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.