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The Origins of 11 Funny Animal-Related Sayings

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Chances are, you’ve uttered an animal-related saying recently—did you go “chew the cud” with a pal? Wonder what it would like to be “a fly on the wall”? Perhaps you went and “looked a gift horse in the mouth”?—but you still might not know where such freely used adages came from. A “doggie bag” might sound obvious, and clams sure look happy enough to bely their own saying, but the origins of various animal-related sayings are often more complicated (and fun) than you’d expect.

1. Doggie Bag

Although the term “doggie bag” might sound relatively self-explanatory—hey, it’s leftovers for your pet!—the saying actually has a surprisingly interesting history. During World War II, food was scarce for everyone (including pets), but that didn’t help curb restaurant wastefulness; packaging up leftovers (regardless of who they were for) wasn’t yet standard practice. Eventually, a group of San Francisco cafes began to offer “Pet Pakits” to their diners in order to zip their scraps home to the furry ones. The practice soon spread around the country, ensuring that restaurant waste went down and the spread of doggie bags went way up.

2. When Pigs Fly

Various iterations of sayings about piggies flying have existed for centuries. It’s believed that the first use of a flying pig comment (in appropriate sassy and disbelieving context) appeared in John Withals’ 1616 English-Latin dictionary, A Shorte Dictonarie for Yonge Begynners. The dictionary included a list of proverbs, which included “pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward.”

3. Busy As a Bee

It was Geoffrey Chaucer who gave us this particular saying. The first known use of a busy bee adage appeared in his Canterbury Tales. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a passage reads: “Lo, suche sleightes and subtilitees/
In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees/
Be thay us seely men for to desceyve,/
And from a soth ever a lie thay weyve.
/And by this Marchaundes tale it proveth wel.” 

4. Wild Goose Chase

Although William Shakespeare is believed to be the first author to use the phrase “wild-goose chase” (it appears in Romeo & Juliet), his version of such a chase referred to a type of horse race that was popular during his time. It wasn’t until centuries later when it appeared in its current form, already a part of the vernacular, as shared in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811. By then, it had been defined as “a tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy." Sounds about right!

5. As Happy as a Clam

The first mention of seemingly smiling clams was published in 1833, in James Hall’s The Harpe’s Head: A Legend of Kentucky, "It never occurred to him to be discontented...He was as happy as a clam." But although Hall’s mention appears to be the first on record, the actual saying is “as happy as a clam at high water,” reflecting the one time of day that clams and their ilk don’t have to worry about land-loving predators. That saying popped up in an 1844 edition of The Adams Sentinel, a Pennsylvania newspaper, and is still considered to be the appropriate version to use when quoting the adage.

6. Black Sheep

Black animals have long been viewed as bad omens, and although black cats seems to have gotten the bulk of in-person fears, sheep have been saddled with the most popular saying regarding their fur pigmentation. It’s unclear why this happened—some sources blame an unchecked version of a 1535 Bible (which muddled the story of Jacob and his flock of animals, making it sound as if black sheep were the ones cast out, which isn’t true to the original text), but a clearer version pops up in Thomas Shepard’s 1640 text, The Sincere Convert. Shepard wrote, “cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100 places.” Not very nice.

7. Cat Got Your Tongue?

It’s believed that this adage—a snappy remark made to a silent person—somehow sprung up from kids’ stories. The first appearance of it in print already derided it as a children’s saying, though no previous versions of it, in books or magazines, have been found. It appeared in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine in 1881, in a single line that read: “has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?”

8. In the Doghouse

It’s long been believed that the term “in the doghouse” first appeared in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan—after all, beloved father Mr. Darling sends himself to the dog’s house as a personal penance for letting his kids be temporarily stolen by their high-flying new pal—but the saying was around much earlier. An actual definition of the term (“in dog house, in disfavor”) appeared in J.J. Finerty’s 1926 book Criminalese, a book meant to share “the language of criminals.”

9. Red Herring

This one is actually fairly complicated. Although it’s easy enough to locate the first use of “red herring” in a text—penned by John Heywood in 1546, as part of a glossary of proverbs he compiled—it’s less obvious how the saying developed its meaning (“something misleading”). Although some people believe it springs from the old use of fish to throw off the scent of hunting dogs, most believe we owe the tricky saying to an actual trick.

In 1672, British clergyman Jasper Mayne died, leaving behind a trunk for one of his servants, who popped it open (expecting something good), only to find it was filled with herring. Although that herring was salted, later reports referred to it as being red, a mistake on top of some misdirection. But other etymologists trace the story to a 19th century article in the Weekly Political Register criticizing the British press for false reporting on Napoleon's defeat, taking their attention off of domestic issues. To illustrate the story, he invented a story of a young boy dragging a red herring to distract hunting dogs. Despite being fictional, it might be the origin of the hunt myth.

10. Swan Song

The idea that swans “sing” just before they die has been disproven time and time again, although that hasn’t stopped the spread of this saying. In fact, Pliny the Elder included a mention of the falsehood-rooted saying in his A Natural History, all the way back in A.D. 77. Still, the “swan song” saying and ideation pops up in the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Chaucer, proving that no one can avoid a poetic vision, even if it’s false.

11. The Bee’s Knees

Tempted to dismiss this one as “flapper talk”? You’re not the only one. Although “the bee’s knees” has been around as a purposely nonsensical saying since the 18th century, it was only adopted into its current use (as “something cool”) during the Roaring Twenties. Even in a 1922 newspaper article in Ohio’s The Newark Advocate that sought to explain various new wave terms, the piece declared “that’s flapper talk,” just another saying appropriated by the young and hip.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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