American Idioms: Animal Edition

Idiomatic speech can be confusing to a new language learner, but it’s a great way to begin to understand a foreign culture. An idiom is a commonly used phrase that, literally translated, makes no sense— a language student’s worst nightmare! Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll see that behind each idiom is a story, often an interesting historical fact or parable. Every language has idioms, often ranging from the comic to the profane— and some here in America are downright zooey! Here are the stories behind a few idioms from English’s animal-oriented vernacular:

“Straight from the horse’s mouth”

This expression, which originated in the 1920’s, refers to hearing something from a reliable source, or someone directly involved in a situation. “Straight from the horse’s mouth” comes from the racetrack, where the practice of looking into a racehorse’s mouth to examine its teeth was common— in an industry where dishonesty often prevailed, looking at the teeth of the animal was the only way to authoritatively reveal its age, and therefore its worth.

Example: “Is she really getting married in Vegas?” “Yes! I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth!”

“There are plenty of other fish in the sea”

I’m sure almost every American teenager heard this one after going through their first emotional breakup. This phrase’s exact origin is unknown, but it’s a common way to let someone who has experienced rejection know that there are many more wonderful people and opportunities to come!

Example: “I really thought he was the one for me!” “Remember, there are plenty of other fish in the sea”

“I smell a rat”

The first recorded instance of this phrase dates back to a June 1851 newspaper article. “I smell a rat” refers to a feeling that something is off or awry. One might also say “this smells fishy”, or “I smell something fishy”, to mean the same thing—that things might not be as they seem. The word “smell” has been used in English for centuries to express a feeling or intuition that isn’t necessarily based on explicit information— Shakespeare wrote “Do you smell a fault?” in his play King Lear, which was written in the early 1600’s. The exact origin of “I smell a rat” is unknown, but one theory involves the idea that when a cat smells a rat, he knows it’s there, but doesn’t have the necessary information to confirm his suspicion unless he actually sees it.

Example: “The jury thought Mr. Smith was being honest in his testimony, but I smell a rat”

“Cat got your tongue?”

This one is a bit violent. While the exact origin story of “Cat got your tongue?” is unknown, scholars believe that it originated one of two ways; either in response to the English Navy’s practice of flogging transgressors with an incredibly barbaric whip, called a “Cat O’ Nine Tails”, or in response to the myth, dating back to the Middle Ages, that cats could steal a baby’s breath while it slept. Grisly! Today this phrase is used by a person trying to elicit a response from someone who is being uncharacteristically silent.

Example: “Why don’t you say anything? Has the cat got your tongue?”

“Birds of a feather flock together”

This is quite an old idiom, dating back to at least the 16th century. The term even appears in some translations of Plato’s Republic, though it’s unclear if it was present in the original text. “Birds of a feather flock together” is pretty self-explanatory; birds of a single species do in fact form flocks in nature as a form of protection against predators. The phrase refers to a similar practice among humans, in which like-minded people tend to form groups based on their commonalities.

Example: “The whole marching band is going to prom as a group!” “You know what they say…Birds of a feather flock together!”

“Let the cat out of the bag”

This idiom also dates back to pre-16th century English, when (as the story goes) livestock sellers might deviously swap a piglet for a house-cat, slipping the animal into a sack for delivery after the transaction had been completed. The buyer, not being able to see the animal inside the bag, would be none the wiser until they got home, opened their purchase, and a cat came jumping out. This strange image is used to refer to a situation which someone reveals a secret before they are supposed to, a practice also referred to colloquially as “Spilling the beans”.

Example: “We were supposed to have a surprise party for Sydney on Saturday, but I think she saw it coming— someone must have let the cat out of the bag!”

What fun and interesting idioms, expressions, colloquialisms, or vernacular does your language contain? Share in the comments!

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