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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 11753

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

It is easy to see how names of persons have sometimes changed into general words. But we have also a great number of general words which are taken from animals' names. Most often these words are used to describe people's characters. Sometimes people are merely compared with the animals whose qualities they are supposed to have, and sometimes they are actually called by the names of these animals. Thus we may say that a person is "as sly as a fox," or we may call him an "old fox," and every one understands the same thing by both expressions.

The cause of this continual comparison of human beings with animals is that long ago, when these expressions first began to be used, animals, and especially wild animals, played a great part in the lives of the people. In the Middle Ages great parts of England, now dotted over with big towns, were covered with forest land. Wolves roamed in the woods, and the fighting of some wild animals and the taming of others formed a most important part of people's lives. The same thing was, of course, the case in other countries. So familiar were people in those days with animals that they thought of them almost as human beings and believed that they had their own languages. It was people who believed these things who made up many of the old fairy tales about animals-stories like "Red Riding Hood" and the "Three Bears."

We often say that we are "as hungry as a wolf;" but we who have never seen wolves except behind the bars of their cages at the Zoological Gardens do not know how hungry a wild wolf can be. Those, however, who first used this expression thought of the lean and hungry wolves who prowled round the farms and cottages in the hard winter weather, driven by starvation to men's very doors. We also have the expression, "a wolf in sheep's clothing." By this we mean a person who is really dangerous and harmful, but who puts on a harmless and gentle manner to deceive his victim.

Another use of the word wolf is as a verb, meaning to eat in a very quick and greedy manner, as we might imagine a hungry wolf would do, and as our forefathers knew by experience that they did do. Most of the people who use the names of the wolf and the fox in these ways do not know anything of the habits of these animals, but the expressions have become part of the common language.

The same thing is, of course, true about the lion, with which even our far-off English ancestors had never to fight. But the lion is such a fierce and magnificent animal that it naturally appeals to our imagination, and we find numerous comparisons with it, chiefly in poetical language. We say a soldier is as "brave as a lion," or describe him as a "lion in the fight."

A less complimentary comparison is an expression we often hear, "as stubborn as a mule." Only a few of the people who use this expression can have had any experience of the stubbornness of mules. Sometimes a stubborn person is described quite simply as a "mule." Another compliment of the same sort is to call a person who seems to us to be acting stupidly a "donkey."

We may say a person is as "greedy as a pig," or describe him with disgust as a "pig," which may mean either that they are very greedy or that they are behaving in a very ungracious or unmannerly way. A more common description of a person of this sort is "a hog." Every one has heard of the "road hogs," who drive their motors regardless of other people's convenience or safety; and of the "food hogs," who tried to store up food, or refused to ration themselves, and so shortened other people's supplies of food in the Great War.

Other common expressions comparing people with animals are-"sulky as a bear," "gay as a lark," "busy as a bee." We might also call a cross person a "bear," but should not without some explanation call a person a "lark" or a "bee."

We may say a person "chatters like a magpie," or we may call him or her a "magpie." A person who talks without thinking, merely repeating what other people have said, is often called a "parrot."

Sometimes names of common animals or birds used to describe people are complimentary, but more often they are not. It seems as though the people who made these metaphors were more eloquent in anger than in love. A very nice child will be described by its friends as a "little duck." A mischievous child may also be described good-temperedly as a "monkey;" but there are far more words of abuse taken from the names of animals than more or less amiable words like these.

A bad-tempered woman is described as a "vixen," or female fox; a lazy person as a "drone," or the bee which does no work. A stupid person may be called a "sheep" or a "goose" (which is not quite so insulting). Dog, hound, cur, and puppy are all used as words of abuse; and contempt for some one who is regarded as very mean-spirited is sometimes shown by describing such a person as a "worm," or worse, if possible, a "reptile." A "bookworm," on the other hand, the name of a little insect which lives in books and eats away at paper and bindings, is applied to people who love books in another way-great readers-and is, of course, not at all an uncomplimentary word.

A foolish person who has been easily deceived in some matter is often described as a "gull," or is said to have been "gulled." Gull is now the name of a sea-bird, but in Early English it was used to describe any young bird, and from the idea that it is easy to deceive such youngsters came the use of the word to describe foolish people.

Another name of a bird used with almost the opposite meaning is rook. This name is given to people who are constantly cheating others, especially at card games. It was earlier used, like gull, to describe the person cheated. It then came to be used as a verb meaning "to cheat," and from this was used to describe the person cheating instea

d of the person cheated.

