Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eager Beavers

(Photo from stock.xchng)

Associating a particular animal with a human being in idiomatic phrases is an interesting form of description used in many languages. English, for example, has many interesting animal-like descriptions which are often invoked in sarcasm, jokes, speeches, and written expressions.

The skunk is used to describe a person with bad qualities, e.g. unfair or unkind attributes. The pig is invoked to highlight greed or gluttony in a person, and the tortoise is associated with slowness, while the chicken is the target animal in referring to cowardice. A snake may be used as a reference for deceitful person. In contrast, another reptile, the crocodile, seems more neutral as it is used in British English for referring to people walking in a line (cf. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). It is also used negatively, though, when we refer to someone shedding crocodile [false] tears.

At the unpleasant end of the linguistic spectrum, we have several animal-like terms used as references for less favorable human traits. Catty refers to a quarrelsome (female) character, while bitchy refers to a person fond of using hurtful words. The word dog finds its way into several human-related references. Someone can be a dirty dog or a lucky dog (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1987, p. 301), and the Longman Dictionary also says that a dog may refer to ‘a very unattractive woman’ in American English.

In comparison, the Malay reptile buaya (crocodile) is used to refer to a lecherous man, similar to biawak (monitor lizard), normally invoked as a reference for a womanizer. The Malay word anjing (dog) is a negative reference usually meant for an untrustworthy person or a cheat. According to a student who was studying Malay as a foreign language, he once overheard someone calling her husband suami anjing (a dog husband) angrily on the phone. Kucing (cat) is normally used as a reference for a pretentious or duplicitous person, like a tame cat which is yet capable of snatching a fish in a split second.

While the Mandarin word for pig, 猪, refers to stupidity, the Malays use udang (prawn) as the equivalent of low intelligence in humans. I vaguely recall the phrase prawn-head in English denoting the same reference.

Other animals used in Malay as metaphorical references for humans includes lintah (leech) for referring to loan sharks, or persons living at the expense of others or parasites; tupai (squirrel) for referring to a man who is irresponsible in sexual relationships; ayam (chicken) to denote a wife; and kerbau (ox) for a husband (cf. Sew, 2009).

In conclusion, animal-human references are a smart communicative strategy created for humans to talk about humans. It may be conjectured that speech communities across the world introduce animal attributes as indirect references of humans to maintain gregarious social interaction.

What human/animal expressions do you have in your language?


Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (New Edition). 1987. Essex, UK: Longman House.

Sew, Jyh Wee. (2009). Semiotik Persembahan Wacana [Semiotcs of discourse performing]. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya.

The writer of this post, Jyh Wee Sew, teaches Malay at the Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.


Ebuka said...

In my language, Igbo (From Nigeria), we use mouse/rat (oke) to denote someone who steals (mainly minor theft). We use sheep (aturu) to describe someone who is easily influence by others and act in a foolish way. We also use Eagle (ugo) to describe someone, especially a woman, who is beautiful.

Julia Miller said...

That's really interesting. In the UK, we use 'mouse' for a quiet person, but 'rat' for a nasty person, though not necessarily a thief. Sheep are seen as foolish and easy to influence, just as you say. I don't think we use eagles to demonstrate beauty, though. We can say someone is 'eagle-eyed', which means they are very observant.

Jyh Wee said...

Thanks for the responses

Mouse or tikus in Malay is used to refer to a timid person. To describe a fool-hardy person who acts in a straight forward manner the Malays use camel or unta. It became clear to me when I watched a documentary on the nomads in the desert. The camels may be very stubborn that the owners deploy beating as form of commanding to control or drive the poor animal.

Kind regards

cikguwee said...

It's interesting to see how human associate themselves with something non-human especially to implicitly describe their characteristics. In Malaysia, I notice the cantonese like to associate themselves as 'human' but those who are not in their groups as 'ghosts'. For the chinese, they refer them as chinese people (human) or 'thong yan' but the Malays as Malay Ghosts (Malay Quai), the Indian as Indian Ghosts (Yen Tho Quai), and even the Caucasians are not spared. They are known as the White Hair Ghosts (Hong Mou Quai). However these callings by all mean are not to insult but a very jokingly manner of addressing in an informal context. For those non-chinese who could speak cantonese have even call the chinese as 'Thong Yan Quai'. For Kelantanese, they refer to their best pals as 'Na Te' or beasts in Kelantanese. So the alculturation of language is very subjective and contextualized.



Jyh said...

Although [quai] denotes ghost in Cantonese it connotes different things when the Chinese character is compounded with different Chinese modifiers. Hence we can use [quai] in these terms...dou quai (gambling ghost), sek quai (womanising ghost), mor quai (devil for both a genuine evil spirit and an evil human character). The term [quai] here refers to humans who are no longer in the normal category but indulging in abnormal practices such as gambling, womanising, and acting in a devilish manner constantly. We need to generate separate meanings for the Cantonese ghost character which now may be denoting a spirit, a type of human of certain characteristics, as well as a slang for other ethnic groups, either as a term of endearment or otherwise.

I speak Cantonese, my siblings and I use [yan] human to refer to Malays and Indians as [Malai yan] and [Yentou yan], respectively; although I recall clearly that my grandparents and mother did use the term [guai] in lieu of [yan] in these terms (my father does not speak Cantonese, fortunately). The speaker's social status in terms of (national) education, upbringing and personal values determines his speaking manner(s). The sociolinguistic indices are varied and complicated.


Jyh Wee Sew said...

I was watching the repeat telecast of a Mandarin drama series on television yesterday. The elderly wife was addressing her old husband 'lao kwee' [old ghost] in Mandarin in her remarks about how shrewd he was. He 'praising' her ability to spin so much out of nothing when they were discussing about their future daughter-in-law's intention to move out with their son after marriage despite that there were two vacant bedrooms available in the house.

It is obvious that /ghost/ is a negative reference for an abnormal human being in the Mandarin conversation and any connotation of endearment is merely a contextual reading based on the fact that they are married and sharing a conversation in their bedroom with no adversarial outcomes (although they were slapping each other's arms while talking in bed).


Anonymous said...

Not to be critical, but your picture for this section is not a beaver. It is actually a capybara. Beavers are most easily recognized by their tails; which are large, flat and scaly. Wikipedia has an excellent photo of one. Check it out at: