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Suppose you're watching your favorite TV program, and the villain on the show does something despicable to a character you like. You get emotional and shout at the screen, "You snake!"

English speakers have decided that "snake" is a good way to say a person is treacherous. The common phrase "snake in the grass" adds a little venom to the description. It indicates that this snake seemed to be your friend before turning on you.

Research shows us that humans learn early on that a fear of snakes is a useful trait. That part is understandable. I'm not sure when that fear became contempt and distrust. One Aesop's fable is about a farmer who picks up a frozen snake to revive it. When the snake thaws out, it bites the farmer, killing him. OK, that's treacherous.

We use many perceived creature traits to portray humans: She's busy as a bee. He's proud as a peacock. The baby looks happy as a clam. She's blind as a bat.

Many of the phrases are cliches and probably could be said better with different words. Beyond that, they seem to stereotype the poor animals. Are we absolutely sure that a bull in a china shop would create a pile of porcelain pieces? Surely a couple of bulls in the world have some grace.

Here are other phrases that raise similar questions:

At a snail's pace. That's pretty slow. But should we judge the creature? Where does a snail need to get to in a hurry? A French cooking class?

Gentle as a lamb. I have to believe that some lambs break out of the mold. I picture a ewe shaking her head over her youngest lamb, a trouble-making bully. She wonders, "Where did I go wrong with this one?"

As sly as a fox. Though slyness suggests a sneakiness factor, a person who's sly as a fox is clever, which is a good trait.

Free as a bird. It means carefree and unencumbered. (It's also a Beatles song.) But those feathered guys must have some worries. Where do I build my nest? Where do the fattest worms live? How many times do I have to chew my food for Junior?

Drunk as a skunk. Not once have I seen a skunk wobbling on a bar stool -- at least in public. Of course, I can't say what skunks do in their homes. But the phrase comes from the human love for expressions that rhyme. (Later, gator. What's shakin', bacon?)

He has a memory like an elephant. Elephants apparently do have good memories. Research shows they retain information and are able to modify behavior from the memory. They would do great on Jeopardy!

Quiet as a mouse. I believe mice make squeaking noises. Giraffes probably make fewer sounds. Worms are notoriously reticent.

Not all these animal words are found in cliches.

A "mousy" person is drab, not a good trait.

Feeling sheepish? That means you're embarrassed over something silly you've done. Do sheep blush underneath the wool?

The poor guinea pig has been used in scientific research for centuries. So now it's used to describe humans. If you're testing a new recipe, your spouse might be the guinea pig who tells you to add more cilantro.

If you walk catlike, you're using stealth. I can see that. But "catty"? Are felines malicious and spiteful? Hmm.


Not everyone grasps the dangling participle. Once you do, though, even your own errors will make you laugh.

The problem happens when you start out with one thing as the potential subject of a sentence and, after a comma, you switch to another unintentionally. You have left that first phrase "dangling."

Here are examples:

Waking at 4 a.m., the baby's diaper was wet.

Running to catch the elevator, Andrea's cellphone crashed to the ground.

Floating slowly to the ground, I heard the skydiver screaming for his mother.

Simmering on the stove, I couldn't wait to try the pumpkin pepper soup.

In these sentences, the writer starts out intending to discuss one thing, but the modifier is displaced and the sentence means something different.

The above sentences could be rewritten in many ways, but these work:

The baby awoke at 4 a.m. with his diaper wet.

Andrea's cellphone crashed to the ground as she ran to catch the elevator.

Floating slowly to the ground, the skydiver screamed for his mother.

Simmering on the stove, the pumpkin pepper soup made me hungry.

If you have heard a particularly funny dangling participle, email it to me.


I recently found a great line from the dry-witted comedian Stephen Wright:

"What's another word for Thesaurus?"

Sources: Today I Found Out, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, Live Science, American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, The Daily Mail (UK),

ActiveStyle on 05/28/2018

Print Headline: Animals animate language


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