Animal Expessions

Animal Expressions


Wouldn’t hurt a fly – Someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly is not violent or aggressive under any circumstance.

example: Peter looks scary. He is big. He has a shaved head. He has tattoos. He looks like a dangerous criminal. But actually, he is very nice and quite gentle. He would never hurt a fly.


Ants in your pants – If someone has ants in their pants, they can’t sit still. Maybe they are excited or nervous about something that is about to happen. Or maybe they are bored.

example: I have a three-hour evening class every Wednesday night. It’s a lecture, so all I do is sit there and listen. I try to pay attention, but after the second hour it becomes difficult to sit still and concentrate. I start moving around in my seat as if I had ants in my pants.


Beeline for – If you make a beeline for a place, you go there directly. I guess bees travel in straight lines?

example: I don’t want to invite my uncle to my wedding reception because he always drinks too much. I know that as soon as he gets to the banquet hall, he is going to make a beeline straight towards the bar.


Busy as a bee – If you are as busy as a bee, you are very busy indeed.

example: Lately I have been as busy as a bee. I have three projects and I have to give a presentation tomorrow!


Hive of activity or Hive of worker bees – Some work places have so much activity that they might remind you of a hive of bees all working quickly to make honey.

example one: In movies, the launch center at NASA during a space shuttle lift off is often portrayed as a hive of activity.

example two: In this office, everyone and everything is very efficient. We don’t waste any time. We are like a hive of worker bees where everyone has a job to do and they do it quickly.


Butterflies in your stomach – This expression refers to the nervous feeling you get before something important. Stress, anxiety, or excitement might make you feel like there are small butterflies flying around inside of you.

example: I want to ask Yukari out on a date, but every time I try to talk to her I get nervous and I have to sit down until the butterflies in my stomach have stopped flying around.


Hornets’ nest – A hornets’ nest is a violent situation or one with a lot of dispute. (If you create the problem, you “stir up a hornets’ nest”.)

example: If we don’t do our taxes on time, the government is going to audit our company. That is one hornets’ nest that I do not want to deal with!

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Fish and other Ocean Life

Seems fishy or Smells fishy – If fish has gone bad, it has a strong odor. Sometimes, food other than fish can start to smell like fish if it has become rotten. In the same way, if you suspect that a situation is bad or has become bad, you might say that “there’s something fishy going on here”, or maybe “things smell fishy”, or perhaps just “things are fishy”.

example: I can never get my new boyfriend on the phone after 6:00pm. And I haven’t been to his place yet. We always meet at my place. There’s something fishy going on here. I think that my new boyfriend might be married!


Drinks like a fish – If someone drinks like a fish, they drink far too much alcohol. The idea is that a fish can’t stop drinking water.

example: Before I joined Alcoholics Anonymous I used to drink like a fish. I drank at least six beers every day.


Fish out of water – If you are in a situation that is completely new to you and confuses you, you are like a fish out of water.

example: I used to work for a temp agency doing manual labor. One day they sent me to an office to do accounting work. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt like a fish out of water.


Fishing for information: – If someone is fishing for information, they are trying to get information, but in a secretive or indirect way.

example one: Susan has been asking me a lot of questions lately about my personal life. I think that she might be fishing for information on who would make a good husband for her. (in this case, Susan does not directly ask anybody if they would be a good husband)

example two: The reporter did some fishing for information to find out about the politician’s sex-scandal. Of course the politician would not answer her questions, but she spoke to some people in his office and they told her what she wanted to know.


Loan shark: – A loan shark illegally lends money at very high rates of interest.

example: I had to borrow money from a loan shark to pay off my gambling debt. None of the banks would lend me money. Now I have to work a second job just to pay off the interest on the loan. If I don’t, the loan shark will break my legs!


