It seems that some of us here at Partial Observer are frequently on the same wavelength. As I was pondering writing about this topic, focusing on the colorful expressions in the English language and, in particular, in American culture, I happened to see that Everett Wilson was writing about our mother tongue as well. His focus was on how we sometimes lose the meaning and impact by using too many words. My focus is on how some of the things we say ever came to mean what they mean in the first place.
This idea popped into my head during a recent conversation with my husband, who commented that someone was "happy as a clam." Being the literal person that I am, I immediately envisioned this friend of ours being clam-shaped, dancing on little legs and having a grand old time. How can someone be as happy as a clam? Are clams happy? Do clams even have the capability of feeling emotion? A little poking around led me to discover that originally, the expression had an additional, more explanatory, phrase attached to it. "As happy as a clam at high tide" makes more sense, as high tide is when clams are free from predators.
Clams aren't the only animals we attribute human emotions to. Larks, hippos, and pigs in mud also merit the adjective "happy." Personally, I never say I'm as happy as a pig in mud, because that imagery doesn't do a whole lot for me. But, around these parts, good buddy, you can find a number of people who are, indeed, just as happy as pigs in mud.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that without the animal kingdom, we would be without some of the most colorful, descriptive phrases that are universally understood by everyone. Perhaps it's because animal nature is exactly that – fairly predictable, easily understood and described, and similar all over the world. Important people, we say, are big fish. Kids who probably need to be on Ritalin have ants in their pants. Nervous performers frequently have butterflies in their stomach. A weightlifter is said to be as strong as an ox, unless he's also clumsy and drops the barbell, at which time he's deemed to be a bull in a china shop.
This list goes on and on. I am no spring chicken, so I am blind as a bat and no longer have the memory of an elephant, nor am I the eager beaver I once was. However, I am still sometimes as hungry as a horse. Once I'm fed, I'm full as a tick and grin like a Cheshire cat; if they've served me too much, I take it home in a doggy bag. I like to be right all the time so that I never have to eat crow, but if I'm wrong, I grab the bull by the horns and admit it. There's just no sense in letting the straw break the camel's back, even if you're dealing with someone who's stubborn as a mule.
Canines, being so common in our society, get all sorts of characteristics attributed to them. In fact, we live in a dog-eat-dog world, work like dogs, and frequently arrive home dog-tired, all in an effort to become top dog. I wonder how the dog feels about my taking a cat nap to recover? People who have failed to lead a productive life have gone to the dogs, while errant spouses and kids are in the doghouse. Abused books become dog-eared, while fancy presentations with no real value are deemed dog-and-pony shows. Sometimes, party-goers begin the next morning with a hair of the dog, in order to prevent becoming as sick as a dog. Wise people usually choose to let sleeping dogs lie. If someone says, "You dog!" to you, you get the message that they are not particularly pleased with you. Yet, American Idol judge Randy Jackson routinely refers to virtually every contestant as "Dog" and calls the male group the dog pound. And this one really cracks me up… have you ever literally seen it rain cats and dogs?
We cry wolf or crocodile tears; we try to steer clear of snakes in the grass and wolves in sheep's clothing. Likewise, wild goose chases, white elephants, and red herrings are a waste of time and money and should be avoided. We hate feeling like fish out of water; we try not to open too many cans of worms and we certainly don't want to work for chickenfeed. We're cautious not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
On the positive side of the feathery world (yet, how can this comment really be positive?) we love it when we kill two birds with one stone. When that happens in my world, you can knock me down with a feather!
A little bird told me all of this. It must have been a canary, because just after he warbled all of these idioms, the cat ate him!