Tim Bowen takes the bull by the horns as he explores the widespread use of animal idioms in society.
The important contribution that animals have always made to human society is reflected in the number of idiomatic expressions containing references to animals. Many of them have negative connotations: a dog’s life (a life full of misery and troubles), make a pig of yourself (eat far too much food at one time), the black sheep (the odd one out in a family or a group who is disapproved of by the others). Others have more positive associations: to keep the wolf from the door (to earn enough money to buy food and other essentials), to take the bull by the horns (to deal with a problem in a direct and confident way, even though there is some risk in doing this), to break your duck (to be successful after a series of failures).
Reckless bankers who have made huge personal fortunes out of activities that have hurt millions have been described as fat cats, and the results of their activities as the chickens coming home to roost (the negative results of the actions becoming clear). Many people, however, seem to regard an economic slump as the elephant in the room (something which is obvious but most people choose to ignore) and, indeed, some people don't give a monkey’s (don’t care) about economics and high finance and say the whole thing is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog (a bad situation brought about when something important is controlled by someone or something less important).
Other animal idioms include:
A one trick pony - a person who is good at only one thing, though they may give the impression that they are good at lots of things.
The lion's share - means the biggest share of something, as in, 'The company made a huge profit last year, but the lion's share was taken up in bonuses to the CEO's.'
Hold your horses - to wait a while before you do something, even you you may be excited and enthusiastic, for example, 'I know you're keen to get the project done, but hold your horses it isn't due for another month.'
Get your goat - this means something that makes you irritated or annoyed. For instance, 'My colleague's tapping really gets my goat'.
Pig-headed. If someone is pig-headed it means they are stubborn and stupid and not keen to change their mind. 'I wanted to take a plane, but Susan was pig-headed and insisted we took the ferry even though it took twice as long.'
To weasel/worm (your way) out of something - means to get out of doing something you don't want to do (often by deceitful means), even though you really should do it. For example, 'We had a two hour meeting scheduled over lunch, but Fred weaselled his way out of it by lying and saying he had another appointment.'
Something that is particularly good can be described as being the cat's whiskers/meow.
To let the cat out of the bag means to let something become public that should have been kept secret, for instance, 'I was going to make the announcement myself, but Tom let the cat out of the bag by posting a comment on Facebook.'
If something goes to the dogs it has become bad - 'That venue used to be really good, but recently it has gone to the dogs.'
To let sleeping dogs lie means to leave something alone and not cause problems or make people upset or angry. For instance, 'I was really angry about what she wrote on social media, but because we both work together I thought it was better to let sleeping dogs lie and not say anything.'
If you are lead on a wild goose chase it means you have undertaken an unnecessary amount of work for no real purpose: 'I walked all over the building looking for her, but in the end it was a wild goose chase as she had been at home sick.'
To go cold turkey means to stop a habit suddenly without any means of assistance. For example, 'Rather than cutting down gradually or using gum or patches, Kevin decided to go cold turkey and just stop smoking cigarettes altogether.'
If you watch something like a hawk it means you look at or watch something very carefully and you don't let it out of your sight.
A fish out of water refers to someone who is in a situation they feel uncomfortable with and is unnatural to them: 'Sally hates wearing formal clothes, so at the wedding she really felt like a fish out of water.'
A red herring is a false clue, and can usually be found in detective or murder-mystery stories. 'We thought Mr. White had committed the crime because he owned a gun but it was just a red herring - it was really Mrs. Black.'
To have ants in your pants means you are very excited about something and keen to do it and often also refers to restless children: 'Keep still while I brush your hair! Do you have ants in your pants or something?' or 'I had ants in my pants about our trip to the theatre.'
If somebody or something wouldn't hurt a fly it means they are very gentle and non-violent, as in 'My dog has a loud bark but actually he wouldn't hurt a fly.'
Someone who is described as a snake in the grass is deceitful but in a clever, non-obvious way. For example, 'We wondered who had reported the incident to management, but it turned out Kelly was the snake in the grass.'
If a person rabbits on it means they talk for a long time about something that is boring to the listener.
Someone who is alsways busy can be described as a busy bee.
If you are as free as a bird it means you have no committments, for example, 'I used to have to study every evening, but since completing my exams I am now as free as a bird.'
If someone rats on you it means they tell someone in authority about something bad you have done; 'the children were planning to skip school and go to the park, but one of their classmates ratted on them to the teacher.'
To have a whale of a time means to have a fantastic time, as in 'Thank you for inviting me to your party, I had a whale of a time!'
If you are eagle-eyed it means you have very good, sharp eyesight and are able to pick out small objects from a crowd or a distance.
Someone who is like a bear with a sore head is very grumpy and irritable: 'I wouldn't talk to him if I was you you, he's like a bear with a sore head this morning.'
If a person or animal seems particularly crazy or silly, they can be described as mad as a March hare or mad as a box of frogs.
Finally, if a person repeats something over and over again, they can be described as doing it parrot-fashion.