“Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.” — Andrew Carnegie 

If you keep up with the news, you’ve no doubt heard the concerns about a possible “bear market” for those who own stocks. Merriam-Webster says that the term “bear market” comes from an old adage not to sell the bearskin before you’ve shot the bear.

An easier way to remember that a bear market goes down is to recall that a bear swipes its claw downward when fighting. A rising “bull market” appears to have gotten its name simply because a bull seemed like a good animal to counter the bear.

These terms are just two examples of some of the animal-related idioms we use every day, which is what we’ll be taking a look at this time, along with a few of the stranger animal-related terms that are out there.

For instance, when I recently accompanied my friend Claus, who finally came back from Germany, to Open Farm Day here in Maine, he asked me why the man at one of the farms was yelling at crows. “Maybe he just had a bad day,” I replied, “but it’s more likely that he’s a crowkeeper, or a person who’s employed to scare off crows.”

“Yelling at crows? That seems like a strange occupation,” he said.

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“Crows are bad for the crops,” I replied, “besides, a lot of people are annoyed by their incessant cawing,” which I explained was similar to the croaking of ravens but more raucous. “And if you think crowkeeper is a strange occupation, don’t even get me started on hogreeves,” I said, “the officers whose duty is to impound hogs.”

“You Americans sure have some weird words about animals,” Claus observed.

“If you think our animal words are weird, some of our animal idioms will really get your goat,” I said, before explaining that “butcher” comes from the old French word “bocher” (“boc” meant “goat”) for “slaughterer of goats.”

“Hold your horses,” he said, “You wouldn’t be trying to sell me a pig in a poke, would you?”

“In a pig’s eye,” I shot back. “I’ll lie to you when pigs fly. This information is straight from the horse’s mouth.”

So he decided to stop being pig headed and listened while I went whole hog on some of my favorite animal-related idioms.

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“Chickens,” I said, “There are lots of idioms about chickens and eggs. For instance, if you start a business you could end up running around like a chicken with its head cut off. And be sure that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Oh, and never count your chickens before they hatch,” I warned, parroting some business advice I had heard.

I thought about changing topics, but I worried Claus would accuse me of switching horses in midstream, so I continued on. Admittedly, by this point I wasn’t horsing around and was really bringing home the bacon as I droned on about sacred cows and sleeping dogs.

Claus finally had enough and told me to stop beating a dead horse.

“Sorry, I could go on about our American animal idioms until the cows come home,” I said, noting that those cows probably go into a byre (cowshed) for the night to eat their provender (fodder).

“Enough!” Claus said. “How do I know all your caterwauling isn’t a bunch of bull?”

“Hey, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I replied. “If you don’t have any pet peeves, let’s put this whole idiom thing out to pasture, if you’re OK with that.”

“I’m happy as a pig in, uh, mud,” he replied.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


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