Card shark or Pool shark – A card shark makes a living by playing cards. A pool shark makes a living at playing pool. In both cases, they may try to deceive other players into believing that they are not as skilled as they actually are. This is so that other players will be willing to bet money.

example: I met a guy at the pool hall. I beat him three games in a row. He then suggested that we bet money. After that, he won three games in a row. I think that guy might have been a pool shark.

trivia: The original phrase was card sharp. This phrase is sill used in some countries, such as in the UK.


At a snail’s pace – If something moves at a snail’s pace, it moves very slowly. This expression is an exaggeration of course.

example: I hate waiting in line at the post office. There is only one employee and each person takes so long because they have to buy stamps, or weigh their package, or something else like that. I have nothing to do except watch the clock and think about how long it is taking. I feel like the line is moving at a snail’s pace.


Snail mail – If you send a message by snail mail, you print out a copy, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and put it in the mailbox. It will arrive at it’s destination a few days later. That method is not exactly slow, but it’s a lot slower than email.

example: May I send you an electronic copy of this contract? No, because it’s a legal document you have to send us a paper copy by snail mail.


Happy as a clam – If you are as happy as a clam, you are very content with your situation.

example: My brother lives out in the country. That kind of life would be too boring for me, but he seems to be as happy as a clam out there.

trivia: Are clams happy? The original expression was “as happy as a clam in high water”, meaning that when the tide is in, a clam is protected from predators.


Yellow-bellied – A yellow-bellied person is a coward. This expression originally referred to a type of eel that is yellow on the bottom.

example: He could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if he had just admitted his mistake. But instead the yellow-bellied coward tried to blame somebody else.


Big fish in a small pond – A big fish in a small pond is an important person in a small place or organization.

example: I own a small delivery company. I could get a job at UPS and make the same amount of money. But if I worked for UPS, I would be just another middle manager instead of the president like I am now. So I will stay with my little company. It’s not as famous, but I prefer to be a big fish in a small pond.

Packed in like sardines – If a place is extremely crowded, people are packed in like sardines.

example: Subway riders are packed in like sardines during rush hour.


Red herring – If something is a distraction from the real issues, it is a red herring.

example: Politicians love to use red herrings. For example, the most important problem facing the world today is environmental damage. However, politicians don’t want to tell people that they need to change or that they need to spend more money to protect the environment. So they exaggerate less important issues and talk about them instead. They want to distract the public so that they can remain popular and keep their jobs.

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Bird’s eye view – If you have a bird’s eye view of something, you can see it from high up.

example: From the top of Tokyo Tower, you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of Tokyo.


Watch like a hawk – If you watch something or someone like a hawk, you observe very closely and carefully.

example: The security guard in our building is very serious about his job. He watches the security monitor like and hawk and never looks away.


Wild goose chase – This expression refers to wasting time trying to do something impossible.

example: I went on a wild goose chase all over Chinatown looking for a particular store. Eventually I learned that it had closed two years ago!


Early bird catches the worm – This expressions means that if you start something early, you stand a better chance of success. The idea is that there is only one worm, so only the first bird will get to eat.

example: When you are looking for a job, you should reply to ads as soon as they come out. Don’t wait until the next day because somebody else might get the job first. The early bird catches the worm.


Take someone under your wing – If you take someone under your wing, you look after them while they are learning something.

example: When I joined the company, my boss really took me under his wing. He gave me lots of advice and also introduced me to some important people.


Chicken scratching – This expression refers to messy handwriting. The idea is that somebody’s handwriting is so messy that it looks like a chicken with ink on its feet was scratching at the page. This expression in an exaggeration of course.

example: I was in a hurry when I wrote this list, so I hope that you can read my chicken scratchings.


Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – If you had three dozen eggs and you were carrying them all in the same basket, what would happen if you drop the basket? All of the eggs would break. However if you used three baskets, and made three trips, then you would still have two baskets of unbroken eggs. It’s a bad situation, but not as bad as before.

This expression is usually used with investing. The advice is that instead of investing all of your money in one place, you should invest in different areas.

example: Experts predict that in the next year, the value of gold will rise. For that reason I am tempted to invest all of my money in gold. But what if the experts are wrong? I could lose all of my money. I think instead that I will invest some money in gold, some money in stocks, and some money in currencies. That way I won’t have all of my eggs in one basket.


Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched – This piece of advice means that you should not be too optimistic about future profits. In other words, just because you have 100 eggs, doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely have 100 chickens. Some of the eggs might not hatch.

example: We may have a good plan, but we won’t know how much money we can spend until the money is actually in our hands. So we shouldn’t invest any money right now. Let’s not count our chickens before they’ve hatched.


Cooped up inside – a coop is like a house for birds. Domestic pigeons are kept in a coop. Chickens may be “cooped up” at night to protect them from wild animals like foxes. If a person is stuck inside all day, they may feel like a bird that has been cooped up.

example: On a day like today when the weather is nice and sunny, I wish that I had a job where I worked outside. I feel cooped up in my small office with it’s artificial air and artificial lighting.


Beating around the bush – If someone avoids answering a question directly, they are beating around the bush. A person might beat around the bush if they have bad news, or if answering a question will make them less popular.

This expression comes from bird hunting. Sometimes birds hide in bushes and you have to hit (beat) around the outside of the bush to scare the birds out of hiding.

example one: When I asked my boss if I could have a raise, he didn’t answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Instead, he spent ten minutes talking about the how bad the economy is. It was obvious that he wanted to say ‘no’. I wish that he had just given me a straight answer instead of wasting my time by beating around the bush.

example two: Whoever is elected to lead the country will have to raise taxes. It can’t be avoided. But if you ask any of the politicians if they will raise taxes, they won’t answer. They’ll just beat around the bush until someone asks another question.


Cold turkey – If someone suddenly stops smoking, drinking, or taking drugs, they quit cold turkey.

example: When my wife quit smoking, she did it gradually. She smoked less and less until she was down to one cigarette a day. Then she quit altogether. I did not do that though. I went cold turkey. I threw out all of my cigarettes at once and I never smoked again.


Talk turkey: – When people talk turkey, they discuss something frankly.

example: Well Mr. Salesperson. I really appreciate you taking me out to lunch. We have had a pleasant conversation about sports and the weather. But now it’s time to talk turkey. Are you going to give me a discount on your company’s product or not?

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Cat nap – If you have a short sleep during the day, you are cat napping.

example: During my lunch hour, I like to put my head on my desk and take a little cat nap for 20 minutes.


Let the cat out of the bag: If you accidentally reveal a secret, you let the cat out of the bag.

example: Oh, I really let the cat out of the bag this time! I said to Janice, “See you at your party tonight”, but I didn’t know that it was supposed to be a surprise party. Now Janice knows the secret that everyone worked so hard to keep from her.


Herding cats – If you have to co-ordinate a situation where people want to do different things, you are herding cats.

example: I decided to bring in a group of artists to work on our new marketing campaign. But have you ever tried working with a bunch of artistic types? Everyone had a different idea of what to do and nobody wanted to give up their ideas. Trying to get everybody to agree on a course of action was like herding cats.

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Puppy love – This expression refers to feelings of love between young people during childhood and adolescence. It is often used to imply that the feelings are shallow or not serious.

example: My 16 year old daughter says that she wants to marry her boyfriend. I don’t think that she should take her relationship that seriously. I think that it’s only puppy love.

trivia: Canadian singer Paul Anka released the single “Puppy Love” in 1960, reaching #2 in the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics relate the plight of a seventeen-year-old taunted by accusations that feelings for his girlfriend are “puppy love”, ending with the refrain “How can I ever tell them this is not a puppy love?” The remake by American Donny Osmond peaked at US #3 in 1972.


On all fours – If someone is on all fours, they are on their knees with their hands on the ground. So it looks like they have four legs, like a dog.

example: In this yoga position, you start out on all fours, and then you straighten your knees and stick your bum up in the air.