Other names of birds not quite so common used to describe stupid people are dotterel and dodo. The dotterel is a bird which is very easily caught, and it was from this fact that it got its name, which comes from dote, to be "silly" or "feeble-minded." When the name of the bird is used to describe a silly person, the word is really, as an interesting writer on the history of words says, turning "a complete somersault." The same is the case with dodo, which is also used, but not so often, to describe a stupid person. This bird also got its name from a word which meant "foolish." It comes from the Portuguese word doudo, which means "simpleton."

We have a few verbs also taken from the names of animals and birds. We say a person "apes" another when he tries to imitate him. This word comes, of course, from the fact that the ape is always imitating any action performed by other people.

A person who follows another persistently is said to "dog" his steps. This expression comes, of course, from the fact of dogs following their masters. Another expression is to "hound" a person to do something, by which we mean persecute him. This comes from the idea of a hound tracking its victim down. Another of these words which has the idea of persecution is badger. When some one constantly talks about a subject which is unpleasant to another, or continually tries to persuade him to do something against his will, he is said to be "badgering" him. The badger is an animal which burrows into the ground in winter, and dogs are set to worry it out of its hiding-place. The badger is the victim and not the persecutor, as we might think from the use of the verb.

The verb henpeck, to describe the teasing of her husband by a disagreeable wife, comes, of course, from the idea of the continual pecking of a hen.

Many common articles are named after animals which they resemble in some way. A "ram" is an instrument, generally of wood, used to drive things into place by pressure. In olden days war-ships used to have a "battering-ram," or projecting beak, at their prow, with which to "ram" other vessels. The Romans called such a beak an aries, which is the Latin for "ram," a male sheep. This was probably from the habit of rams butting an enemy with their horns. The Romans often had the ends of their battering-rams carved into the shape of the head of a ram. A "ramrod" gets its name from the same idea. It is an instrument for pressing in the ammunition when loading the muzzle of a gun.

The word "ram" has now several more general uses. We speak of a person "ramming" things into a drawer or bag when we mean pushing them hastily and untidily into too small a place. Or a man may "ram" his hat down on his head. Again, we may have a lesson or unpleasant fact "rammed" into us by some one who is determined to make the subject clear whether we want to hear about it or not. And all this comes from the simple idea of the ram butting people whom it considers unpleasant.

More commonplace instruments having animals' names are the "clothes'-horse" and "fire-dogs."

We have other words, which we should not guess to be from animals' names, but which really are so. We say that a person who is always changing his mind, and wanting first one thing and then another, is "capricious." Or we speak of a curious or unreasonable desire as a "caprice." These words really come from the Latin name for a goat-caper. The mind of the capricious person skips about just like a goat. At least that is what the word capricious literally says about him. The word caper, meaning to "jump about playing tricks," comes from the Latin word capra, a "she-goat."

The word coward comes from the name of an animal, but not the cow. In a famous French story of the Middle Ages, in which all the characters are animals, the "Roman de Renard," the hare is called couard, and it is from this that the word coward ("one who runs away from danger") comes.

All these words from the names of animals take us back, then, to the days when every man was a kind of naturalist. In those early days, when town life hardly existed, everybody knew all about animals and their habits. Their conversation was full of this sort of thing. And so it is that in hundreds of our words which we use to-day, without thinking of the literal meaning at all, we have a picture of the lives of our ancestors preserved.

We have, too, words taken from the names of some animals which never existed at all. The writers of the Middle Ages told many tales or fables of animals and monsters which were purely imaginary, but in which the people of those days firmly believed. We sometimes hear people use the expression a "basilisk glare," which other people would describe as a "look that kills," meaning a look of great severity or displeasure. There is a little American lizard which zoologists call the "basilisk," but this is not the basilisk from which this expression comes. The basilisk which the people of the Middle Ages imagined, but which never existed, was a monstrous reptile hatched by a serpent from a cock's egg. By its breath or even its look it could destroy all who approached it.

Another invention of the Middle Ages was the bird called the "ph?nix." We now use the word ph?nix to describe some one who is unique in some good quality. A commoner way of expressing the same idea would be that "there is no one like him." It was believed in the Middle Ages that only one of these wonderful birds could exist in the world at one time. The story was that the ph?nix, after living through five or six hundred years in the Arabian desert, prepared a funeral pile for itself, and was burned to death, but rose again, youthful and strong as ever, from the ashes.

In these words we are reminded once again of another side of the life of our ancestors.

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