Human beings would have gone the way of the dodo without critters. Along with suffering through evolution shivering, starving and lonesome, we also would have been at a loss for words.
People would have clammed up without quick images of speech, such as runs like a deer, quiet as a mouse or sly as a fox.
Speakers acquainted with animals are less likely to have butterflies in their stomach, a frog in their throat or be queried, “Cat got your tongue?”
Vivid verbal pictures have been as simple as saying black as a crow, white as a swan, soft as a kitten or stinks like a pig.
Animal-based phrases are rooted in our language. They have become clichés hawk-eyed editors delete. Nevertheless, the public continues to pass them through the generations.
Animals are integral to our culture. The dove is the international symbol of peace. The eagle is America’s national symbol. Even our other national symbol, the automobile, is often named after animals, such as the Mustang, Cougar and Lynx. Although there’s been an edgy trend toward techy acronyms and numerals for automobiles – as in the, yawn, Subaru WRX – four of Popular Mechanics’ Top 12 automobiles for 2013 are named after critters, including Viper, Ram, Jaguar and Macan (tiger).
Before kids enter kindergarten, animals will be a regular part of their speech. They’ll know what it means to be slick as a weasel, stubborn as a mule and strong as an ox. Before long, they’ll distinguish others as hungry as a horse or wise as an owl.
And they’ll welcome bear hugs at bedtime.
They’ll know Gonzaga guard David Stockton has cat-like reflexes and they’ll be reminded that Muhammad Ali stings like a bee.
Cirque du Soleil performers can soar like an eagle. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch might kick like a mule, but I’ll bet he doesn’t eat like a bird.
Animal terms will always be appropriate for kids, who seem to be busy as a beaver and driving their parents batty whether it’s the dead of winter or the dog days of summer.
This period of innocence will fade as little boys grow into teens who wolf down their lunch, and businessmen who goose the office secretary and give up the lion’s share of their income getting fleeced in a divorce settlement.
Parents often long for the years when the most violent exclamation in their children’s vocabulary was Holy Cow! And their most devious trick was playing possum. Anymore, that would be something to crow about.
But kids eventually grow into squirrelly adolescents and their speech can be less oriented to wildlife and more focused on doing the wild thing.
No wonder parents feel like badgering their kids’ culture or even ramming bars of soap into their mouths.
Virtually all of us grew up with a loony neighbor down the street or a bully in the neighborhood. We were prone to porking out on junk food and developing slothful ways.
And heaven forbid that little sister try to leech onto big brother at the bus stop.
Even lifelong city slickers might confidently use animal names to describe another person’s physique or personality. The possibilities range from a fox or a turkey to a pig, weasel, shark, slug or dirty rat.
Animal terms have been useful in naming rock hounds, copycats, turkeys and scapegoats. You might be happy as a lark with your kitchen drawers if the carpenters built them with dovetail joints.
We’ve described a river as snaking through the valley and a reckless driver as fishtailing around the corner. “Thick as hair on a dog’s back” is a term seemly fading from use, but who among us has not described a sunburned back being red as a lobster?
A careless angler could end up with a bird’s nest in his reel unless he has enough horse sense to avoid casting into the wind.
If your spouse hasn’t been hogging the paper at the breakfast table, you’re aware that FBI investigators were able to ferret out the facts and let the cat out of the bag that Gen. David Petraeus was horsing around. The media exposed his monkey business.
At first it looked as though reporters were just hen-pecking his ego. Were the emails just a red herring, or were they opening a can of worms? Once a few pundits climbed onto their high horse, others started following the story like lemmings. The general’s biography turned out to be his swan song from public service.
Even President Obama has had his feathers ruffled lately. Some say he’s trying to pussyfoot around the issues by making rich people pay the lion’s share of the country’s bills. Others say he’ll eat crow before the deficit issue is resolved. Meantime, lame-duck members of Congress were having a whale of a time spending our money.
I’m proud as a peacock to say I’ve been free as a bird to write anything I want in my career, but I admit this dog of a column might stir up a hornet’s nest in my editor’s office.
I’m not too antsy. His bark is worse than his bite.