“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
Anatole France, a French poet, journalist, and novelist
In English, as well as in many other languages, there are a lot of idioms related to animals. In fact, we’ll need a few posts to cover some of the most useful ones, and this article is just the first in the series. The good this is animal idioms usually create a strong image in our mind, and that’s why they may be quite easy to remember. So, here is our list of idioms for today:
RABBITS, FOXES & WOLVES
- To go down the rabbit hole – to be in a situation that is strange, confusing, or illogical, and often hard to escape from (the origin of the idiom is “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, a famous children’s story by Lewis Carroll in which a girl called Alice falls down a rabbit hole into a strange dreamlike world): He went down the rabbit hole. So, a rabbit hole is a bizarre or confusing situation or environment: I am so far down the rabbit hole here. (Related: Famous Characters in Colloquial English)
- To pull a rabbit out of a hat – to do something surprising and seemingly impossible: Unless someone can pull a rabbit out of a hat, we’re out of solutions.
- Rabbit food – any salad greens, usually lettuce: I’ve been put on a diet of rabbit food and forced to exercise.
- Sly/cunning as a fox – very smart and clever: You must be as sly as a fox to survive in this business. (more similes are here)
- Silver fox – an attractive older man with grey hair: Many women will agree that Richard Gere is a silver fox.
- The big bad wolf – someone or something that is bad and causes all the problems in a situation: I’m not the big bad wolf. We need to find the real source of problems.
- To cry wolf – to keep saying that there is a problem when there is not, with the result that people do not believe you when there really is a problem: We can lose the support of the people if we consistently cry wolf.
- To keep the wolf from the door – to manage to earn enough money to buy food and other essential things: These days it’s hard to keep the wolf from the door.
- To throw someone to the wolves – to put someone in a situation in which they are severely criticized or attacked, and not try to protect them: Billy was more than ready to throw you to the wolves out there.
- A wolf in sheep’s clothing – someone who seems friendly but is in fact unpleasant or cruel: I’m usually better at spotting the wolf in sheep’s clothing. A wolf in sheep’s clothing can also be a thing that seems good at first but is in fact harmful: This plan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
LIONS, TIGERS & ELEPHANTS
- To be thrown/tossed/fed to the lions = to be thrown to the wolves: If this isn’t settled soon, you’ll be thrown to the lions.
- In the lion’s den – in a situation where you are with a lot of people who criticize or attack you: It’s not often I get invited into the lion’s den.
- The lion’s share – the largest part of something: I’ve already done the lion’s share of the work.
- Lion-hearted (literary) – very brave: He can be a lion-hearted captain someday.
- A tiger can’t change its stripes = a leopard can’t change its spots – used for saying that someone will never change their behavior or character: He’ll never be different because a tiger can’t change its stripes.
- Paper tiger – a person, nation, etc. that seems to pose a threat but is actually ineffective or powerless: Don’t worry about him. He’s just a paper tiger.
- To see the elephant – to have gained experience of the world but at a significant cost: Did you see the elephant during the war?
- To have a memory like an elephant – to have a good memory: You can remember such long numbers! You have a memory like an elephant.
- The elephant in the room – a serious problem that everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about: Okay, well, nobody’s talking about the elephant in the room, so I’ll do it.
- White elephant – a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of: This boat is a white elephant, but I can’t sell it because my father loved it so much.
COWS, SHEEP & PIGS
- Till the cows come home – for a very long time: He’d talk about that thing till the cows come home.
- To have a cow – to become very agitated or angry: OK, I’ll do that. Just don’t have a cow!
- Cash cow – a business, investment, or product that provides a steady income or profit: My first album is a cash cow, and I’m grateful for it. Unfortunately, my later works are not so successful.
- Sacred cow (disapproval) – something that many people think is too important to change, question, or criticize: This tradition is a sacred cow of our society, but it shouldn’t be.
- To count sheep – to imagine sheep and count them as a way of making yourself go to sleep: Counting sheep never helps me fall asleep faster.
- To separate the sheep from the goats – to separate the people who are clever or good from the ones who are not: The new administration might start with separating the sheep from the goats.
- Black sheep – a person who is regarded as a disgrace or failure by his or her family or peer group: I was always the black sheep of the family.
- When pigs fly – never: When would they be hired again? – Perhaps, as the saying goes, when pigs fly.
- Guinea /ˈɡɪni/ pig – someone who is used in an experiment: I know you like these unconventional parenting methods, but your child shouldn’t be your guinea pig.
- To make a pig’s ear of something (British English) – to do something very badly: Please don’t make a pig’s ear of your presentation. It’s so important!
And now let’s do a small test on the animal idioms, shall we? The answer key is at the bottom of the page. Good luck!
Choose the right idiom:
- This practice is the _______ (big bad wolf/cash cow/paper tiger) and we should change it as soon as possible.
- Get out of here! – OK, don’t _______ (count sheep/have a cow/cry wolf).
- Don’t underestimate her. She really can _______ (have a memory like an elephant/be thrown to the lions/pull a rabbit out of a hat).
- This issue has always been a _______ (guinea pig/sacred cow/black sheep) but I’d like to change it.
- It was the _______ (elephant in the room/white elephant/lion’s share) they simply chose to ignore.
- You can argue _______ (when pigs fly/till the cows come home/down the rabbit hole) but you won’t be able to make me change my mind.
- Is it really necessary to _______ (see the elephant/keep the wolf from the door/separate the sheep from the goats)? We are all smart people.
- I wonder what you would do in the _______ (lion’s den/lion’s share/pig’s ear).
- How can I have _______ (a cow/a memory like an elephant/sheep’s clothing)? Mine is like a sieve. (Related: How to Talk about Forgetting)
- This house may be a/an _______ (elephant in the room/white elephant/guinea pig) but wouldn’t sell it even for a million dollars!
Answer key: 1. big bad wolf 2. have a cow 3. pull a rabbit out of a hat 4. sacred cow 5. elephant in the room 6. till the cows come home 7. separate the sheep from the goats 8. lion’s den 9. a memory like an elephant 10. white elephant