Every dog has its day – This idiom means that everyone gets to be impressive sometimes.

example: Normally nobody notices Alex. He seems to be very unremarkable. However, at the company picnic he entertained everybody by juggling five oranges! On that day everyone was looking at him with admiration. I guess it’s true that every dog has its day.


Ahead of the pack – If you are ahead of the pack, you have made more progress than your rivals. A group of wild dogs is called a pack of dogs. If they are chasing something, like a cat, the dog in front is ahead of the pack.

This expression may be used in situations where there is competition.

example: Michael is definitely going to win the bonus for selling the most houses. He has sold five houses more than anyone else. Yes, when it comes to the sales competition, Michael is at the head of the pack.


All bark and no bite OR His bark is worse than his bite – When someone talks tough but really isn’t, they are all bark and no bite. Some dogs bark and growl as if they are dangerous, but they aren’t really. They are just pretending.

This expression may be used if somebody is threatening to do something bad, but you don’t believe that they really will.

example one: My coworker is always saying that he will quit the company if he does not get his own office with a window. But he has been making that same threat for three years now. He won’t do it. He is all bark and no bite.

example two: Everyone thinks that my teacher is very mean. And he does act very mean. He says things like, “If you are late for class, I will take 10% off your grade!” But actually, he never does anything like that. His bark is worse than his bite.


Dog eat dog – In a dog eat dog world, there is intense competition and rivalry, where everybody thinks only of himself or herself.

example: The real estate market is a dog eat dog world. You can’t have any mercy for anybody else. The industry is so competitive that you have to do anything you can to get ahead.


Gone to the dogs – If something has gone to the dogs, it has gone completely wrong and lost all the good things it had.

example one: This project started out with a good plan, but it quickly went to the dogs. There were communication problems. The supplier went bankrupt. The advertising was not accurate. Everything went wrong from start to finish.

example two: Brownsville used to be a nice town to live in. But over the past 20 years, it has really gone to the dogs. It’s not a nice place to live anymore.


In the doghouse – If someone is in the doghouse, they are in disgrace and very unpopular at the moment. I think the idea is that if a dog is good, it is allowed to sleep inside. However if a dog is bad, it has to sleep outside in the doghouse, as punishment.

example: I’m really in the doghouse with my wife. She found out that I’ve been gambling again. (“with my wife” does not mean that she is in the doghouse with you. It means that she is the one that put you in the doghouse.)

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Farm Animals

Eat like a pig – If someone eats like a pig, they either eat too much or they have bad table manners.

example: I broke up with my last boyfriend because he ate like a pig. Whenever he ate, he would put his elbows on the table, he would spill food everywhere, and he would always burp after taking a drink.


Pigs might fly or When pigs fly – You might use this expression if you think that something will never happen or succeed.

example one: I’ll get married when pigs fly. (this person has decided that they will never get married)

example two: Do you think that the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever win the Stanley Cup? Sure, that will happen when pigs fly. (the person who answers the question thinks that it is more likely that pigs will grow wings and learn to fly like birds)


Put lipstick on a pig – If people put lipstick on a pig, they make superficial or cosmetic changes, hoping that it will make a bad product or situation appear better.

example: That manufacturing company wants to appear more environmentally friendly. So they changed their name to “The Green Building Company”. But that’s all that they did. They still produce just as much pollution as before. All they did was put lipstick on a pig.


Black sheep – Most sheep are born with white wool. However, a small minority of sheep are born with black wool. Someone who is the black sheep doesn’t fit into a group or family because their behavior or character is different. Often, but not always, a person is a black sheep because they have disgraced themselves or are considered worthless.

example: My father is a doctor. My mother is a doctor. Both my brother and sister are doctors. Both of my grandfathers are doctors. I am not a doctor. I am a truck driver. That makes me the black sheep of the family.


Cash cow – A product or business that generates a continuous flow of money or a high proportion of overall profits is a cash cow.

example: The classic example of a cash cow is Coca Cola. The Coca Cola company has many products. They can take money from their cash cow (coke) and invest it in new products.


