Familiar phrases often leap out of my mouth without my giving them much thought. When something doesn’t turn out the way it was advertised, I call it a “pig in a poke,” never concerning myself as to how a pig became the symbol of disappointment or what a “poke” was – until today. Uttering “pig in a poke” this morning sent me on an enlightening journey through the oddities of the English language.
“Pig in a poke” means foolishly buying something without looking at it first. This idiom is derived from a Late Middle Ages scam where unscrupulous sellers would say there was a pig in the cloth bag (called a “poke” back then), when it actually was a cat or dog – which weren’t as good to eat or as valuable as a pig. People who paid pig prices but didn’t look in the poke to make sure it truly was a pig, were often disappointed and angry with the seller (who was long-gone by that time). Because it was common practice to put a small pig (piglet) in a cloth sack to sell, the only way to tell the honest sellers from the scammers was to look in the poke, thus leading to the full phrase “don’t buy a pig in a poke.” By the 1800s it had become common law that a buyer was given the right to look in the bag before purchase. Today, we use the phrase “caveat emptor,” Latin for “buyer beware,” to warn against being foolish enough to be taken in by the “pig in a poke” scam.
Pigs aren’t the only animals to become immortalized in phrases passed down through the generations. Horses have their own phrases, such as “horse-sense” and “straight from the horse’s mouth.” “Horse-sense” usually refers to a person exhibiting a good dose of common sense, even if the person is not highly educated. I owned a horse once – a temperamental, often flighty, mare named “Marbles” (as in “lost hers”), and common-sense was not a term I would associate with that horse. Scatterbrained, perhaps, but not high on the common-sense scale. Dolphins are intelligent, dogs are smart, and a plethora of other animals have significantly more common sense than that horse.
Researching “horse-sense” was enlightening. Medieval England, where the horse provided an important service to the people, was the source of many expressions involving horses. The horse was considered hefty, coarse, and often vulgar back then. For example, the rural language applied “horse” to plants that were larger and rougher than others, thus resulting in “horse-daisy” (currently called Ox-eye Daisy in an equine-to-bovine transformation) and “horse-radish” (now usually written as one word, horseradish, for the spicy hot root that resembles a radish). Similarly, “horse-sense” became associated with an unsophisticated, country-bumpkin kind of common sense. Rather than being coined in the Wild West of the United States, “horse-sense” was born near the Devon, England, town called “Westward Ho!” (the only town in England that includes an exclamation point in its name). As stated on the website https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings:
“The English romantic novelist Evelyn Malcolm wrote a string of novels in the 19th century, firmly set in Daphne du Maurier West Country bodice-ripping territory. One of these was Forsaken; Love’s Battle for Heart, published in The London Story Paper, January 1805, which includes a reference to a horny-handed son of the soil: ‘Lud, Bill Perkins has horse sense.’”
Or, perhaps, W.C. Fields said it best: “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” Source: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings
Having clarified that, let’s move to the meaning and history of “straight from the horse’s mouth,” a 20th century idiom. This phrase, meaning “from the highest authority” or “from one who knows,” is said to have originated with horse racing enthusiasts. Each bettor tries to get the best information on the horses running in the next race, and the only source closer to the horses than the stable hands and trainers are the horses themselves. Another, less popular, theory involves looking into a horse’s mouth to determine its age, health, and value to potential buyers. I prefer this latter theory, because it leads directly to another idiom, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“As the crow flies” is an interesting phrase. Obviously, the idiom “as the crow flies” means in a straight, direct line from Point A to Point B. Why choose a crow? Does a crow really fly straighter than an eagle? I’ve watched crows fly, and they don’t seem to fly straight or all that far – they tend to fly in large circles and stay relatively close to the neighborhood in which they were born, never migrating like other birds. So why measure distance between towns, for example, using crow flight? Geese fly further than crows – “as the goose flies” makes more sense. Measuring distance to Capistrano would be “as the swallow flies.” Why not use a bird that actually flies great distances between here and there?
The earliest know use of the phrase “as the crow flies” was in 1767, and “crow road” has been used in Scotland to denote the shortest, most direct route. Attempting to provide an historical context to the idiom, a fascinating theory was posited indicating that, before ship navigation equipment, crows were carried on ships and released when the captain wanted to find land – given the crow’s innate ability to fly directly toward land. The explanation is further enhanced to state that the crows were kept in a cage at the top of the mast – the “crow’s nest.” Excitement at finally identifying the source of another idiom, “crow’s nest,” was soon deflated, however, when “evidence” from the 19th century indicated a land-based explanation. The “crow’s nest,” as explained, was simply called that because of its shape and position, but was only used as a lookout. The “evidence” denouncing the “crow’s nest” story was from the late 1700s, stating that crows, being intelligent animals, fly directly to a food source. Well, that would imply that other birds, not being as intelligent as the crow, would, upon detecting a food source, take a random, roundabout flight pattern to said food source. Not a convincing explanation to me. I prefer the crows in a cage at the top of the “crow’s nest” theory.
