Whistling pigs and colorful dogs

    I am an avid email user. Apparently I join 59 percent of people older than 65 who access electronic messages on a regular basis.

    I recently started my day with a cheery greeting from a man I do not know named Richard Hale, and the message began like this, “I hope this email finds you well.”

    I like that opening phrase. Welcoming. British-sounding, don’t you think?

    Richard went on to suggest that we’ve all been told to “hold our horses” at some point in life. (I can relate to that). He said we also may have been accused of "letting the cat out of the bag.” He was keeping my attention as he continued. Something can be an “elephant in the room,” “the lion’s share” or “a red herring,” while “some people like to weasel their way out of things” and “some wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

    Richard was suggesting we use animal-based idioms more than we realize. He is in the language translation business (www.tongue-tied-nw.co.uk) — apparently a profession that’s full of humor (spelled “humour”) and delight. The possibilities for misunderstanding are almost endless, so there may be occasional angst, as well.

    For example, if you were in Germany and a local person called you a “colourful dog,” please do not take offense. It would be a compliment — it means you stand out in a crowd. If you were in Poland and people referred to you as “healthy as a fish” it would mean you appeared to be in good physical shape. If you were told you had the “personality of a dead fish,” taking offense might be entirely warranted.

    I drilled into the website that accompanied Richard’s email and was totally intrigued. (Some mornings it doesn’t take much.) As illustration, if people in Spain are “thinking about field mice,” they are daydreaming. If you’re in Germany and someone says, “I think my pig is whistling,” they are actually saying, “Blow me down, I don’t believe it.”

    An idiom is a phrase used to convey a reactive expression or a strong feeling. Idioms can be both literal and figurative, and animal-related idioms abound. I intend to collect all the animal-like phrases I can before Thanksgiving and conjure them into some sort of inter-generational family game that we can play after dinner when everyone is “stuffed to the gills.”

    I have always held a penchant for animal-inspired references — and inanimate animal objects. We have a metal goat in our yard — two in fact. The larger one is “Clementine,” named after Winston Churchill’s wife. Not sure why I named her that — in part it was the metal udder, which seemed to fit her like a glove. The smaller goat is just called “Smaller Goat.”

    I have a large, embroidered brahma bull head in my study, proudly hanging on the wall and watching me closely as I write this column. I refer to him as “Wholey Cow!”

    I can go on and on with this way of looking at the world, but at the risk of having readers start “dropping like flies,” I will let this column end. I promise to “let sleeping dogs lie.” For today. Thanksgiving will be another story.

    — Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.

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