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What’s quick as a bunny, slow as a turtle, wise as an owl, sly as a fox, hungry as a wolf, free as a bird, slippery as an eel, clumsy as an ox, graceful as a swan, gentle as a lamb, silly as a goose, crazy as a loon, pig-headed, eagle-eyed, blind as a bat, stubborn as a mule, busy as a bee, mad as a hornet, quiet as a mouse, weak as a kitten, sure-footed as a goat, proud as a peacock, wild as a March hare and as hairy and ugly as an ape? The answer is humans. 

How many of the following animal terms we use to describe common concepts and situations have you used recently?

Bee in your bonnet

Imagine you are a beekeeper who just found a bee inside your protective headgear. You probably wouldn’t think about anything else until you got it out without getting stung. To have a bee in your bonnet means to be simultaneously preoccupied and in an agitated state, usually triggered by something out of the ordinary. 

Bull in a china shop

This is a situation that probably never happened because what are the chances these two came together in real life? What surely did happen was clumsy people knocked over and broke fragile items in china and glassware shops by stumbling around carelessly. Throw in a big oaf or two, and notion of a bull is born. Bull in the China Shop was a title of a comic song sung in ale houses and music halls in 1800s England. Bull in a China Shop is the title of several songs from more recent centuries you can find on the interweb.

Can of worms

We all know that to open a can of worms is to unleash something unpleasant, especially if you’re fishing, you’ve just knocked over your can of live bait and the worms are wriggling away. Most scholars agree that can of worms is an updated version of Pandora’s Box, which did you know was never a box, but actually a jar? Zeus gave her a jar and told her to never open it. The minute he was out of sight, she opened it and all the troubles of the world spilled out. To open Pandora’s Box means to court disaster.

Curiosity killed the cat

This one didn’t start with curiosity. The original phrase was care killed the cat. Not care in terms of feeding and sheltering it, but meaning to fret, stew or overly worry about the cat. We use it to admonish someone that inquisitiveness will result in punishment, a popular theme in the Middle Ages. It is often said as a warning by people who have something to hide and thus actively seek to discourage investigation. If you can see former president Richard Nixon as the cat, you can see it was Woodward and Bernstein’s curiosity about the Watergate break-in that didn’t work out so well for the disgraced 37th president of the United States.

Lay an egg

Merriam-Webster and others say this term means to fail or blunder, especially in an embarrassing manner One school of thought tells us this saying came about from goose eggs, which in sports refer to zeros on the scoreboard. This would mean failing to score is laying an egg. Cricket has a term for a zero on the scoresheet, too, but they call it a duck egg. Many agree the term is from vaudeville in the 1920s, referring to a show that flopped so badly that it closed immediately. The term implies the egg is not just any egg, but a rotten egg that stinks. And the embarrassment may be in any situation but most often refers to a public performance.

Elephant in the room

This term is used to refer to a subject that all present are aware of but no one is talking about. The problem is obvious but is ignored by all for some reason or reasons. Not having the courage to open a discussion about something that obviously needs to be acknowledged, discussed and resolved always reminds me of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The first recorded use of the elephant from an 1857 story about school financing in the New York Times: “(It) has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.” 

Fly in the ointment

This saying from the Old Testament referred to how a single dead fly can make fragrant ointment from the apothecary smell awful. It came to mean a hidden annoyance that spoils the enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant situation. Click here to read more about flies in ointments.

Kettle of fish

Have you ever heard of a kettle of fish that was an awful one? No, it’s always a fine kettle of fish, and fine is always used sarcastically, ironically or both because a fine kettle of fish refers to an awkward and disagreeable state of affairs. No one knows what was so awful about a kettle of fish but speculators remind us that fish go bad quickly and the smell of dead fish is a gagger.

Monkey on your back

Having one of these on your back means you have a very bad problem that is lasting a very long time. This persistent burden in often ill health from drug abuse and may have originated as a description that applied to heroin addicts unable to kick the habit. Some who study these things say the phrase was originally “have a monkey on the roof,” a term from the late 1800s that referred to the burden of a new thing called a home mortgage. Other say the monkey is a symbol for Satan but I don’t get it. I thought monkeys were playful mischief makers.

Pig’s eye

For most, in a pig’s eye is a derisive retort meant to convey emphatic disbelief or denial, much like the term fat chance. One bunch says it means the same as “when pigs fly” while another says it is a bowdlerized euphemism for “in a pig’s ass.” It was used an expression of scorn by none other than Petroleum V. Nasby.

Wild-goose chase

Like its cousin looking for a needle in a haystack, to go on a wild goose chase is to set out looking for something so hard to find that your venture will almost surely prove to be a complete waste of time. Some say Shakespeare coined the term while others say it has nothing to do with hunting and everything to do with horse racing. A wild goose chase was a follow-the-leader cross-country race on horseback. The entrants fanned out to follow a lead horse at set distances, forming a V-formation, looking just like a flock of geese following a leader in flight. The real meaning may reflect what the geese are doing: blindly following a path without knowing where it’s going. It may be an indication of how difficult it is to catch dinner in the wild, but I don’t know how you’d chase a goose if you didn’t know how to fly.

The cart before the horse

This one began as putting the plow before the oxen. The tricky bit is that the word before didn’t mean the physical arrangement of the two, but which took priority over the other. Those who favor a mining explanation cite that putting the cart ahead of the horse made it easier to control a heavy cart full of coal while going downhill. As with many idioms, it may have never actually happened but was only a way to express how foolish and futile something was. As Gary Larson said, “Socks first, then shoes.”


One thing typical of folk word histories is that they are fictions, fabricated in ways that insinuate authenticity and seem to make sense This retrofitting applies to phrases, words and acronyms, also known as backronyms for obvious reasons. They are likelier to take on a life when the real explanations are obscured or lost to history. One fine example is the story about how a legendary race of warrior women cut or burned off a breast so they could draw, notch and fire their hunting and war arrows better. A review of hundreds of images of Amazons on vases, drinking cups and other pottery reveals not a single one missing a breast.

Double bonus

Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby was the pseudonym of an American writer and humorist who hated slavery. David Ross Locke created the character of Nasby, a nasty, lazy, unwashed, illiterate, fiercely racist Southerner. Locke was an educated man but Nasby’s writings were characterized by poor spelling and deformed grammar, twisted logic, hollow boasting and infantilism. 

Locke called Nasby “a nickel-plated son of a bitch”

Nasby enjoyed quoting the bible, citing as his favorites the ones used by Southern ministers to “prove” slavery was ordained by God. Nasby avoided serving in the Confederate Army he held so dear by concluding he should be exempted because of his baldness, varicose veins and “khronic dirrearr.” 

The Encyclopedia Britannica said his adoption of an illiterate persona to argue in favor of slavery was a brilliant bit of sarcasm that had considerable influence on public issues, amused Northerners and particularly delighted President Abraham Lincoln. Nasby’s book was the last one Lincoln read, aloud over dinner before going to Ford’s Theater five days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender.


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