We often attribute emotions and other human characteristics to animals. This is called anthropomorphism. Similarly, we also describe people using animal characteristics. You might, for example, say my teenage son “eats like a horse,” meaning he’s a growing boy and consumes a lot of food. This is called zoomorphism. Zoomorphism also includes assigning animal-like qualities to gods and inanimate objects. The term comes from the Greek words zōon, which means “animal,” and morphē, which means “form or shape.”
So, take a ride with us down a zoomorphic path of animal characteristics we use to describe certain types of people . . . you’ll know who we’re talking about.
What is “puppy love”?
When children or teens develop a crush on, or become infatuated with, someone, it’s called puppy love. These feelings of love or affection are innocent and temporary and often dismissed by adults. But, puppy love is intense, and even as an adult we’re sure you remember early crushes with fondness (and embarrassment).
The term comes from the pure affection puppies lavish on humans. Adult dogs are more discerning and exhibit likes and dislikes for people and other dogs. Guess that’s why there’s no such thing as dog love.
What does “at a snail’s pace” mean?
When someone moves very slowly, we say they’re moving at a snail’s pace. This self-explanatory idiom is far from a compliment. Waiting for someone to do something can be downright excruciating, especially if they move at the speed of a snail. And, what about someone who still uses “snail mail” . . . the worst.
We don’t know who first made this observation, but Shakespeare used variations of the simile slow as a snail in several of his plays. Even Shakespeare couldn’t deal with that inefficient person in his (or her?) life.
What does “busy as a bee” mean?
The opposite of slothful snails is energetic and hardworking busy bees. The idiom busy as a bee is typically used as a compliment to acknowledge someone’s accomplishments and the fact that they worked hard to get them.
We can credit Geoffrey Chaucer for the simile busy as a bee. It comes from The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400. In the “Epilogue to The Merchant’s Tale,” he wrote: “In wommen been! for ay as bisy as bees.” And, still today, women skillfully master the busyness behind this idiom.
What does “mad as a hornet” mean?
If someone is mad as a hornet, they are extremely angry or furious. Hornets are large wasps that live in communal nests. These social insects get aggressive when they feel threatened and use their stings to kill prey and defend their nests. And, on the other side of things, a person who likes to make trouble or cause a commotion is someone who “stirs up a hornet’s nest,” leaving everyone behind them to get stung. Ouch.
Southerners tend to say madder than a wet hen in these types of situation, which has the same meaning. The idiom comes from hens who get agitated when you try to collect their eggs.
What does “wolf in sheep’s clothing” mean?
We hope you don’t know someone who’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because this idiom describes a dangerous or dishonest person. Problem is, you won’t always know because this person is pretty good at deception, hiding the fact of their evil under a cloak of soft wool.
This idiom is often attributed to an Aesop fable, but it comes from a sermon by Jesus recorded in the Book of Matthew in the King James Bible: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Jesus must have been deceived by a few of these “wolves” in his day.
What does “a bull in a china shop” mean?
Someone who’s a bull in a china shop is clumsy and can be destructive when surrounded by fragile items. The idiom can also describe someone who feels awkward and says or does the wrong thing in a delicate situation, such as at a funeral. The idiom first appeared in the early 1800s and was popularized in cartoons and song. Other languages, including French, Danish, and Italian, have similar idioms but substitute an elephant for a bull.
In 1940, James Moran, an American press agent known for his publicity stunts, led a bull through a Fifth Avenue china shop in New York City just to disprove the saying. The bull didn’t break anything, but a bystander trying to avoid the bull backed into a table and damaged some china. So, maybe the bull should get a break here, and we should change this one to a man in a china shop.
What does “a fish out of water” mean?
If you feel like a fish out of water, then you feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. Whether or not you’ve ever gone fishing, you’ve likely seen pictures of a fish caught in a net, fluttering and gasping for air. Fortunately, we won’t die from strange situations (even though you may feel like it at the time), though they can make our blood pressure boil or cause us to break out in hives.
A version of this idiom can also be traced back to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In the “General Prologue,” he wrote: “Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees [careless], Is likned til a fish that is waterlees.”
What does “ants in your pants” mean?
If you’ve ever gone to a picnic and literally had ants in your pants, you know why this idiom describes someone who can’t stay still. Typically, this one is used for a person who is agitated, excited, worried, and always fidgety.
Sometimes, we just say we’re feeling “antsy,” when we’re feeling restless and that tends to get the point across, with out the unnecessary imagery.
What is a “copycat”?
If someone imitates the way you dress, speak, or act, he’s a copycat. At first, it feels flattering, but it will quickly become pretty annoying. Remember those car rides with your sister when she wouldn’t stop repeating what you were saying . . . .
The term comes from kittens who learn how to behave as a cat from their mother. Two 19th-century Maine writers, Constance Cary Harrison and Sarah Orne Jewett, are considered the first to use the term in print to describe boys and girls who copy someone’s behavior. Today, the term is used to describe someone who imitates another person’s criminal activities. Copycat crimes and suicides are often inspired by previous events publicized in the media.
What is a “social butterfly”?
A social butterfly is someone who has lots of friends and acquaintances and goes to a LOT of parties and events, just like a butterfly flits from one flower to the next. While we might admire this person’s ease in social situations, a social butterfly could be considered a superficial friend who’s just looking for a good time.
While a butterfly is beautiful and admired, the term social butterfly is sometimes used contemptuously. And, it’s typically used to describe women. Boo. Maybe we can start trending social moth for a flitty man?
Do you think countries like France or Sweden use animal idioms to describe people, too? They sure do. Check out these International Animal Idioms to see the funniest animals foreigners use to classify their people.