In human language, there are expressions that are called idiomatic. It is a construction or a phrase particular to a language, which carries meaning through its whole and not through each of the words that compose it. Most often, these are pictorial or metaphorical expressions, used to give more color and expressiveness to our expression. Many of these expressions have their origins in observations or behaviors of animals.
Expressions around birds
Birds are the origin of many expressions. We say “have bird brains” for example, to say that we are dizzy or that we have very little memory. The bird, and in particular the sparrow or the linnet, which are used to construct variants of this expression, are renowned for being not very intelligent. This is because scientists have long believed that intelligence is proportional to brain size. More positively, we can say “sing like a bird” to talk about someone who sings happily.
Expressions around cats
Cats have also played an important role in the creation of idiomatic expressions. We can thus quote “at night all cats are gray” to say that we cannot distinguish details in the darkness, “scalded cat fears cold water” to evoke the fact that a person who makes an experiment unhappy once will fear it later, “you must not wake the sleeping cat” to say that you must not wake up a sleeping threat under penalty of suffering the consequences, “have cat’s eyes” to say that someone has very good vision, especially in the dark.
Expressions around dogs
Dogs are not left out since they have been with us for several centuries. “To have a dog’s life” is used when life is difficult, “to have a hard time doing something” to say that the action is very difficult, “to have a dog’s character” to say that a person has a bad temper, “to look like a beaten dog”, to say that one looks sad. The expression was born from a time when animals were not taken care of like today
Expressions from another time
Many animal-related idioms ultimately emerged at a time when our understanding of how animals functioned and behaved was limited compared to what we know today. For a long time, people considered animals empirically, attributing to them human characteristics. These observations gave rise to expressions that reflect beliefs, superstitions and knowledge that are ultimately no longer valid today.
But, surprisingly, these expressions are so anchored in usage that we still use them, even though our point of view on animals is much more refined. They are part of our cultural and linguistic history, even if their literal meaning can sometimes seem outdated. They also recall the links between man and nature, the result of knowledge and perceptions that evolve over time.