Do You Eat Like a Bird or a Horse? What Does it All Mean?

August 15, 2012 | By | Comments (6)

I could give Mrs. Malaprop “a run for her cash money,” as I’ve been known to misquote common expressions to unintended comic effect. So I thought it appropriate — perhaps necessary — to examine animal expressions, their origins, and whether they are fact or fiction.

I “ferreted”* answers out of Victoria Stilwell,  host of Animal Planet‘s TV series It’s Me or the Dog,  and Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large at Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Let’s start with a personal favorite: “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

Idiom: “to refrain from action that would alter an existing situation for fear of causing greater problems or complexities.” (via

Victoria: “It’s based on the fact that dogs, like humans, have a ‘startle response’ when they are awoken suddenly, that is important to ensure survival. You can have the kindest, loveliest dog in the world, yet you wake it up from a dead sleep and it could potentially snap or bite you. It doesn’t mean to do it. When dogs are awoken suddenly like that, they’ll go for the first thing in their direct field of vision, such as a child that’s reached out to pet them or an infant who’s been allowed to crawl around them while they were sleeping.”

Peter: “[This expression was] widely used by Sir Robert Walpole, the first ‘Prime Minister’ of Great Britain in the early 18thcentury. He made the phrase popular. It was a pet phrase of his and because he was a prominent man, he was quoted often. As a politician, you would see how useful that would be!” Also, it’s in the King James Bible (Book of Proverbs; 26:17). That phrase is viewed as an antecedent of ‘let sleeping dogs lie.'”

Next up: “look like the cat that swallowed the canary

Idiom: “Appear smug and self-satisfied. For example, After she hit her third winning shot, Jeannie looked like the cat that ate the canary . [Second half of 1800s]”

-The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, via

Victoria: “Cats are predators and they prey on mice, rats, birds. There is not only the satisfaction of bringing the food home but also the satisfaction of the kill. The predatory sequence is eyeing the prey, stalking, chasing, pouncing, biting, killing, dissecting and consuming it. We have bred the last two or three out of the domestic dog and cat, but a lot of animals retain that predatory instinct. So for a lot of cats, when they get the prey, they don’t know what to do with it but they still love the thrill of the chase. It’s what a lot of animals need for mental and physical enrichment.”

OK, time to apply your animal instinct and take the poll. Don’t cheat as answers are below!

Here’s the scoop:

1) “grin like a Cheshire cat” (false)

Idiom: “to smile or grin inscrutably.” (via

Victoria: “Cats don’t smile but their version of contentment is through their blinking. The slow blink or squint means they’re relaxed, happy, contented. When I’m communicating with cats, I will slow blink at them. You can really put a cat to sleep by slow blinking at it.”

Peter: “All you see is the grin…it’s so idiosynchratic to that story [Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]. Their grins are independent of the beings and it has nothing to do with nature, literature influenced that…a cat from Cheshire is entirely literary.”

2) “eat like a bird” (false)

Idiom: “to eat sparingly: She couldn’t understand why she failed to lose weight when she was, as she said, eating like a bird.” (via

Victoria: “Birds eat twice their weight because they use up so much energy flying and preserving themselves. These are prey animals so not only do they have to keep moving to find food, they also have to keep moving to keep themselves safe from predators. To be fast, agile and quick, you need to have energy and that energy comes from food so birds will constantly eat to maintain that energy so that they have fuel for energy to survive.”

3) “look like something the cat dragged in” (true)

Idiom: “Appear completely bedraggled, as in After running around in the rain for hours, I looked like something the cat dragged in . This expression alludes to a cat’s bringing home birds or mice it has killed or savaged. [c. 1920]” (via

It goes without saying that once the cat has had its way, the prey is bedraggled at best and lifeless at worst.

4) “crocodile tears” (false, though one could argue this is a trick question)

Idiom: “An insincere display of grief, as in When the play’s star broke her leg, her understudy wept crocodile tears.” (via

Victoria: “What we learn from the show, The Crocodile Hunter, on Animal Planet, is that crocodiles really do cry. They shed tears. If they’re out of the water for a long time, their eyes dry and to keep their eyes moist, their eyes will tear up. They’re not really crying, though. It’s not emotional.”

Peter: “‘Crocodile tears’ can be found in Shakespeare’s Othello and Henry VI, part 2.”

Bonus definition:

*“ferret (information or something) out of (someone)” (“to get something from someone by being persistent. I worked hard to ferret the location of the party out of my friend.”) (Via

Peter: “Originally this meant to hunt with ferrets as you would with a hunting dog. Ferrets were used to hunt rabbits. This is a completely medieval practice and the verb goes back to the 15th Century. The metaphor ‘to ferret out’ was first used by Shakespeare in Henry V.”

What are your favorite expressions inspired by animals?