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(Photo: Fotolia)
(Photo: Fotolia)

All expats have been there. I’m talking about that awkward moment when you drop an animal idiom into a conversation with an American only to be met by a confused face with improbably perfect teeth. “What? What did you say? My new flat screen’s the dog’s what?”

Mad as a March hare
Used to describe a person’s eccentric behavior, this phrase has been around since the turn of the sixteenth century and is widely accepted to have been coined by Dutch Renaissance philosopher Erasmus (1466-1536) in reference to the peculiar behavior displayed by hares during the breeding month of March. The concept was later popularized by Lewis Carroll (1832-98) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which the protagonist comes across a memorably wacky hare. In reality, the idea that hares go mad in March is nonsense. For starters, the breeding season lasts well beyond the end of spring, and the chasing and boxing of females by the males has been witnessed all year round.

Throw a cat among the pigeons
This metaphor paints a pretty clear picture; it means to say or do something that will cause a chaotic disturbance among a group. For example, if you were to walk into a Star Trek convention, commandeer the PA system then announce over the loudspeaker that Leonard Nimoy had canceled, you would be throwing a cat among the pigeons.

Cock and bull story
To tell a cock and bull story is to relay a fanciful anecdote of highly questionable validity. There appears to be no original tale involving a cock and a bull, but one popular explanation for the origin of the idiom is as follows: On the main road through the small town of Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, two inns have stood for centuries just a few yards from one another, The Cock and The Bull. During the height of the great coaching era (1650-1830), many travelers would stay the night at the inns on their way to and from London. Over drinks, the travelers would relay their adventures from the road to excitable locals eager to learn of the world beyond their small township. As the ale flowed and the stories bounced back and forth between the two establishments, the tales became more and more outlandish until they were so farfetched they were bordering on the unbelievable. Hence, “a cock and bull story.”

The dog’s bollocks
Bollocks, of course, is a British English slang word for the male gonads. My apologies for being so frightfully crude, but it was necessary in order to offer an explanation as to why a canine’s genitals have found work as an idiom. The phrase means that something or someone is the cat’s pajamas. Oh sorry, that’s another animal idiom. Let’s try again. It means that something is the absolute bee’s knees. Dang it! The leading theory on where the term originates is that it came out of the printing industry as a reference to the now defunct stylistic convention of putting a dash after a colon when introducing a list, creating the following shape : – and bringing to mind, well, you know what.

Horses for courses
We can’t all be good at the same things, and this is what the expression “horses for courses” alludes to. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, the earliest recorded instance of the expression occurs in A.E.T. Watson’s 1891 book on horseracing, Turf, in which Watson writes, “A familiar phrase on the turf is ‘horses for courses’… the Brighton Course is very like Epsom, and horses that win at one meeting, often win at the other.”

See a man about a dog
This euphemistic expression is used to excuse oneself from present company and in doing so concealing one’s true destination (which is almost universally the toilet). Practically any noun can be substituted in for “dog,” the most common being “horse.” I once had a friend called Dave who was considering buying a corgi and had set up a meeting with a breeder. Oh how we laughed on the day of the meeting when Dave left work saying he was off to see a man about a dog. It was the best day ever because it was also Casual Friday.

Having kittens
If you’re having kittens, you’re freaking out in an uncontrollable manner. The phrase dates back to more superstitious times when witches were viewed as a genuine threat to society. It was said that witches could place a spell on a pregnant woman by turning her unborn baby into kittens that would scratch at the womb. Many women suffering from perfectly normal pregnancy pains believed that they had fallen victim to a spell. As time went by and people began believing in science over witchcraft, the irrational fear died, but the expression survived.

Have a look and listen at a few other British phrases that will baffle Americans:

What are some of your favorite animal idioms? Tell us in the comments below:

See more:
8 American Sports Idioms Brits Won’t Understand
8 British Inside Jokes Americans Will Never Understand
10 Expressions Brits Use to Seem Posh in America

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Filed Under: british phrases, Idioms
By Kevin Wicks
Kevin Wicks is the founding editor of Anglophenia.