To hog, to ram, to bird dog. How many "animal verbs" can you list?
One of our listeners wrote in with a question about what she called “animal verbs” — verbs that take their name from an animal’s characteristic behavior. She wondered if there were a proper name for such verbs.
Kathryn, there is a special name for animal sounds, at least ones that imitate the noises that animals make. They’re called onomatopoeia. For example, “quack,” “woof,” and “chirp” are onomatopoeias. These words mimic the sounds that ducks, dogs, and birds make, respectively.
As far as we can find, there’s no special name for words based on the behavior of animals. We’re going to talk about them anyway today just for fun.
Some such words are pretty obvious in their meaning. The verb “to ram” is based on the tendency of male sheep (aka rams) to crash into one another, horns first, when they’re competing for a mate. The verb “to hog” refers to pigs jostling one another for room at a feeding trough. And “monkeying around” refers to the sometimes-mischievous behavior of spider monkeys.
Some animal verbs have a more subtle meaning.
Verbs Based on Mammal Behavior
To bird dog
For example, to “bird dog” means to conduct a determined search for something or to pester someone relentlessly. It’s based on the behavior of hunting dogs like Labradors and Spaniels. These dogs are used to find birds, flush them out of the underbrush, then retrieve them once they’ve been downed.
To dog or hound
In a related vein, to “dog” or to “hound” someone means to follow someone or harass them persistently. This is based on the behavior of hound dogs like beagles, bassets, and bloodhounds. These dogs use their acute sense of smell to chase prey—or escaped convicts, in many a cops-and-robbers movie—across miles on end.
READ MORE: Do you capitalize dog breeds?
To squirrel away
To squirrel something away means to save up or hoard something, much as a squirrel hoards nuts to eat during the winter months.
Interestingly, as an adjective, to say someone is “squirrelly” means something entirely different. It means that they’re unpredictable, nervy—even demented. This is based on a squirrel’s tendency to hop quickly from branch to branch or to run in a zig-zag manner when being chased.
By the way, the word “squirrel” has an adorable derivation. It comes from putting together the ancient Greek words for “shade” and “tail.” You can just picture a squirrel fanning its tail out on a hot summer day, gaining some shade.
Verbs Based on Bird Behavior
Flying into the world of birds, we find a number of analogies. Someone can “crane” their neck, calling to mind the long, flexible necks of fishing birds like the sandhill crane or whooping crane.
Someone who repeats what others have said, rather than expressing original ideas, is said to be “parroting back” what they’ve heard. This is a reference to the uncanny ability of birds like parrots, parakeets, and macaws to imitate human words. “Parrot,” by the way, may come from the French word “Pierrot,” a diminutive of the name “Pierre.” So a parrot would be a “little Pierre.”
READ MORE: When to use diminutives.
To “crow” means to boast loudly of one’s accomplishments, much like the obnoxiously loud “caw” of the crow.
And to “swan” means to waltz around aimlessly, like a swan idly paddling here and there across a pond.
Verbs Based on Other Animal Behavior
Finally, let’s descend to the world of simpler animals.
Here, we can “worm” our way into someone’s affections, meaning that we creepily insinuate ourself into their life—much as a worm might travel unseen and unheard through the dirt.
We can “leech” on to someone, meaning we attach ourselves to them like a parasite, gaining money, care, or lodging in exchange for little or nothing.
To bug or tick off
And of course, we can “bug” someone or “tick them off,” annoying them just as much as a swarm of mosquitos.
(Point of order: the “tick” in “to tick someone off” doesn’t actually refer to ticks, those odious insects that embed themselves into an animal’s skin and suck out their blood. Rather, this phrase is derived from the Middle English word “tek,” meaning a pat or a touch.)
We could go on for much longer talking about verbs based on the behavior of animals. There are a ton. But we’d better stop ferreting out meanings and clam up for now, rather than badgering you to listen for any longer. See what we did there?
Here’s a fun lesson plan to use with young children (Assignment #1) or older students (Assignment #1 combined with Assignment #2).
Animals inspire many parts of the English language, including idioms, onomatopoeias, and even plain old verbs.
Have students listen to the podcast that goes with this article, which defines onomatopoeias and gives a few examples (e.g., “quack" and “woof”) and goes through about 15 verbs that come from animal behavior (e.g., “to hog,” “to hound,” and “to crow”). Remind students that they can read along on the text.
Have students work alone or in groups to list as many onomatopoeia as they can and as many verbs that are inspired by animal behaviors as they can.
Have the students compare their lists to see which words most people had and which words only one student had.
This can be reminiscent of comparing lists in the game Boggle, and you can use a similar scoring method to create some friendly competition if your class is familiar with the game.
Assignment #2 (Advanced)
Have students take the lists they developed in Assignment #1 and investigate the origin of the words using etymoline.com or a good dictionary and write a reflection piece.
- Did they find anything surprising?
- Did they see many words whose origins came from one particular language such as French, Old English, or Old Norse?
- Were some words they thought originated as animal words actually not from animals (like “tick” in the “tick off” example in the podcast).
- Was every word they thought was an onomatopoeia actually an onomatopoeia?
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.