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Woods and Water — Turning a phrase: Wild critters make their way into everyday speech

Woods and Water — Turning a phrase: Wild critters make their way into everyday speech

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008 9:11 pm
By: Rob Somerville

  Leave it to the supposedly, superior-minded human race, to mess up the facts and confuse the issues when it comes to the world of nature, by coining popular phrases using wild critters in similes that actually make little to no sense.

A simile is defined as a figure of speech that draws a comparison between two different things, especially a phrase containing the word “like” or “as.” Thus, it is a figurative language drawing comparison — the likening of one thing to another. There are many examples of similes to due with nature that are used in our everyday conversation

Simile expressions like “drunk as a skunk” and “wise as an owl” are used in our day to day conversations. But, I would bet that if you asked whoever quoted one of these misnomers exactly why they use one of those given similes, they would have no idea!

After all, have you ever seen an inebriated skunk, or had an intellectual conversation with an owl?

Out of curiosity — which, by the way … supposedly “killed the cat” — I decide to list some of the more popular quoted similes, involving the world of the wild, and with a few of them, research where and why they originated. So, let’s get “busy as a bee” and get started!

Here are a few similes that have been used for ages, along with their origins.


Meaning: Success comes to those who prepare well and put in effort. 

Origin: This is first recorded in John Ray’s a collection of English proverbs {circa 1670 to1678} “The early bird catcheth the worm.”

Clearly, the title of the work indicates that this was considered proverbial even in the 17th century. 


Meaning: Be unable to see well, or unable to see at all. If someone is as blind as a bat, they cannot see well or cannot see at all, because of their very bad eyesight. Bats use sonar, rather than vision.


Meaning: Feel uncomfortable because you are in an unfamiliar situation. If you feel like a fish out of water, you feel awkward or uncomfortable, because you are in an unusual or unfamiliar situation.

Origin: This metaphor is quite old. Chaucer used a version of it in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue: …a monk, when he is cloisterless; is like to a fish that is waterless.


Meaning: A burden, which some unfortunate person has to carry.

Origin: A reference to the poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which the character who shot an albatross is obliged to carry the bird hung around his neck.


Meaning: To weep crocodile tears is to put on an insincere show of sorrow. 

Origin: The allusion is to the ancient notion that crocodiles weep while devouring their prey. Crocodiles, do indeed have lachrymal glands and produce tears to lubricate the eyes, as humans do. They don’t cry though. Whatever emotion they experience, when finding and devouring prey, we can be certain it isn’t remorse. There are reports of references in French that date the belief back to 1230, although I’ve not been able to confirm those. The myth appeared in print in ‘The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville’, circa 1400.


Meaning: “As the crow flies” is a phrase used to describe the most direct route between two points on a planetary body. 

Origin: The phrase is attested in print as early as 1800, but its origin is unknown.


• As ugly as a toad: They are rather hideous. 

• As strong as an ox: Used to pull plows through muddy fields, during early settler days. 

• As agile as a monkey: Have you ever watched them swing through trees, or hang from their tails?

• As big as an elephant: Pretty darn big. I wouldn’t mess with one.

• As hungry as a bear: After sleeping for three months, you would be hungry, too!

• As stubborn as a mule: They are as hard-headed, as they are sure-footed.

• As slippery as an eel: They have no scales and I do not know anyone that would want to reach into water and try to grab one. 

• As slow as a tortoise: Remember the race?

• Eyes like a hawk: They can spot a mouse, when circling over 100 feet above a grass field.

• Busy as a beaver: Watch a family of beavers, as they construct a large and elaborate dam in less than one day and you’ll understand where this comparison came from.


• Drunk as a skunk: I have never seen a skunk inebriated.

• Mean as a snake: I might bite you, too, if you stepped on me.

• Wise as an owl: I have never seen an owl with a college degree. Besides, they must not be too smart. They are always asking, “Who?”

• Quiet as a mouse: I have had a mouse wake me up, during a sound sleep at our deer cabin, as it scampered about the attic rafters.

• Nutty as a squirrel: They seem pretty smart to me. They store food away for less bountiful days.

• Playing possum: I have never seen them play, or play dead. They are nothing but disgusting, larger versions of rats, in my mind.

• Loose as a goose: I have no idea???

• Raining cats and dogs: All I know is that I will not be going outside during these times. I wonder if a severe thunderstorm would constitute lions and St. Bernard’s dropping out of the clouds!

Well, I had fun researching these idioms and similes involving the “wild side” of nature, and I hope you did as well.

Be careful in your outdoor travels. But if you get lost in the wild, you can always ask a passing elephant for directions. After all, an “elephant never forgets.” If you try to find your way out of the woods by yourself, you may get lost and be late for dinner, and end up “eating crow” instead of roast beef.

If your wife “lets the cat out of the bag” about it and your buddies find out, it will make you feel “knee high to a grasshopper” and “mad as a hornet” when they are “laughing like a pack of hyenas”

Well, it is time for me to “make like a banana and split.”

See ya,

Published in The Messenger 10.23.08

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