Tongue-biting Cats and Cowardly Chickens?

Animal Idioms Explained

We’ve all heard the phrase “sly as a fox,” but how sly are foxes, really? Are foxes actually cunning and deceitful in their natural habitats? If not, how did this phrase enter the common vernacular? Should we really still be using this idiom?

I’ve done some basic research on the 4 animal phrases I hear a lot. With some exploration, I found the origin of sly foxes, dead horse beatings, feline tongue thieves, and cowardly chickens.

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“Don’t Beat a Dead Horse”

As a precociously verbal and compulsively curious kid, this phrase piqued my interest for years. On many subjects, I would ask continuous explanations of the exhausted adults around me. “But why is it like that?” I’d harangue. “Don’t beat a dead horse” came a reply to end the conversation. From context clues, I figured it meant don’t continue talking about a subject that has become pointless or isn’t important, but where did such a gruesome concept come from? Who beats horses, let alone –gulp– horse corpses? 

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Background

Apparently, it isn’t just beating and it isn’t just horses. One might figuratively ‘flog a dead horse’ as well. Or beat a dead dog. These usages are not nearly as common in my part of the world, but are alternative idioms.

One of the earliest recorded uses of the phrase was popularized during an unsuccessful campaign toward British parliamentary reform. John Bright was said to have been ‘flogging a dead horse’ in Britain’s House of Commons in March 1859, and this is widely believed to be how the phrase was popularized. 

The Horse Phrase Origin

Scholars believe that the phrase originated elsewhere. In the 17th century, a horse was a symbol and slang for hard work. Wages were paid after ‘horse’s work’ was finished. If wages were awarded before ‘horse’s work’ was complete, the work was less likely to get done and the work was considered a dead horse. The likelihood of a dead horse working is nil, so it goes that a prepaid worker is less motivated. It follows that beating that dead horse would be pointless. 

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

As horses evolved alongside humanity as working animals, it is likely a phrase that has been with us dating back to the dawn of symbolic language, with perhaps slightly different meanings. One such usage can be found in the Greek tragedy Antigone

“Nay, allow the claim of the dead; stab not the fallen; what prowess is it to slay the slain anew?” 

In Antigone, this is a reference to the body of an actual dead person, and means there is no sense in punishing someone’s dead body, or, in this case, refusing them burial rites.

There is also an unsubstantiated claim that a Roman citizen and playwright Plautus coined the phrase in 195 B.C.E. It is unclear where this claim originates and, aside from being copied over, it doesn’t appear to be accurate.

“Cat got your tongue?”

This one feels like it’s out of a movie where men wear pinstriped suits, drive oversized Cadillacs, and call the women ‘dolls’. “Hey doll, I got you a present,” a gent might say, brandishing a mink stole. The receiver of the gift, being so stunned into silence by the expense of the gift (or the horror of the nickname) might stand slack-jawed, eyes darting from fur to face and back again. After a beat, he might say, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” The audience understands that he’s acknowledging that she is at a loss for words, at the beauty of the gift, at the rent check wasted, or at the heavy, bribing hand of the patriarchy. But what do cats have to do with speechlessness? 

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The Background

There are a lot of false, unsubstantiated claims on the internet for this one. Explanations involving Ancient Egyptian delicacies or punishments for British sailors have no direct evidentiary link — meaning they are internet hoaxes or the creation of the confused. What is known is that the phrase became popularized in the 1960s, but it existed as far back as 1859 where a Wisconsin newspaper reporter used it colloquially to mean ‘was not going to say.’ As such, the phrase likely originates from the American West in this time period.

“Chicken”

Don’t chicken out! and I’m not chicken are classic, obscenity-free ways to indicate risk-taking is in play. The exchange might involve a bullying brute standing at the bottom of a tall slide, daring a smaller, younger, or generally nicer kid to climb up and jump down. From the ground, the daree might have agreed, but from the dizzying height of a slide ladder, perhaps had second thoughts. It’s at this point that the darer will yell out, “Don’t chicken out!” as in don’t back down from doing the risky thing you said you’d do, at which point the daree will call back, “I’m not chicken!” before taking the risk and proving that they were not scared.

Background

 Real-life chickens have never seemed particularly risky to me, but I’m not a farmer or chicken sanctuary caretaker or anything. It seems like there are plenty of other animals that are skiddish, nervous, or timid, so how does the chicken cross the road and into our dialect? 

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According to the Independent, the chicken’s cowardly reputation began in 1600, where William Kemp wrote, “It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! A hebber de hoy! A chicken! A squib!”

It can be found in the works of Dickens and Godwin following this first appearance in print. Personally, I may start using “hoddy doddy” on a regular basis.

Addendum

The chicken is so ubiquitous today that we hardly notice the diminutive and disempowering nature of calling a woman a “chick” or “chicken”. According to some writers, however, women have reclaimed chick as their own, coining female-friendly movies ‘Chick Flicks’ for instance, but I’m not convinced. It still seems clearly offensive to me.

“Sly as a Fox”

This is perhaps best described as the charm offensive. Someone who does something smartly manipulative is often said to be sly as a fox. Foxes are portrayed as clever, cunning, sly, manipulative, self-involved, and vain in modern programming. Reynard the Fox is one such character, who originated in the 12th century, but continues to turn up on television and in movies to this day. Sly foxes date back even earlier than that.

Photo by Funny Foxy Pride on Pexels.com

Background

There are 28 Aesop fables that reference foxes (including The Fox and the Grapes, which I’ve translated into modern vernacular in my new series). In The Fox and the Crow, for instance, a crow finds a piece of cheese and settles on a branch to eat it. A fox, coveting the cheese, flatters the crow by complimenting on its beauty and then asks if the crow’s voice is just as beautiful. The crow lets out a loud caw and drops the cheese, which is quickly devoured by the fox. Pretty clever fox, eh? As Aesop’s fables date back to approximately 600 BCE, it is safe to say that the slyness of a fox has been part of recorded history for millennia. 

Fox Facts

Red foxes in particular are very clever. They adapt well to changes in their landscape or human incursion, and they eat a wide variety of foods based on availability. They raise their young as parental pairs in the expanded, found dens of other animals. 

Although confirmation was difficult, it would seem that the phrase sly as a fox might be a direct commentary on foxes themselves, dating back throughout the oral storytelling tradition of humankind.

Choose Them or Lose Them

Every iteration of these phrases entrenches them further in our modern vernacular. Choose to use them with the full knowledge of where they come from, how accurate they are, and what they intend. Choose to lose them if the meaning or origin is disquieting to you. 

Although idioms are not meant to be taken literally, they draw upon symbolic imagery to emphasize a feeling or observation. How gruesome does symbolism in our daily speech need to be? I don’t want to keep going past sunset but I’m also not jumping back like a coward when I say, let’s choose idioms for their full origin and meaning or let’s lose them from our language catalog.

Are there any phrases that stand out as odd in our modern dialog? 

Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some research and post the answers soon!

Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds.