Where Did These Animals Expressions Come From?
Consider all the ways animals color our language and expressions
Jennon Bell Hoffmann
Whether we’re making a beeline or letting sleeping dogs lie, our language is peppered with expressions and idioms inspired by the animal kingdom. From the common, to the funny, to the just plain strange, we’ve ferreted out a few of our favorite animal expressions and their surprising origin stories.
The Stories and Strange Facts Behind 10 Animal Expressions
1. Crying crocodile tears
Do crocs fake their sobs? Crying crocodile tears—meaning an insincere display of grief—comes from an ancient Roman idea that crocodiles cry while they eat their prey. We can find the expression used in works as old as Shakespeare’s, which means it’s been in rotation for over 500 years. According to Science Daily, researchers at the University of Florida have confirmed crocodiles do in fact shed tears when they’re eating, likely because of physiological reasons—not because they feel bad for eating other animals.
2. A wild goose chase
This idiom—which means a pointless pursuit—comes from a horseracing style from the 16th century. Riders had to follow a leader in formation, resembling a flock of geese in flight. Since the 1600s, people have been using “wild goose chase” to describe an erratic runaround.
3. A feeding frenzy
Perhaps you didn’t even know this one is animal related. It relates to the hostile way sharks behave when they’re around food—and competition. The expression became a common way to describe aggressive, competitive behavior in the 1970s.
4. Weasel out of something
Weasels are known for being sneaky and cunning, which in the wild, helps them get food and avoid predators. It’s not looked at as such a positive trait for humans, however.
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5. Ferret out
This expression comes from hunting with ferrets, which use their keen sense of smell to find and flush out rabbits from their burrows. To ferret out something means to really dig in to find it.
6. Let the cat out of the bag
This one means giving away a secret, and it’s got a strange story. It dates back to the 1700s, when dishonest merchants were said to swap a valuable pig with a worthless cat to an unsuspecting customer, who’d only discover the bait-and-switch when they got home and opened the bag. We certainly don’t think cats are worthless!
7. The lion’s share
You don’t get nicknamed the King of the Jungle for no reason. Lions are aggressive predators, placing them at the top of the food chain. This expression alludes to Aesop’s fables about the animal and has been used since the late 1700s. Any kill will be enjoyed by a lion first, and you can trust it’s the best, largest portion.
8. Let sleeping dogs lie
We’d never want to bug a sleeping pup, but we have to admit, this is a strange expression. It means to let the matter rest, and another variation of it is don’t poke the bear. Dating back to a 14th century English proverb, the association comes from the idea that waking a fierce watchdog (or poking a hibernating bear) will make the animal angry. No one wants to invite that kind of trouble.
9. Straight from the horse’s mouth
This idiom means you received information on good authority, straight from the source. It comes from the 1920s, referring to examining a horse’s mouth to determine its age and value.
10. Cash cow
This expression means a dependable source of income, much like a dairy cow would be for a farmer, continually providing a sellable good. While the expressions dates back to the 1970s, the term milch cow means the same and has been used since the 1600s.
Article source: “The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms” by Christine Ammer