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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Bears Shit In The Woods
by Leontia Flynn
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The following proverbs and expressions concerning members of the animal kingdom were mostly suggested by various people in a bar. There are the logical similes; 'blind as a bat', 'busy as a bee', 'mad as a March hare' - these make sense. Someone can have 'eyes like a hawk'. They can be 'as stubborn as a mule', 'as fit as a flea' - which is more likely, anyway, than 'fit as a fiddle' - 'like a fish out of water' or 'the cat that got the cream'. It is even possible to be 'crazy like a fox', though probably only if you're from an American police show from the seventies, or jumpy as 'a cat on a hot tin roof', if you're Tennessee Williams. The authenticity of the expressions 'angry as an otter' (purportedly from the West Country) and 'prickly as a pigeon' might be questionable.
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Then the aphorisms. 'A leopard never changes its spots'; no it doesn't. 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'; you could probably try harder but the point stands. You should never 'bite the hand that feeds you' - what makes anyone think this relates to an animal? That 'every dog has its day' is clearly a platitude straight out of Animal Hospital, and has no basis in fact. There are 'wolves in sheep's clothing' and 'wolves at your door'. 'Hungry like a wolf', however, is more likely the title of a New Romantic album.
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In these last Aesop's Fable kind of expressions, animals are unjustly stereotyped, standing for a particular type of personality - 'cock of the walk', 'snake in the grass' (though not 'frog in your throat'). Wolves are always predators and horses are always beasts of burden. You shouldn't 'put the cart before the horse' or 'look a gift horse in the mouth', and there's no point 'bolting the door after the horse has gone'. If they are unfairly drafted in to express, in a sanctimonious type of way, a fixed set of human attributes or predicaments, at least this is undercut by the fact that it is possible to substitute one animal for another. 'Monkey see, monkey do'; but you might equally make a 'donkey' as a 'monkey' out of someone, at least according to my parents during football matches. Also translatable - someone has pointed out - is 'you can lead a horse (whore) to water (culture) but you can't make it (her) drink (think).' (Credit there to Dorothy Parker).
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There is also a problem with the lost origins of some of these proverbs, rendering them fairly obscure. Crocodiles still shed 'crocodile tears' and rats 'leave sinking ships', but there's a whiff of education behind the suggestion of 'geese protecting the capital'. It is at the opposite extreme, then, from the plebeian and accessible one about 'bears shitting in the woods'. 'Curiosity killed the cat', but does anyone know how exactly - and what kind of society would try to discourage curiosity anyway? And what about 'The worm has turned'? Even if a worm should turn, is there any reason to find this threatening? Unless you happen to be afraid of worms already, in which case its actual direction is probably irrelevant. Although it could be 'wyrm' in the Old English or nerdy Tolkein sense of 'serpent' or 'dragon', but that only confirms the suspicion that these expressions need updated.
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Bears Shit In The Woods
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Some might just be obscure anyway. To be 'barking up the wrong tree' is a funny and subtle image, as is taking 'the hair of the dog'. 'Getting on like cats and dogs' is obvious, though it's not clear why it's said to be 'raining cats and dogs'. Again, to be 'sick as a dog' is one thing, but 'sick as a pike' or a 'parrot'? And who ever came up with 'a pig in a poke'?
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You can be 'the cat's whiskers/pyjamas', 'the dog's bollocks', 'the bee's knees', or - this might be spurious - 'the goat's toes'. Insults, however, marginally outweigh the compliments here. All are based on the same kind of logic which has you 'feeling rough as a badger's arse'. So you can 'have a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp', like 'a bucket of frogs', or like 'a monkey's dangler'. You can also have a face like 'busted guttie' - not an animal, but worth knowing. It is possible, apparently, to 'look like a bag of weasels tied in the middle.'
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Some of the adages are foreign, and some just seem foreign - such as 'God wipes the dog's arse' (meaning 'God looks after the needy', presumably) or 'you don't keep a dog and bark yourself', which ought to be used more often. The French equivalent of the expression 'you can't teach your grandmother to suck eggs' - which has always left me entirely in the dark - is the much more sensible 'you can't teach a monkey to grimace'. The expression 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' is so useful that no one bothers changing it much; in Spanish a bird in the hand is 'worth two flying'; in French it is 'worth two on the roof'. A woman from the Basque Country agrees that treating somebody 'like a dog' is to treat them very badly, though a hard worker is less likely to be 'working like a dog' than 'like an ant'. She further expresses horror that women should ever be called 'bitches', since at the very worst she might refer to them as 'sheep'. This is rich from a woman to whom someone in her own locale is known as 'tuna-fish head'.
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Finally, it is claimed that there is a wise saying from Drumbeg which goes 'Don't step on the donkey's foot', though it seems more likely that this is simply good advice.
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Some Proverbs In English:
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A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Birds of a feather flock together. The early bird catches the worm. It's the straw that broke the camel's back. When the cat's away, the mice will play. All cats appear grey in the dark. Don't count your chickens before they hatch. Curiosity killed the cat. Curses, like chickens, come home to roost. He who lies down with dogs, rises with fleas. Let sleeping dogs lie. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. His bark is worse than his bite. There are plenty more fish in the sea. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Don't change horses in the middle of the stream. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. It's too late to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.
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INTERNATIONAL PROVERBS In a survey of proverbs from 60 different nations. The 'top-three' group of equally favourite animals: dog, horse, cow/ox. They are followed by: 4 hen/rooster, 5 wolf, 6 swine, 7 cat, 8 sheep/ram, 9 fish (as a general term), 10 donkey and mule, 11 bird (as a general term), 12 goat, 13 mouse. These 13 most frequently occurring animals make up nearly 2/3 of all the occurrences of animal names in proverbs. Then: 14 crow, 15 snake, 16 bear, 17 fox, 18 camel, 19 hare, 20 animal (and its synonyms as a general term), 21 frogs and toads, 22 fly, 23 lion, 24 goose, 25 eagle.
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There is no difference between two frogs (Finnish) A dog has dog's tricks (Estonian) A brown cow dies brown (Finnish) A dog's tail will never be straight even if it was straightened between clumps of wood for seven years (the Caucasus) A sparrow hops around even when it's 100 years old (German) The mouth speaks while it's alive, the dog barks while it's alive (Somalian) All dogs bark the same (Turkmen) A cuckoo calls the same everywhere (Malagasy) Even a small viper is a snake, even a weak enemy is an enemy (Mongol) No matter how fat an ass gets - it will still be an ass (Ossetian) Grey sheep, white sheep - both smell like sheep (Russian) A wolf is not a sheep (Latvian) An evil dog will never turn into a good cat (Indonesian) A dog is not a hare, even though it had the same reddish colour (Hungarian) A piebald goat will not become a tiger (Tajik) A fly might have antlers, but you cannot call it a buffalo (Chinese) Take it easy, cow, you will never be an ox (Russian) A dog is just a dog, even if it swims across the Danube (Hungarian) I sent my ass travelling, but it returned the same ass (Kurdish) Send a calf to Paris - it will return home and say 'moo' (Frisian) A dog will be a dog, even if you cut its tail off (Estonian) A beaten pig is the same as a pig who is not beaten (Latvian) A dog's son is also a dog (Hungarian) I don't believe a dragonfly could lay eagle eggs (Georgian) No matter how large a piglet would grow, it will never become an elephant (Tamil) An egg that lies on the ground will become a bird that flies under the sky (Mongolian) He can't tell a turkey from a sparrow (Russian)
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