Beastly Phrases

“Beastly Phrases,” Friend, May 1992, 48


Beastly Phrases

How forcible are right words! (Job 6:25).

Ever wonder where your parents get such crazy expressions as “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or why they say you’re “crying crocodile tears”? These and other creature-sayings are part of our everyday speech, but they have come from ancient languages and faraway places. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the origins of some of the critter phrases that enrich our language.

When you first heard the phrase, “I’m going to cook your goose,” you probably thought, I don’t even have a goose! Of course, the expression actually means that you’re done for. “Cook your goose” has several different stories behind it. A common one tells of a besieged English town in the sixteenth century. The townspeople, tired of their attackers, hung a dead goose from the city wall to show that they still had plenty of food. The leader of the invading army, Eric the Mad of Sweden, became very angry, for the goose had long stood for silliness and stupidity. Feeling that the people were calling him dumb, Eric burned the town to the ground—he cooked their goose!

If anyone has ever accused you of crying “crocodile tears” it meant that he thought that you were faking sorrow. An ancient belief that began in Greece said that crocodiles would weep as they swallowed an unwary victim. Sir John Mandeville, a fourteenth-century voyager, reported this in a journal: “Theise Serpentes slen men, and they eten him weppynge.” (These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping.) Mandeville was, however, known to be quite a storyteller. In fact, he started so many false beliefs that to be called a ‘mandeville’ at that time was to be called a teller of tall tales!

When you say, “A little bird told me,” you’ve just revealed a secret without revealing its source. Even the writer of Ecclesiastes 10:20 in about 250 B.C.. warned against sharing secrets with a bird: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” The writer of Ecclesiastes wanted to warn people against saying bad things about their governments, because the people in power would somehow find out. The expression was also used by the great poet Homer in the eighth century B.C.. In the Iliad, he speaks of birds of ill-omen spreading whispers about.

When you do something wrong and your mischief has been discovered, you probably assume that you have been “ratted on.” “To rat on” is an English phrase meaning to tell or tattle on someone. It comes from an earlier phrase: “rats deserting a sinking ship.” For many centuries, sailors had a superstition that if the rats hurried off a ship before it set sail, the ship would sink during the trip. Francis Bacon, in the sixteenth century, was one of the first to use that phrase; it appears in his Essays. Over the years, the meaning of rat has changed from deserter to traitor, or one who “squeals.”

When someone comes running in looking wet, he is likely to say “It’s raining cats and dogs!” In 1738, Jonathan Swift wrote in his Polite Conversation, “I know Sir John will go, even though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.” But what in the world do household pets have to do with rain? Ancient superstition and mythology have long connected cats with weather, especially bad weather. Long ago, a cat with a very straight tail pointing upwards was supposed to tell of an oncoming storm. The ancient Egyptians, who worshipped the cat, believed cats flew with storm spirits. In Norse mythology, the dog was the symbol for the wind. Put together, cats and dogs make up quite a storm!

Now that you’ve had a small tour of beastly words, maybe you can see where your parents and others get such critter sayings! So when your mother or father asks you to clean up your pigsty, don’t mope about it. Just remember that kids in the seventeenth century had to clean up their pigsties too!

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki