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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Writing – animals in symbolism

Browsing through my old (1981) edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, trying to find the root of the phrase, ‘Fed up’, I came across this interesting item.

I won’t quote all of it, but you can get the drift, and the list should bring to mind relevant idioms and descriptions:

Creature          symbolizes
Ant                  frugality and prevision
Ape                  uncleanness, malice, lust and cunning
Ass                  stupidity

Bantam cock    pluckiness, priggishness
Bat                   blindness
Bear                 ill-temper, uncouthness
Bulldog            pertinacity

Cock                vigilance, overbearing insolence
Crocodile         hypocrisy

Dog                  fidelity, dirty habits

Fox                  cunning, artifice

Goat                 lasciviousness
Goose              conceit, folly
Gull                 gullibility

Hen                  maternal care

Lamb               innocence, sacrifice
Leopard           sin
Lion                 noble courage

Owl                  wisdom
Ox                   patience, strength, pride

Pig                   obstinacy, dirtiness, gluttony

Rabbit              fecundity
Raven              ill-luck

Sheep               silliness, timidity

Worm              cringing…

Whether it’s the realisation that ‘the law is an ass’, or acknowledging the pluckiness of bantamweight boxers, or noticing that person acting like a bear with a sore head, while shedding crocodile tears; or thinking of the faithful friend, a dog, or the wily fox, or mother hen, or gulling people out of money, or leopards being unable to change their spots, or rabbits breeding like rabbits, or those ravens of the Tower of London, this symbolism has crept into our everyday language.

Oh, and ‘fed up’ wasn’t in there. It is in the OED and stems from having enough, fed up to the back teeth, a surfeit, can’t eat another morsel or rather, no more, thanks, I’m bored. (I can take a hint, and will close now…)


Richard Sutton said...

Most of 'em make sense. I can follow the suggested threads through our language, but that one about the Seagull, must have been named by someone who never saw a Seagull! Despite the similarity in the sound of the bird's name, gullible is the last thing I've ever observed in a Seagull! LOL. One of the wariest, smartest birds I can think of!

Nik Morton said...

I tend to agree with you on the 'gull' symbolism, Richard. It's as if the gullibility has been transferred from the animal to its victim, who has been 'deceived, or defrauded' (OED) And another meaning of 'gull' is 'a trickster'...