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, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #555

animal idioms

Rats and Other Rodents

Each culture has its own opinions about certain animals, and this is often reflected in its language. Take rodents, for example. In English there are multiple expressions that are not too kind to rats. A young lady can have ratty hair: Her hair is very messy and tangled. Someone’s house can look like a rat’s nest: His living area is in disorder. If you smell a rat, you are suspicious of a situation. If you are a rat, you are a snitch. Other languages use the word rat in similar ways. In Spanish, for example, una rata can mean a cheapskate or a bad person [1]. There is a Chinese proverb—with the head of a buck and the eyes of a rat—that means “unattractive” or “unappealing.” [2] The French have a saying that translates to “as bored as a dead rat.” [3] That must be pretty bored!

Many rodents are used in medical experiments. If you are a lab rat, you are a test subject. [4] You can also call someone a guinea pig, which means the same thing but uses a different rodent; this expression was first recorded in 1920. [5] 

Other expressions point out different qualities that rodents might have, including industriousness and playfulness. For example, the Armenian expression The mouse couldn’t fit through the hole, and then it tied a broom to its tail refers to “people who take on more responsibilities than they can handle.” [6] You’ve likely heard the expression While the cat’s away, the mice will play. There’s a similar expression in German, [7] and, in the Dutch version of this saying, the mice are dancing. [8] Another English expression, on the other hand, suggests that mice might not be having such a good time: as poor as a church mouse. According to the book Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings, the expression goes back to the seventeenth century in English and likely originates from a similar French idiom. Perhaps there was once a mouse that did not find anything to eat in a church, which has no pantry. A similar expression also appears in German. [9] 


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.