Animals have always had a place in idiomatic language. But do you ever stop to think about why the heck we say some idioms in the first place? Why are family members called black sheep or politicians lame ducks? Why do we cry crocodile tears, or think the hottest days of the year are the dog days of summer? Read on for the background on some of the most common, and most interesting, animal idioms.
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1. Dog Days of Summer.
The phrase, “dog days of summer,” which is used to refer to the hottest days of the year, can be traced back to the astronomers of Ancient Rome. Each July, Sirius, also known as the “Dog Star” appears in the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and the ancient Romans mistakenly believed that the grueling heat of late July and August was because of this star.
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2. Black Sheep.
Once upon a time, well before all of the industrial manufacturing we know today, sheep with dark wool were considered less desirable than sheep with light wool. Though they were much rarer than their light counterpart, dark sheep were loathed because their wool was much more difficult to dye. It also didn’t help that, in Western culture, black was associated with the devil. As a result, black sheep, just like their namesake, were the odd ones in a family or group.
3. Lame Duck.
Though we now associate the term “lame duck” with relatively powerless sitting presidents on their way out of office, it actually originated from finance, not politics. In the world of the 18th century London stock exchange, “lame ducks” were stockbrokers who couldn’t pay off their debts. Lame ducks were easy targets for predators. The term crossed the pond to the United States and its original financial meaning was displaced by its contemporary political meaning.
4. Crocodile Tears.
How did crying crocodiles become associated with phony sadness? Well, it was long thought that crocodiles cried in order to lure their prey; the unsuspecting victim would feel comfortable moving closer to the croc. Interestingly, crocodiles do cry — but it probably has nothing to do with emotions. Their relative, the alligator, sometimes produces tears when its eating. This idiom may be based on long dismissed science, but the phrase has stuck.
5. Horse of a Different Color.
You might be thinking of the magical horse in the Wizard of Oz here, but its origins go back much further than that. As with many idioms in the English language, a take on the phrase, “a horse of a different color” — which refers to the idea of finding something to be different than what you had originally thought — likely first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The exact origins of the phrase aren’t entirely clear, though it’s possible that it has to do with buying and selling horses or horse racing.