Animals and the English Language

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July 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Leslie Evans

Our language is filled with metaphors and similes comparing people to animals, and the very names of many animals are often used as epithets to characterize people. Most of the metaphors and similes (someone is LIKE or AS something) are so long in use that they have become cliches. The terms mostly date from the days when most people lived on farms and many in wooded areas where most of the animals enlisted were actually familiar to the speakers. Today American city dwellers on a daily basis see mainly dogs, cats, pigeons, crows, and squirrels. Less often, rats, mice, and hawks. Still less often, live horses, goats, pigs, and sheep. Except on television and trips to the zoo, many of the others are known only by reputation.

Our predilection is for anthropocentric feelings of superiority to other animals. It allows us, as our numbers swell into the many billions, to construct an ever larger and more horrific and cruel industry that raises animals and birds for food. Pigs whose lives are spent in pens so small they cannot turn around, chickens with their beaks amputated and without room to take a step, slaughterhouses where the cows whose life’s goal is to become part of McDonald’s billions and billions of burgers end in terror and pain.

All animals feel hunger, fear, and pain. The higher animals, particularly elephants, primates, wolves, dogs, pigs (the most mistreated), the great cats, and, perhaps surprisingly, birds such as parrots and crows, share all the emotions that humans have: love, anger, affection, shame, depression. Gorillas if trained in sign language can carry on a limited conversation. Koko reads children’s picture books and has favorite videos. Chimpanzees, our closest relative, share 98 percent of human DNA. The relationship is so close that the two species can accept blood transfusions from each other. Chimps, like humans, have blood types A, B, and O. Their DNA is closer to human than the DNA of horses and donkeys, which can interbreed and produce infertile mules. DNA evidence shows that humans and chimps did interbreed for the first 1.2 million years after the human bloodline diverged from chimpanzees, and a number of scientists today think that a human-chimp hybrid is possible, although a number of experiments by Russian scientists in the 1920s were unsuccessful. Chimps use sticks as tools and hunt in organized groups. They perform better than humans on matching tests on a computer touch screen.

Dolphins hold a sponge in their mouths when foraging on the sea floor to protect their noses.

An NBC online article on the “The 10 Smartest Animals” said of pigs that in experiments in the 1990s, “Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.” (retrieved June 30, 2013). The article added that if allowed to follow their own inclinations that pigs are the cleanest of domestic animals. At worst, they roll in mud because they have no sweat glands and are trying to keep cool. The Humane Society of the United States website writes: “They easily learn to operate levers and switches to obtain food and water, and to adjust ambient temperature to their liking. Pigs have also been observed to work in collaboration to free themselves from their pens. According to Donald Broom, Professor of Animal Welfare at University of Cambridge Veterinary School, who has been conducting mirror reflection tests with pigs: ‘Pigs have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-year-olds.'” The article concludes: “Pigs share many similarities with humans with regard to emotions and cognitive states, and increasing scientific inquiry into the true nature of these animals continues to recognize their substantial mental abilities and sociable nature, as well as their capacity to experience pain, pleasure, fear and joy.”

Dogs who live with humans learn to understand a surprising amount of human speech. The extreme example is a border collie tested at recognizing 1,100 English words.

Alex, an African Grey Parrot trained by Prof. Irene Pepperberg at the University of Arizona for thirty years, 1977 to 2007, had a vocabulary of more than 100 words that he could use intelligently to communicate. He could identify fifty different objects, could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller,” “same,” and “different.” When he was told to fetch a specific hidden object that he discovered wasn’t there and he had been tricked, he became angry.

Elephants have been known to recognize other elephants from whom they had been separated for thirty years, and to hold a grudge against humans who had abused them for just as long, They, like the higher primates, have close knit families that persist for a lifetime. They are able to recognize an image of themselves in a mirror, an attribute shared only by humans, great apes, and dolphins.

Surprisingly in the list of the most intelligent animals there is also the octopus. An article in the December 2011 issue of Orion magazine reports that octopuses can open a child-proof Tylenol bottle, and like to play with little plastic bottles like balls by blowing water at them to bounce them off aquarium walls, a behavior limited to only the most intelligent animals. At the New England Aquarium an octopus was shown a clear plastic cube with a crab inside that it would want to eat. The cube had a latch to secure the lid. The octopus soon learned to open the latch. In the end the crab was in one box enclosed in a second, which in turn was enclosed in a third, each with a different kind of latch. In a few days the octopus could quickly open all three of the boxes to get its crab.

Yet our language is filled with demeaning, and hostile views of animals. I have collected some of the more common phrases comparing humans to animals, birds, and insects, and as you can see, the negative heavily outweighs the positive. I’m sure I have missed some but these are the most common. I collected them without considering their attitude and sorted them only after I had found them all.

 

Animal Metaphors (Zoosemy)

 

Positive

cash cow
coltish
doe-eyed
eagle-eyed
foxy
horse sense
lion-hearted
memory like an elephant
out-fox
straight from the horses mouth
the lion’s share
top dog

 

Negative

alley cat
badgering
barked
barking up the wrong tree
beating a dead horse
bird brain
black sheep
bovine
bull in a china shop
bull-headed
catting around
catty
chicken out
chicken-hearted
chicken livered
clammed up
cold fish
cowed
crocodile tears
dead duck
dog tired
dogged
eating crow
fat cats
ferreted it out
fish eye
fish out of water
funny duck
get on (off) a high horse
get someone’s goat
go hog wild
gull
harebrained
have a tiger by the tail
have bats in one’s belfry
hen-pecked
his goose is cooked
his tail between his legs
hog
hold your horses
horse face
hounded
in the dog house
it sounds fishy
kangaroo court
monkey around
monkey business
mousy
mulish
old crow
old goat
pack rat
parroted
pawed
pigging out
piggy
play cat and mouse with someone
play possum
pussy foot
ratted
sheepish
silly goose
sitting duck
sloth
smell a rat
snake in the grass
ugly duckling
weasel out of it
wolf down
wolf in sheep’s clothing
wolfish

 

Neutral

800 pound gorilla
deficit hawk
doggedly
elephant in the room
hoof it
horsing around
lone wolf
night owl
separating the sheep from the goats
squirreling something away
the straw that broke the camel’s back
walrus moustache

 

Similes

Positive

brave as a lion
busy as a beaver
crazy like a fox
eager as a beaver
fought like a tiger
free as a bird
gentle as a lamb
graceful as a gazelle
happy as a clam
happy as a lark
hungry as a horse
strong as a bull
strong as an ox
swims like a fish
wise as an owl

 

Negative

blind as a bat
breed like a rabbits
crazy as a loon
dead as a dodo
drunk as a skunk
like a bat out of hell
like herding cats
naked as a jaybird
packed like sardines
poor as a church mouse
prickly as a porcupine
sick as a dog
slippery as an eel
sly as a fox
spineless as a jellyfish
stubborn as a mule

 

Neutral

 

eats like a bird
quiet as a mouse
silent as a clam
weak as a kitten

 

Animal Names Used to Characterize Humans

Positive

bear
eagle
fox
lion
mouse (can be affectionate toward a woman but can also be a negative)
tiger

Negative

albatross
ape
ass
baboon
bird
chicken
cobra
coyote
dinosaur
dog
donkey
frog
goat
goose
gopher
gorilla
guinea pig
hippopotamus
hyena
jackal
lemmings
lizard
magpie
monkey
octopus
ostrich
pig
pigeon
rat
shark
shrew
shrimp
snake
swine
toad
turkey
viper
vulture
whale

 

Neutral

 

 

 

 

 

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