Talk on the Wild side

1st November 2002 at 00:00
This week a four-part poster series from the RSPCA starts at the centre of TES Teacher. Here Dinah Starkey shows how animals play a central part in our language.

As you lick your class into shape this term you may find yourself faced with a pupil who's as stubborn as a mule or just plain pig ignorant. But it's no good putting your head in the sand. Take the bull by the horns and show them who's top dog. English has a whole menagerie of terms taken from the animal kingdom. Some of them come from medieval bestiaries. These collections of animal stories were very popular in the middle ages but they were in no sense scientific. Although they were based on the works of Aristotle and Arabic scholars of the first millennium, they developed through time into a wonderful hotchpotch of myths and fables. They were passed on by writers such as Shakespeare and their phrases still echo today.

Take the bear. It was well known fact, according to the bestiaries, that bear cubs were born as formless lumps of flesh and their mothers had to lick them into shape. Ostriches hid their head in the sand to escape from danger, while crocodiles lured unwary travellers by weeping false tears. The tigress was the most ferocious of all animals in the defence of her cubs, while the swan sang just once, before she died.

The lion's share derives from one of Aesop's fables. Several beasts joined the lion in a hunt. When they divided the spoils the lion claimed a quarter as his right, a quarter for his courage, a quarter for his mate and cubs and offered the remainder to any who dared fight for it. Other fables introduce us to the town mouse and country mouse and the dog in the manger, who prevented the ox from feeding, even though hay was no use to him.

Many sayings refer to the sports and pastimes of pre-industrial England. A pig in a poke was a blind bargain. A trickster at a fair might try to palm off a cat as a sucking pig. When the victim opened his poke he "let the cat out of the bag" or exposed the trick. The universal passion for cock fighting has left its mark on our language too. Airline pilots still sit in the cockpit - the confined space at the centre of the action. The cock of the walk, like the top dog, remains a dominant figure, in marked contrast to the henpecked husband of folklore. Cocks were admired for their courage and words associated with them have a certain swagger - cocky, cocksure, and cock-a-hoop. They crow over their triumphs.

But the words associated with most farmyard animals were less flattering. Horses come off best. Although stables have given way to garages, we still have hungry as a horse and as strong as a horse, and the capacity of an engine is measured in horse-power. The easiest way to find the age of a horse is by looking at its teeth. That's why it's rude to look a gift-horse in the mouth; however badly the teeth are worn, the courteous recipient feigns delighted gratitude. News is received straight from the horse's mouth for the same reason. Inspection of the animal's teeth provides reliable information about it.

But our forefathers took a jaundiced view of their livestock, and terms like pigheaded, chicken and catty reflect this. The black sheep is the one who stands out from the flock. Donkey work is drudgery and a goose is silly. We continue to coin animal phrases. Pedestrians look out for a pelican crossing. In a bull market shares charge ahead but when the market turns bearish, prices tumble. We use a computer with a mouse and show information by spider diagrams. It's all part of an old instinct to enrich our words with imagery from the world around us and it will continue for as long as animals walk the earth.

THINGS TO DO

* Brainstorm a list of words and phrases associated with animals.

* Make a set of favourablesimiles, such as proud as a peacock, brave as a lion.

* Group phrases and terms which show animals in a favourable light, for example wise as an owl and dogged, and those which are unfavourable such as snake in the grass.

* Draw a cat and surround it with feline phrases; for example, cat's eyes, like a cat on hot bricks, no room to swing a cat.

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