I spent some time with my horses this weekend, so I am thinking that maybe animals would be a great subject for clichés this week. I always spend time with my puppies, and I pretty much love anything with fur and four legs. Which means there won’t be any “swing a dead cat” or “beating a dead horse” clichés either! Definitely phrases I never use.
A dog is a man’s best friend: an animal that proves to provide useful service to humans, often with a specific reference to dogs. Although dogs are an extremely popular pet these days, they did not start out that way. It was in 1684 that lap dogs became popular with rich ladies. Before that, phrases referring dogs often contained the words “diseased” or “bite.” A popular phrase in the 1700s was “to give a dog a bad name.” But the dog became more popular and used as a pet in the 1800s, giving rise to this poem:
The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:
The faithful dog – why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man’s best friend
Does often at his heels attend.*
A little bird told me: being secrets told by a private source. This became a popular literary idiom, using birds to carry messages. And while this exact phrase isn’t found in the Bible, its origins are most likely from Ecclesiastes 10-20:
Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
A nest of vipers: a group of dangerous, likely evil, people. Being called a “snake” has always been an insult, and goes back deep into history, certainly from the Bible but also was used in other literary stories. Vipers became popular as the “most evil” of snakes as they were poisonous in the sixteenth century. ‘Groups of people, usually those of villainous intent, were called ‘nests’ from around the same period. The first documented occurrence of the two terms combined to form ‘a nest of vipers’ was in 1644, when a pamphlet that criticised a group of plotters who were planning treason against the English Parliament was titled A Nest of Perfidious Vipers’*
Mad as a March Hare: completely mad. Of course we all know this one from my favorite, Alice in Wonderland. Apparently they are not actually mad in march, just ruled by their hormones as March is their mating season. While Lewis Carroll may have used this idea most famously, he is certainly not the only one.
Thanne [th]ey begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare.
–W. C. Hazlitt in Remains Early Popular Poetry of England, 1864
A lack of brains in the March hare continued into another well-known phrase: hare-brained. I guess it could be a two for one!