International Animal Idioms

Phrases, idioms, proverbs, and sayings can be the hardest things for non-native speakers to learn because most of the time you cannot translate the words literally. What could a French person possibly mean when saying, “There’s an eel under the rock”? This episode focuses on a few interesting rodent- and cattle-related phrases in English and in other cultures.

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
February 9, 2017
Episode #555

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Rodents are not considered unpleasant in some cultures. For example, the rat comes first in the Chinese zodiac. People born in the year of the rat, which comes once every twelve years, are considered “quick-witted, resourceful, versatile, kind, smart, and lovely.” [10] In India, there is even a temple, the Karni Mata Temple, where rats run free, are worshipped, and share food and milk with visitors. [11]

One more thing about rodents before we move on to cattle—and then to the answer about the eel: For centuries, rats have been blamed for being involved in transmitting the deadly bubonic plague, which has killed millions of people. According to an article in The Washington Post, gerbils, another kind of rodent, may be to blame rather than rats. [12] If gerbils turn out to be the culprits, perhaps in the future we will encounter an idiom or two featuring those animals, but there don’t seem to be any interesting ones at the moment. Now on to cattle.

Cows and Bulls

Cattle feature in some interesting idioms. The expression like a bull in a china shop describes someone who goes headfirst into a delicate situation [13] or someone who is very clumsy. [14] According to the Free Dictionary, this idiom was first recorded in an 1834 novel called Jacob Faithful. The site explains that the expression also appears in several European languages, but instead of a bull, the animal is an elephant. [14] Either large mammal would probably make a big mess if you took this phrase literally!

You might have heard the phrase a cock-and-bull story to describe nonsense. One can imagine what kind of story would result from a conversation between these two different animals. The French have a similar phrase, though this imaginary conversation takes place between a rooster and a donkey. [15]

The last cattle-related idiom we’ll discuss today is Holy cow! which you can say when you’re surprised. This expression dates from around 1920. [16] Other words used before cow were mackerel (about 1800) and Moses, used since around 1850. [16] There is even an expression Holy crickets! [17] The phrase Holy cow! is likely to come from the sacredness of cows in India. [18] You have already heard that some people in India revere rats. Cows, however, are more widely known to be sacred in India where according to a BBC article, cows amble unmolested in the streets.


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