A cat may look at a king

A cat may look at a king

‘A cat may look at a king’; ‘You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’; ‘Every dog has his day’. Animals crop up left, right and centre in English sayings and phrases.  Along with nautical references there are many idioms translated from the animal kingdom.  And it’s fun to examine their origins in some of our best-known animal phrases…

Straight from the horse’s mouth
You often hear tips on which horse is most likely to win in among horse racing punters. Those most likely to know are the stable lads and trainers as they have been in closest touch with the recent form of the horse. The phrase ‘from the horse’s mouth’ is meant to indicate one step better even than that inside knowledge, that is, from the horse itself.

Mad as a March hare
This phrase derives from the behaviour that occurs only in the March breeding season of the European hare (the season actually extends over several months beyond March). It refers to whoever behaves in the excitable and strange manner of a ‘March hare’. This odd behaviour includes boxing at other hares or jumping vertically for seemingly no reason. Although the phrase has been used generally since the 16th century, it was popularised by Lewis Carroll in 1865 in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which the March Hare is a memorable character.

Flea in one’s ear
This phrase refers to a problem that was pretty common in the Middle Ages of being infested with fleas, body lice, and other parasites. They were hard to control and getting a flea in the ear was surely extremely annoying, as the creature would have presumably scurried about and perhaps bitten the person, causing pain and irritation. In 14TH Century French the term translated as the practice of provoking desire in someone else. Dutch used it in the sense of being restless or edgy, presumably because one would feel twitchy with a flea in the ear canal. English came to refer to it with the sense of creating suspicions in one’s mind that one could not ignore. Similarly to the theoretical flea, these ideas would buzz and nibble away, forcing action to be taken.

Emma Tidey
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