Author’s Note: Since I teach English, this idea has been knocking around in my head for a while. And now I’ve finally gotten it down.
This particular post is going to discuss some common idioms and sayings in the English language. And, since they originated in a time long before science could fact-check them, they’ve given us some very wrong ideas about certain animals in general.
The English language is a funny thing. And many common English idioms, expressions, and phrases use animal-inspired comparisons to better emphasize a particular trait or situation.
An “eager beaver” is someone eager or excited to start or do something. When a person is doing something “fishy”, we mean that their actions are suspicious. To get a “lion’s share” of something means that we got the largest portion (of that something). And when we “let the cat out of the bag”, we mean that we have finally revealed something or told a secret.
For the most part, these common expressions are fun and great at getting our point across. However, many of these phrases have also given us factually wrong impressions about the animals that inspired them. And this list tackles some of the most blatant misconceptions we have about certain animals thanks to these common sayings.
#1) The Busy Bee
The “busy bee” refers to a person who is busy and hard working. So, for a long time, the “bee” has also been considered a perfect comparison for someone busy, industrious, or hardworking. This, in turn, paints a picture of all bees being hardworking and industrious creatures themselves, forever working together for the betterment of their colony.
Well, it turns out that all bees are not so diligent. For one thing, the workload is not distributed evenly among the bees in a hive. So some bees actually work more while other bees work less. Plus, there is a subspecies of bees called cuckoo bees that do not even bother building a hive for themselves. Instead, these bees – like the cuckoo bird they were named after – break into other bees’ hives and lay their own eggs there.
Sometimes, these bees even eat the host hive’s eggs! And the host bees are none the wiser about the switch.
#2) A Bird Brain
We call someone a “bird brain” when we want to say they’re dumb or unintelligent. The comparison started because of the small size of a bird’s brain, which should logically mean that birds are dumb, right?
Well, that is apparently wrong. For, while a bird’s brain is small, it is only small in comparison to other animals’ brain sizes. However, if you consider their brain and body size ratio, birds have perfectly healthy brain sizes.
In fact, birds are actually very intelligent creatures, capable of responding to social cues, learning, and even using tools. Of course, a bird’s level of intelligence varies from species to species, but they are intelligent.
Also fun fact: Scientifically, the idea that “bird brains” meant birds were unintelligent was only supported by the discovery that birds had a small cerebral cortex (the brain region related to intelligence). However, even though this is true, it actually proves little about a bird’s intelligence. Because songbirds actually have another brain region that only exists in avian species: The HVC region. And this is the part of the brain that is related to song production and (possibly) intelligence in birds.
#3) A Catnap
A “catnap” refers to taking a short nap in the middle of the day. However – as any cat owner will agree – how a catnap came to mean such is anyone’s guess.
For, the only thing the expression got right was that it is a nap taken at any time during the day. However, applying the concept to the animal it was modeled after, there is nothing short about a “catnap”. Rather, cats easily sleep for as long as 12, 16 or 20 hours a day!
Of course, a cat might not sleep for 12 or 16 hours at a stretch. But a cat certainly sleeps for much longer than the “short” time a “catnap” implies. And, considering that cats have been domesticated for centuries, one can only guess how “catnap” came to mean such a thing.
#4) A Leopard Doesn’t Change Its Spots
“A leopard does not change its spots” means that someone cannot change their basic nature, or that someone is incapable of change.
In other words, a leopard cannot change its spots, so it cannot change itself either.
Well – putting aside the existential questions a leopard might face in its life – it is a fact that leopards actually do change their spots. In fact, every leopard changes its spots during its lifetime: A leopard kitten begins with dark baby spots, and those change into rosette-like spots or markings by the time it matures into an adult.
So, connecting the figurative meaning to the literal phenomenon of a leopard’s changing spots, does that mean a leopard’s spots must change in order for it to mature? (Philosophical discussion, anyone?)
#5) Monkeying Around
Monkeys have always been related to all things fun and foolish. Because what could be “more fun than a barrel full of monkeys”? We even use the phrase “Monkeying around”, which refers to someone fooling around, or fiddling with something, or even just wasting time when they are supposed to be doing more important things.
So, of course, we all picture monkeys as nothing more than happy, frivolous animals who do nothing but swing around on vines and chatter nonsensically.
