Common English phrases involving animals

A white-faced goat peering round a wall.
Image by Ulli Hansmann from Pixabay

How many of these everyday phrases involving animals do you know the origin of? Some may surprise you.

Dark horse

Meaning: Someone or something (usually in a race, contest or political campaign) whose abilities or value are undervalued but become clear.

Example of use: I didn’t know you could play tennis, let alone win Wimbledon. You’re a dark horse!

Original meaning: The earliest written use of this phrase is in Benjamin Disraeli’s 1831 novel, The Dark Horse. At the time, to keep something ‘dark’ meant to keep it quiet. Disraeli wrote, “a dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.” It is unclear whether racing circles already used the expression, but they certainly did after this. Its use expanded to the political arena and other areas of life.

Get someone’s goat

Meaning: To irritate someone a lot.

Example of use: The way he keeps interrupting me really gets my goat.

Origin: This phrase began in the US during the early twentieth century. Goats apparently have a calming effect on horses, so people often kept them alongside highly strung racehorses. Occasionally, opponents of a favourite horse would steal the goat to sabotage the nervous horse’s race.

Go the whole hog

Meaning: To do something completely and thoroughly.

Example of use: Instead of just moving the furniture around, I went the whole hog and redecorated.

Origin: While there is no proof of the origin of this phrase, its first recorded use is in William Cowper’s 1782 poem ‘The Love of the World Reproved; or, Hypocrisy Detected’. The poet described Muslim leaders trying to decide which part of the hog, or pig, was edible: “But for one piece they thought it hard, from the whole hog to be debarred.” Later, American butchers would sell “the whole hog” at a cheaper rate than individual cuts combined.

Having kittens

Meaning: Being nervous or upset about something.

Example of use: When I saw the police officer at the door, I had kittens.

Origin: This phrase originated in medieval Britain when people believed witches could turn an unborn baby into kittens that would scratch at the mother’s womb. If a woman at the time experienced pregnancy pains (most of which would have been perfectly normal), some would have been terrified a witch had cast a spell on them.

White elephant

Meaning: Something useless that is a burden (usually financial) to its owner.

Example of use: My veteran car has become a white elephant – too expensive to repair but too rundown to sell.

Origin: This phrase originated from a reported practice in Thailand, known then as Siam, although there seems to be no record of it happening. Albino elephants were highly prized and automatically belonged to the king. They were expensive to keep, yet it was an offence to put them to work, ride on them or neglect them. The story goes that the king would give a white elephant as a gift to any subject who displeased him. Such a gift could financially ruin the recipient.

Over to you

Do you know any other animal-related words or phrases that we use in everyday language? Drop them in the comments!

If you liked this post, you may enjoy the others in the series:

Thanks to Albert Jack’s Red Herrings and White Elephants and Harry Oliver’s March Hares and Monkeys’ Uncles for some of the source material for this article.

Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click on the link and finalise a purchase. This helps me to keep this website running. I only recommend products and services that I trust and am comfortable endorsing. Find out more.

Join my mailing list

2 Responses

  1. Lars-Olof Nilsson

    I came to think of the proverbial albatross around your neck.
    Plus some more:
    Butterflies in your stomach, a bee in your bonnet, a frog in your throat, ants in your pants, a sitting duck, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a fish out of water, a bull in a china shop, a fly on the wall, a can of worms, a rabbit in the headlights, a cash cow, a black sheep, a rat race, a road hog, top dog, a wild goose chase, a one-trick pony, a red herring, crocodile tears, a dead cat bounce, a lame duck, a cat nap, a copycat, monkey business, a paper tiger, a pig in clover, the queen bee, the top dog, a sacred cow, the lion’s share, a rabbit hole, a wild goose chase, a guinea pig, the early bird

    To smell a rat, to be in the doghouse, to put the cat among the pigeons, to eat like a horse, to talk turkey, to flog a dead horse, to be pigheaded, to let sleeping dogs lie, to back the wrong horse, to change horses in midstream, to cry wolf, to drink like a fish, to monkey around

    Until the cows come home
    Straight from the horse’s mouth, like a fish out of water
    Mad as a hornet, busy as a bee

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Thanks, Lars-Olof! I challenge anyone to come up with one that isn’t on your list!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.