Dogs have their fair share of phrases, such as: “dog day afternoon” (even having a 1975 movie named after it) and the unpleasant “dog eat dog world.” Interestingly, “dog days” has nothing to do with dogs. Dating back to 1398, “dog days” refers to the extremely hot days during July and August, coinciding with the appearance of Sirius (the Dog Star) in the same part of the sky as the Sun. Sirius garnered the name “Dog Star” as the largest and brightest star in the Canis Major constellation, which follows behind the Orion constellation in the night sky, like a faithful companion. In fact, Orion’s Belt points directly to Sirius. As the brightest star in the night sky, Greeks thought Sirius brought extra heat to Earth, causing fever, lethargy, and thunderstorms.
Ok, so what about the phrase, “dog eat dog world”? The phrase refers to any situation where there is such fierce competition that people are willing to hurt each other to triumph. But, do dogs really eat other dogs? It has been stated that a hungry dog will eat another dog – but that is probably true of most, if not all, carnivores, including humans (think Donner Party). So, why pick on the dog? A fascinating explanation of “why a dog?” was presented: There is a Latin phrase, which translates to “dogs do not eat dogs” which was common in mid-16th century English. According to this theory, “dog eat dog” implies that only people driven by such competitive survival instincts will resort to cannibalistic behavior beneath that of dogs. Now, that I could accept as a plausible explanation, having witnessed ruthless (lacking “ruth” or compassion) actions of others driven by intense competition to overpower everyone else.
Cats aren’t immune from becoming icons of their own somewhat gruesome phrases: “cat got your tongue” and “look like something the cat drug in,” plus “letting the cat out of the bag.”
Let’s start with “cat got your tongue?” or its fuller form “Has the cat got your tongue?” as that is something I had been told frequently as a child – even though we didn’t have a cat, and my tongue remained fully intact in my closed mouth. Finally considered archaic and totally out-of-fashion, it was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, children were faced with either being too talkative – “children should be seen but not heard” – or not talking at all – “has the cat got your tongue?” Some attribute this idiom to pure invention or light-hearted imagery directed at children. A few consider the idiom a reference to a witch’s cat, which would steal and/or eat the tongue of a person to keep that person from talking. Another gruesome theory states that, in ancient Egypt, liars’ tongues were cut out and fed to the cats. I’m favoring the light-hearted imagery theory.
Now to the idiom that raises my proper English hackles: “look like something the cat drug in.” Yes, I know it means that the target looks messy, bedraggled, filthy, or just plain unwanted in that particular situation. And, yes, I know it is most likely derived from the dead animals that cats proudly share with their “staff” (us humans) to demonstrate their prowess – or to thank said “staff” for doing something that garners the cat’s approval. What bothers me about this idiom is the use of the word “drug” for the past tense of “drag” instead of the proper “dragged.” Understanding that the person uttering that particular idiom is attempting to display distain at the presence of the target, to me, using the word “drug” brings the person down to the level of the target, thus totally nullifying the effectiveness of the slam – and potentially even resulting in the tables being turned on the person by the target ridiculing the person’s misuse of the English language.
“Letting the cat out of the bag” appears to have ties all the way back to 1530, to “pig in a poke,” addressed earlier in this blog. If a potential buyer of a “pig in a poke” actually opens the bag to see what is inside, the person may be surprised to find he/she has “let the cat out of the bag,” revealing the previously-hidden deception or secret.
Although I could continue through the entire animal kingdom in this manner, in the interest of brevity – and to answer the question you may have been eager to ask since reading the blog title – I shall close with a phrase that made no sense to me until I researched it: “get your goat.” Having not a clue as to the meaning of the idiom, I initially titled this blog “Get Your Goat.” Imagine my dismay when I discovered that this phrase means making someone annoyed or angry. Certainly not wanting to offend anyone reading this blog, I immediately changed the title to “Not Wanting to Get Your Goat.”
Grateful for research allaying a potentially devastating faux pas, I searched further for the source of this strange idiom. One popular explanation is derived in 1909 from horse racing, where goats were used to calm race horses. A rival horse owner, wanting a particular horse to lose a race, would remove (or “get”) the goat from the horse’s stable, causing the horse to become upset and run poorly. Another interesting theory comes from the 1904 book, Life in Sing Sing, in which a “goat” is the slang term for anger. With this theory, “get your goat” is slang for “get you angry.” Yet another theory suggests that “goat” is a metaphor for a state of peace which, when removed, leads to anger. A similar theory to the goat as a stablemate to a race horse to keep it calm so it runs better, states that a goat is housed with cows to calm the cows, so they produce more milk. Some dastardly person, intent on reducing the milk production of those cows, would “get the goat” away from the cows. This theory is difficult for me to embrace, because – although I can see a bettor wanting a particular race horse to do badly for financial reasons – I cannot see how a nasty person would benefit from reducing the milk output from some cows (presumably not his/her own).
I sincerely hope you have been enlightened by the results of my lengthy research into animal-related idioms. My actual research became lengthy primarily due to the serendipitous discovery of dozens of fascinating phrases attracting my attention. Too numerous to include in this blog (but not safe from becoming future blog material), I will not list them here. However, if you have a day or two devoid of pressing commitments, I highly recommend browsing through https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings, a delightful website listing, in alphabetical order, every idiom known to the website curators. You, too, may find the joy of research.
May your goat of peace remain with you always.
P.S.: I would love to hear your favorite phrases and the history behind them. Please leave me a comment below. Thank you!