In truth, though, monkeys have complex social structures with intricate rules and dynamics within their societies. They are immensely social creatures. And the hierarchies and dynamics between different members differ from species to species.
They “farm” food and get affected by stress, which in turn affects their behavior. And they also use various forms of touch for social bonding. Plus, their seemingly nonsensical noises (to human ears) are actually various kinds of verbal communication cues within their society.
So, “monkeying around”? That may apply to fooling around when the expression is applied to a human. But for actual monkeys, it refers to a serious and socially complex way of living.
#6) A Slimy Snake
“Slimy snake” is an adjective you assign to someone when you find them unpleasant and-or unscrupulously sneaky. (If there are any Harry Potter fans reading this, then you probably didn’t need that explanation.) This has already given our slithering neighbors a bad reputation. But, aside from the sentiment, this common expression has also supported the belief that snakes are slimy to the touch.
However, in reality, snakes are not slimy at all. In fact, their scales are perfectly dry and their outer skin’s texture is more akin to soft, dry leather. The only reason snakes even look slimy at all is because their scales shine in the light, giving them a slime-shiny look.
#7) A Dumb Cluck
If you had not already guessed, this phrase relates to the chicken. And calling a person a “dumb cluck” is like calling that person a big dummy. For, what could be dumber than a chicken? A living bird that does nothing more than peck, cluck, and strut?
Well, turns out that’s wrong too.
For ages, chickens have been thought to be unintelligent, unaware creatures that barely even feel basic emotions. However, new research shows that not only is there a chance that chickens feel empathy with other creatures, but also that they might be quite intelligent. In fact, this new research shows that even chicks could have the potential to understand basic arithmetic.
Further research on the behavior and intelligence of the chicken is being conducted at the moment. And if the current results are supported and proved, “dumb cluck” could very well turn into an oxymoron.
#8) Slow as a Turtle
The turtle has forever been the paragon of “slowness”. “Slow as a turtle” is probably only contested by “slow as a snail” when it comes to describing slow speeds and slow progress. And, okay, this simile is true too.
At least when the turtle is on land.
However, in the sea, a turtle sheds its title of universal slowpoke and takes off!
Depending on the species of sea turtle, it can swim at speeds up to more than 5 miles per hour (9.3 kilometers per hour). And this difference in speed makes sense too. For, the sea turtle’s body has actually evolved and adapted to fit aquatic life more than terrestrial life. So it only makes sense that turtles will be faster and more adept at moving underwater. Besides, sea turtles usually only come ashore in the first place to lay their eggs. So their “slow” reputation is circumstantial and one-sided at best.
#9) Filthy as a Pig; Fat as a Pig; Sweating like a Pig (Poor pigs. How they’ve been abused.)
The pig is one animal that has been especially bullied by the common comparisons we assign to it: “Sweating like a pig”, “as filthy as a pig”, and “fat pig” are common expressions that we have all heard (and even used) at one time or another.
For one thing, pigs do not have sweat glands in the first place. So that completely invalidates the “sweaty pig” stereotype. And since they are biologically incapable of sweating, they roll around in the mud in order to keep cool. It helps that the moisture in mud takes longer to evaporate than water alone. So that muddy look is actually healthy for them, not “filthy”.
As for the “fat pig” comparison, pigs in the wild are healthily proportioned. Only the ones in captivity are usually overweight. In fact, it is only pigs in captivity that roll around in their own filth too. Wild pigs are pretty clean creatures who have even been seen to clean their food in water before they eat it.
#10) Blind as a Bat
Blindness has forever been compared to the natural eyesight of bats. But guess what? Bats being blind is a myth!
Rather, in truth, a lot of species of bats can see. And different species of bats have developed different kinds of vision abilities too. Some bat species can even see in daylight. Some can also see ultraviolet (UV) light. And that latter type makes their eyesight even better than humans. (We cannot see UV light naturally.)
As for their echolocation abilities, yes, bats do have that ability. But it is an additional ability. It’s not a replacement ability to make up for their lack of eyesight. In fact, most fruit bats simply rely on their vision to find food rather than on their echolocation abilities.
The more interesting point here, though, is that this list is in no way exhaustive. So, most likely, in time, we’ll probably find out even more stuff that we’ve completely misunderstood.
Oh, and just to clarify: Yes, we do still use these idioms and phrases in exactly the same way (even if the comparisons are not always true).