Till the cows come home – ‘Till’ is a short form of the word ‘until’. This idioms means ‘for a very long time’.

example: I don’t want to get into a conversation with Jeremy. When you start a conversation with him, it is difficult to end it. That guy could talk till the cows come home.

trivia: Do cows take an extra-long time to come home? No, actually the expression used to be, “[do something] until Hell freezes over and the cows come skating home over the ice”. Over time, the expression became divided into “when Hell freezes over”, which has a similar meaning to “when pigs fly”, and the expression “till the cows come home”.


Sacred cow – a sacred cow is something very highly regarded. In fact, people are very hesitant to criticize a sacred cow in any way. However, if somebody calls something a sacred cow, they are saying that it should be open to criticism. The ‘something’ is often abstract and intangible, such as patriotism, democracy, or a high-priority government project. Of course, the term is an allusion to the Hindu reverence for cows.

example one: After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, George W. Bush became a sacred cow. For months, it was considered morally wrong to question any decision made by him or his administration.

example two: The fact that Canadian forces are fighting in Afghanistan has been a sacred cow since the beginning of the war in 2001. Whenever someone suggest that Canadian forces should not be fighting in Afghanistan, they are called unpatriotic, or even treasonous. However, in recent months, this sacred cow has started to …. um … get sick and die? Sorry, I couldn’t think of a good cow analogy.


Bull market and Bear market – A bear market is a period when investors are pessimistic and expect financial losses. During this time, investors are more likely to sell than to buy shares.

A bull market is the opposite. Investors expect the value of their investments to increase. Many cities in the world have a statue of a bull somewhere in their financial districts.

example: I am pulling my money out of stocks and putting it into commodities. The reason is that I expect stocks to experience a bear market for the next few months. However, the experts say that commodities will face a bull market. So, my advice is to sell stocks and buy commodities.


Grab the bulls by its horns – If you grab (take) the bull by its horns, you deal head-on and directly with a problem.

example: My last boss would often try to make problems go away. If a problem came up, he would ask somebody else to handle it. Sometimes he just ignored the problem and hoped it went away. My new boss though is very different than that. When a problem comes up, she takes the bull by the horns and solves it immediately!


Bullseye or Hit the bull’s eye – This expression comes from the game of darts. The bull’s eye, or bullseye, is the red dot in the middle of the board. You have to have very good aim to hit it. If someone correctly guesses at something or achieves a goal on their first try, you might say that they have hit the bull’s eye.

example one: A: Do you know why I am happy today?
B: Because it’s payday?
A: Bullseye!

example two: The new sales guy made a sale on his very first call! Wow, He really hit the bull’s eye. (in this case, you might also say, “scored a hole-in-one”, from the game of golf”.)


Beating a dead horse (USA) or Flogging a dead horse (UK) – If you are trying to raise interest in an issue that no one supports anymore, then you are beating a dead horse. No matter how hard you beat a dead horse, it will not do any more work for you.

example: I know that you don’t like having a woman for a boss, but it is time for you to accept it. Nobody else feels the same way you do. When you complain about having a female boss, nobody feels sympathy for you. Instead they feel that you are an old-fashioned man who is just beating a dead horse. Stop complaining and accept it.


Could eat a horse – If you are very hungry, you could eat an entire horse in one meal. This expression is an exaggeration of course. If you want to be funny, you might say that you could eat another large animal, like a moose!

example: I missed lunch and now I am so hungry I could eat a horse!


Hit the hay – When you hit the hay, you go to bed. It’s like when a horse or cow sleeps on hay in the barn. A similar expression with the same meaning is “hit the sack”.

example: Well I have an early meeting tomorrow, so it’s time for me to hit the hay.


Healthy as a horse – If you’re as healthy as a horse, you’re very healthy.

example: When I played golf with the vice-president, I had trouble keeping up with him! He may be old, but he is as healthy as a horse!


