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Hold your horses! Idioms are the cat’s meow

| August 26, 2021 1:00 AM

If you were looking for another serious delve into controversial topics, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

That’s just one of 25,000 or so idioms in English, many featuring animals. Idioms, a favorite literary tool of Shakespeare, are tons of fun (although they make it harder to learn a language without more exposure to the culture).

Take this barked-up tree. One explanation is from the quintessential English hunt. Hunting dogs chased small animals who climbed a tree, but by the time the hunter got close, even if the critter jumped to another tree the dogs still barked — up the wrong tree.

Just for kicks, here are a few more animal idiom stories from Reader’s Digest, Oxford Dictionaries, and various and sundry sources of perhaps more questionable scholarship:

The dog days of summer. As in long and hot. The constellation Canis Major contains Sirius, the “Dog Star,” which is the brightest star in late July and early August. The ancient Romans (or was it Greeks?) thought that was why the long summer days were so hot. Back then, extreme heat was associated with bad luck, such as fevers and droughts.

Straight from the horse’s mouth. Around the turn of the 20th century, jockeys and trainers closest to racehorses — literally — were considered the best sources for pre-race tips. So it didn’t get better than hearing a tip “straight from the horse’s mouth.” There’s an alternative claim that the phrase may have to do with the fact that examining a horse’s teeth could hint at its physical condition, hence its fitness to race.

Cat got your tongue? Maybe this originated in mid-19th century England; maybe not. Thieves were apparently sometimes punished by removing their tongues, which were fed to cats. Another similarly gruesome tale suggests it was the Egyptians who did that.

Who let the cat out of bag? This idiom for revealing a secret may originate from the Middle Ages. Live pigs and chickens sold at the market in a burlap bag for transport. Dishonest sellers might substitute a wriggling cat, so when the buyer got home they let a cat out of the bag instead of what they expected for dinner.

It's raining cats and dogs. This reference to a hard rain is commonly explained from the same time period when people dumped trash into street gutters on the street. Sadly, that included deceased pets and critters so gutters were flooded with rain, they washed out in the street.

Doggie bag. Take-home leftovers got more popular during food shortages and low-waste practices of World War II. If people didn’t eat what was in the “doggie bag,” pets could. Restaurants, which weren’t yet in the habit of offering people the option of taking food home, began to offer the earliest “doggie bag” options, offering “pet pakits” in San Francisco cafés and “bones for bowser” bags in Seattle hotels.

Scapegoat. Less an idiom than an actual word, “scapegoat” did, in fact, used to refer to a real goat. Biblical references describe the release of a goat into the wild on Yom Kippur to represent a nation’s cleansing of sin. Merriam-Webster claims that the English word “scapegoat,” which combines “goat” with “scape” (an old-fashioned way of saying “escape”), first came to be in the 1500s. The word then evolved to mean anyone blamed and then exiled or punished for the perceived well-being of the rest of a group.

Wild goose chase. Nope; it’s not literal, and Shakespeare was at least the first to use this one in writing. Once upon a time there was a popular, odd form of horse racing. A lead racer followed a winding path, followed by a second, and third. By time more followed, the windy “chase” resembled a flock of geese all following the course set by the lead “goose.” Yeah, tenuous. I didn’t make it up.

Happy as a clam. Because they look like they’re smiling? Uh-uh. This is one we get wrong, because we’ve lost the second half. The original, early 19th century expression was “happy as a clam at high tide.” As clams can only be harvested at low tide, those clams would obviously be happy about high tide.

That really gets my goat (when you don’t like what you hear). Another horse racing explanation may or may not be true. In the early 1900s it’s said to calm a horse, a goat was put in its stall. Taking the goat away upset the horse, so getting your goat is annoying.

These are just a handful. If you can’t think of more animal idioms, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle (or aunt). Kind of a sarcastic reference to Darwin’s evolutionary theories.

Thanks to Antje Cripe for the topic suggestion.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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