Posted by: Jack Henry | October 20, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Animal Idioms


You know me—I can’t help myself when it comes to dogs. I was recently reading a book of idioms and word histories called Even-Steven and Fair and Square: More Stories Behind the Words by Morton S. Freeman. (No, not Morgan Freeman, though he’d be a great narrator for the “books on tape” version.) In the book, I found two animal idioms that delighted me: To lead a dog’s life, and to get one’s goat.

Here’s what Mr. Freeman had to say about each!

To lead a dog’s life

The dog has been mercilessly vilified in proverbs. In 1542 Erasmus said: “The most parte of folks calleth it a miserable life, or a dogges life….” To lead a dog’s life is considered a bleak, wretched existence. The idiom described a person harried from morning till night, nagged constantly, and never left in peace. And so it is said to go to the dogs, meaning the lowest form of existence, and to die like a dog, a miserable end indeed. We speak of a morally base person as a dirty dog, one who is in the doghouse as far as society is concerned. [KC – OK, yes, we’re probably familiar with these phrases and idioms, but apparently this guy never met anybody in our department or their dogs. I wish I had the dog’s life that
Jackie’s dog May has. I didn’t even get a card for my birthday!]

Ms. May, Editor Jackie’s Teenager

But all this has changed, not the derisive sayings about dogs, but man’s attitude toward these animals. [KC – Ah, he does get it!] It all started a long time ago when one interloper had something nice to say about dogs. He said, “Love me, love my dog,” which was construed by some people to mean that my dog is so much a part of me that you must love us both, you can’t have me alone….

To get one’s goat

Although some city dwellers have never seen a live goat, they might nevertheless say, if they lose their temper, “That gets my goat,” or “That gets my nanny.” [KC – I can’t imagine a city dweller ever saying, “That gets my nanny,” unless there is a problem with your live-in baby sitter’s visa, and INS comes to deport her.] Both expressions have the same meaning…but this is not to say that their rural cousins do not express themselves in like terms. In fact, the notion of getting one’s goat can be traced far from urban areas—to horse country.

It was the practice some years ago to provide a high-strung racehorse with a companion, a docile animal, one that would stay close whenever the horse was in its stall. A stablemate tended to quiet the thoroughbred so that it didn’t become restive. Since thoroughbred horses, especially stallions, become competitive when near each other, and since a mare might excite them, a goat was used instead. The continued presence of the goat as a companion put the horse at ease. Then the bright but nefarious idea arose that if someone would get the goat, that is, steal it before a major race, the horse might become nervous and lose its composure and, in all likelihood, the race, too. Sure enough, once a thief got a horse’s goat, the horse became upset and irritable, which is exactly how a person feels when someone unfelicitously gets his goat.

Apparently, this horse is really comfortable. He’s got three spares!

Enjoy your day.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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