10 Popular Animal Idioms and Their Origins

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When it’s raining cats and dogs you want to go inside, and you know to never trust anyone who sheds crocodile tears. While you may regularly delight in uttering animal idioms and be well aware of their meanings, you might not be equally as aware of their origins. Some stem from literal uses, others are more proverbial and at least one is thoroughly disgusting as it sheds a whole new light on a heavy rainfall.

10. I’ll be a Monkey’s Uncle

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“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” is a term of disbelief, and that disbelief — as well as the term — stems from good ol’ Charles Darwin. Darwin dared publish the Descent of Man in 1871, a book that outlined his evolutionary theory that man was descended from animals rather than brought into existence by God. Tennessee high school biology teacher John Scopes took the controversy to gorilla-like proportions when he allegedly taught the theory in the classroom, resulting in the landmark 1925 court case officially known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes but much better known today as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Those who thought the theory was a bunch of hooey used “Monkey’s uncle” sarcastically.


9. Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

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Looking a gift horse in the mouth is downright rude, with the term meaning to criticize or belittle a gift. A Latin version of the term is found as far back as 420 A.D. in a work by St. Jerome. The phrase has a literal meaning. You can check out how old a horse is by its gum line, which recedes with age. So looking a gift horse in the mouth means you are checking the age, and thus the quality, of the equine you just got for free. Gauche for sure.


8. A Bird in Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

A bird in the hand beats two in the bush traces its roots to medieval times.

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It’s always better to stick with what you have, whether it is a dollar or bird in hand, rather than risk it for a deal that may or may not come through, such as $20 down the road or two birds in the bush. This proverb refers back to the falconry of medieval times when it was better to have your stately bird-of-prey falcon in hand than two birds that serve as prey over there in the bush. The bird-oriented phrase first popped up in print in a 1670 book of proverbs, although a variation about a live dog being better than a dead lion appears in a 1382 English translation of the Bible, according to The Phrase Finder website.


7. Raining Cats and Dogs

The term “raining cats and dogs” may bring to mind images of fluffy kittens and perky puppies tumbling sweetly from the sky, but its origins are much more macabre. The phrase’s exact origin, like several others on this list, is disputed, but its most likely source is England’s wretched streets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cats and dogs would not fall from the sky, but canine and feline carcasses and other debris would flow along the filthy city streets during heavy rainfalls.


6. Crocodile Tears

Crocodiles actually do cry, but not because they are sad.

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Regardless of how loud the boo hoos and how grandiose the moans, false signs of sorrow are still known as “crocodile tears.” Crocodiles can, in fact, shed tears when they are merrily eating their prey, but only because lacrimal glands create tears that lubricate their eyes. The earliest, yet unconfirmed, reference to crocodile tears could date back to 1230 when the term was kicked around by the French, according to The Phrase Finder website. The earliest confirmed reference to crocodiles weeping while they eat dates back to 1400 and the earliest case of the phrase being used with its current meaning is 1563.


5. High on the Hog

The phrase "Eating high on the hog" originated in the United States in the early 20th century.

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Most Americans cannot currently afford to live “high on the hog,” or in an extravagant manner, which means they cannot afford the finer things like the best cuts of meat. The best cuts of meat on a pig are — you guessed it — high on the hog. The less tasty cuts reserved for servants, the poor folks, slaves, and others of the lower classes were found lower on the hog. Pigs’ feet, anyone? The expression traces its roots to the United States in the early 20th century.


4. Dog Days

The Romans coined the idiom, "Dog Days."

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Contrary to popular belief, the term describing the hottest mid-summer days did not come from dogs lying around baking in the sun. Nor did it stem from any Al Pacino movies. “Dog days” dates to ancient Rome when those super-observant Romans noticed the hottest days came when the Dog Star, otherwise known as Sirius, was visible in the sky.


3. Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Are Hatched

Aesop coined the idiom about chickens hatching in the sixth century.

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These words of wisdom warn not to put all your hopes into something until you know it’s a sure deal. Aesop used the scenario in his 6th century fable, The Milkmaid and Her Pail. The young maiden is going home with a pail of milk atop her head, imagining all the riches the milk will bring once she churns it into butter and cream. She’ll be able to buy eggs, which will hatch into chickens, which will lay more eggs and hatch into yet more chickens. Before she knows it, she’ll be rich enough to buy hordes of wonderful clothes that make the young guys come panting around but, by golly, she’ll just ignore them, like this, with a toss of her beautiful head. The phrase lay mostly dormant for a millennium before finding its way into the English poetry of Thomas Howell in 1570 and Samuel Butler in 1664.


2. Let the Cat Out of the Bag

"Don't let the cat out of the bag" had a very different meaning when it first arose.

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You’re in sore shape if you disclose a secret and let the cat out of the bag, although this term used to have a positive connation as a way to avoid trickery. Early marketplace vendors often sold a pig inside of a bag, also called a pig in a poke. You did not want to buy a pig in a poke because you were unable to see the quality of pig — or even if you were getting a pig at all. Scam artist merchants would try to sell you a bag containing a lowly cat, instead of a healthy, fat piglet, unless you were smart enough to first let the cat out of the bag.


1. Bee’s Knees

Bee's knees came into popularity in the early 20th century.

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When something is the bee’s knees, it is excellent, awesome, top-notch, although the earliest meaning of the phrase meant the opposite. Bee’s knees initially showed up 1797 England meaning something small and insignificant, but morphed into its current meaning in 1920s America. Lounge lizards, flappers and their ilk were known for using nonsensical terms to mean something was great, spouting out terms such as cat’s pajamas, monkey’s eyebrows, and yes, bee’s knees. Another layer of lore was added to the phrase in 1924, when a dancer named Bee Jackson made a name for herself dancing the Charleston. Successfully doing the Charleston, or any dance for that matter, takes an awesome pair of knees, perhaps knees much like Bee’s.

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Ryn Gargulinski is a writer, artist and performer whose journalism career began in 1991. Credits include two illustrated humor books, hundreds of published articles, poems, illustrations, a weekly radio show and column, a full line of wacky artwork and numerous awards.