Hold your horses – If someone tells you to hold your horses, you are doing something too fast and they would like you to slow down. This expression comes from when people traveled by horse and cart.

example one: Whoooo! Hold your horses! Don’t run in the hallway. Somebody could get hurt.

example two: I know that you want print out your assignment right away, but don’t you think you should hold your horses? Slow down and do some proofreading before you submit your final draft.


Putting the cart before the horse – If you put the cart before(in front of) the horse, you try to do things in the wrong order.

example: You can’t advertise a product before you decide what it does! You are putting the cart before the horse.


You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – This idiom means you can offer something to someone, like good advice, but you cannot make them take it.

example: I helped Maria find lots of online resources for learning Japanese, but she never uses any of them. She says that she wants to learn, but insists on using only books. I guess you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.


A Mountie always gets his man – (Canada) The Mounties are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They (traditionally) ride horses. That is what ‘mounted’ refers to. They have a reputation for catching criminals that they are after.

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Wild Animals

Nature of the beast – The basic characteristics of something is the nature of the beast; often used when there’s an aspect of something that cannot be changed or that is unpleasant or difficult.

example one: It is difficult to have any long-term success as an entertainer. As soon as you become popular, people want something new and they move onto the next entertainer. It is unfortunate, but that is the nature of the beast. (in this case, the beast is the entertainment industry)

example two: I am trying online dating. It is frustrating because when I make a date with someone, they often don’t show up. I guess I have to accept it though. That is the nature of the beast. (in this case, the beast is online dating)


Monkey on my back – This expression refers to addiction. Whatever substance you are addicted to is a monkey on your back.

example: I managed to give up smoking, but I was not able to give up coffee. I still have that monkey on my back.


Quiet as a mouse – If someone’s as quiet as a mouse, they make absolutely no noise.

example: My boyfriend is always startling me by walking up behind me. I don’t know that he is there because he walks so softly. He sneaks around the house as quiet as a mouse.


Blind as a bat – If you are in total darkness and can’t see anything at all, you are as blind as a bat.

example: Please turn on the light! I can’t see anything. I am as blind as a bat!


Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – If someone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they are full of energy and enthusiasm. This expression compares a person to a squirrel. Squirrels have bushy tails and they always seem to be full of energy.

example: I don’t know how you can be so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed so early in the morning. Most people don’t have as much energy as you do until they have breakfast and coffee. How do you do it?


Bear market and Bull market – A bear market is a period when investors are pessimistic and expect financial losses. During this time, investors are more likely to sell than to buy shares.

A bull market is the opposite. Investors expect the value of their investments to increase. Many cities in the world have a statue of a bull somewhere in their financial districts.

example: I am pulling my money out of stocks and putting it into commodities. The reason is that I expect stocks to experience a bear market for the next few months. However, the experts say that commodities will face a bull market. So, my advice is to sell stocks and buy commodities.


Wolf in sheep’s clothing – A wolf in sheep’s clothing is something, or someone, dangerous that looks quite safe and innocent.

example: I hear that you are dating Jacob. Well I want to warn you that even though he says he wants a long-term relationship, he actually just wants to have sex with you and then leave you. I know that because I dated him last year, and so did six other women! So watch out. That guy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


Dinosaur – Sometimes the word dinosaur is used to refer to a person, or a machine, that is too old fashioned and not useful anymore.

example one: Of course older employees can be valuable because they have a lot of life experience. However, sometimes they turn into dinosaurs with old fashioned ideas. If that happens then they don’t fit into the modern workplace.

example two: Ahhh! I am sick and tired of using this old dinosaur photocopier! It is old and broken down. When are we going to get a new one?


Green-eyed monster – This expression may be used if somebody feels jealous. Please note that the person in not being called a monster. The emotion of jealousy is the monster.

example: My husband is so jealous. If I even talk to another man, the green-eyed monster raises its ugly head.

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I found most of these expressions at and The Phrase Finder. They have a lot more, but some of them are pretty old fashioned, so you should ask a native English speaker about the expressions before you start using them.
(last updated Aug 03, 2009)


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