Animal Idioms

Before I left on vacation,  I witnessed a dove at my bird feeder “ruffle up his feathers” toward a very aggressive blue jay. This brought to mind an idea I’ve had on the back-burner – to talk about some of the descriptive phrases we use in our language that relate to animal behavior; otherwise known as idioms.

An idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made.

Yes, I admit the above is a rather complicated definition and it would make my head hurt trying to figure it out if I didn’t already know what I was about to write. You, too, will get the gist of what idioms are after reading the following list. Below are just a few of the many animal related ones that exist – ones I am intimately knowledgeable about; ones I grew up with.

Ruffle a few feathers
Figurative Meaning – To get a person or persons upset, agitated or stirred.
Literal Meaning – Displaying ruffled feathers is a defense mechanism that enables a chick to look larger and more aggressive.

Happy as a clam (at high water)
Figurative – To be very happy.
Literal – Although the latter part of the phrase, at high water, is not used any longer – it is at high tide that clams are free from predators and thus, are considered happy.

She has ants in her pants
Figurative – She can’t sit still.
Literal – The desperate act of killing or dusting off stinging ants once they’ve unnoticeably entered your clothing.



horse bit

Chomp at the bit
Figurative – To be impatient.
Literal – Horses chomp at the bit of their bridle when restless.


A fish out of water
F – To be confused; in an alien or new environment; out of your element.
L – A fish can’t swim on land.


Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
F – Don’t count on the future before you reach it; don’t assume.
L – Not all eggs laid are guaranteed to develop into chickens. Just because you have 6 eggs doesn’t mean you’ll eventually have 6 chickens to sell.


You look like a drowned rat
F – Soaking wet, especially after coming in from a heavy rain.
L – A limp, wet, dead rat.

Barney Dale


His bark is worse than his bite
Figurative – His words are worse than his actions.
Literal – All dogs with loud, aggressive barks aren’t necessarily ones that will give dangerous bites. Think of Shih Tzu’s, for example!




Play ‘possum
F- Faking something, as in pretending you are asleep.
L – Sometimes when opossums are in danger, they will curl up and appear to be dead. They do this so their predator will leave them alone.


As I said, there are plenty more of these idioms in which we use animal behavior to describe that of our own. I’d love for you to shoot me a quick note and tell me about some of your favorites!

Until next time-

Although this post was originally published June 2011, I updated it with my current dog’s photo above.  I wasn’t sure I was going to convert this early post to my new site since it doesn’t really relate too much to gardening, but after my Shih Tzu, Barney, had an encounter with a opossum last night, I decided I’d import it after all as it became very appropriate.   Barney barked and barked and barked last night, but did no harm.  Consequently, though, the opossum played dead in my sunroom for hours.  By morning he was gone.  All was well in the end!


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