
“Sly as a Fox”
This is perhaps best described as the charm offensive. Someone who does something smartly manipulative is often said to be sly as a fox. Foxes are portrayed as clever, cunning, sly, manipulative, self-involved, and vain in modern programming. Reynard the Fox is one such character, who originated in the 12th century, but continues to turn up on television and in movies to this day. Sly foxes date back even earlier than that.
There are 28 Aesop fables that reference foxes (including The Fox and the Grapes, which I’ve translated into modern vernacular in my new series). In The Fox and the Crow, for instance, a crow finds a piece of cheese and settles on a branch to eat it. A fox, coveting the cheese, flatters the crow by complimenting on its beauty and then asks if the crow’s voice is just as beautiful. The crow lets out a loud caw and drops the cheese, which is quickly devoured by the fox. Pretty clever fox, eh? As Aesop’s fables date back to approximately 600 BCE, it is safe to say that the slyness of a fox has been part of recorded history for millennia.
Red foxes in particular are very clever. They adapt well to changes in their landscape or human incursion, and they eat a wide variety of foods based on availability. They raise their young as parental pairs in the expanded, found dens of other animals.
Although confirmation was difficult, it would seem that the phrase sly as a fox might be a direct commentary on foxes themselves, dating back throughout the oral storytelling tradition of humankind.
Choose Them or Lose Them
Every iteration of these phrases entrenches them further in our modern vernacular. Choose to use them with the full knowledge of where they come from, how accurate they are, and what they intend. Choose to lose them if the meaning or origin is disquieting to you.
Although idioms are not meant to be taken literally, they draw upon symbolic imagery to emphasize a feeling or observation. How gruesome does symbolism in our daily speech need to be? I don’t want to keep going past sunset but I’m also not jumping back like a coward when I say, let’s choose idioms for their full origin and meaning or let’s lose them from our language catalog.
Are there any phrases that stand out as odd in our modern dialog?
Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some research and post the answers soon!