Cleaner Than a Frog’s Armpit: Animal Sayings Worldwide

Featuring little critters!

Do you move at a snail’s pace, or get ants in your pants whenever it’s raining cats and dogs? Even if you don't, you probably know what these animal sayings mean. In fact, these expressions are so familiar it takes a beat to recognize how strange they are if taken literally. We can re-inject a little comedy into our idiom-filled lives by checking out a few of the amazing animal sayings from other parts of the world. Just like children and English-learners exposed to funny English phrases for the first time, you’ll see that these multicultural idioms really gain humor in literal translation...

Cock & Donkey, France

“Jump from the cock to the donkey.”

In France, when you hop from one topic to an unrelated topic in a conversation, you’re “jumping from the cock to the donkey.” This idiom can also be used when the speaker is aware of abruptly changing course in the conversation. The example (taken literally) “And I’m jumping from the cock to the donkey but…” carries the intended meaning “And this is completely unrelated but…”

So, when you’re talking to someone who’s hard to follow and “jumping all over the place”, he or she is also jumping from the cock to the donkey in France.

Shrimp, Sweden

“Slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”

This whimsical Swedish saying is used when someone is spoiled, born into luxury, or has gotten where they are in life without having to do any work. There’s nothing shrimpy about this idiom; if anything, our rough equivalent (“born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth”) is the puny one. Yet, it’s kind of hard to relate luxurious living to ‘gliding atop shrimp stuffed between two slices of bread.’ Maybe it’s the ease with which little shrimp tumble into mayonnaise with playmates dill and hardboiled eggs. Hey, whatever floats your shrimp sandwich (if you can afford one)!

Cat, Japan

“Wear a cat on one’s head.”

No, this has nothing to do with someone’s scratchy mess of a wig (that would be too literal). The Japanese use this idiom when a person is pretending to be sweet, or putting on an act of friendliness in order to hide their true nature. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” might be a similar English idiom. We think it’d be helpful to know whether a companion to this expression exists in Japan; like, if you know someone’s wearing a cat on her head, can you tell her to just show her claws instead?

Swan, Croatia

“Balls of a swan.”

In Croatia, “balls of a swan” means that something is impossible. But it seems only fair to male swans to disclose that, in fact, they do have a pair of fully-functional testicles, which are located in the abdominal cavity (and are therefore not visible to the human eye). Modified by this zoological fact, perhaps “balls of a swan” should mean something’s possible, but “when swan balls start showing,” that would really be like “when pigs fly.”

Maggot, Germany

“Live like a maggot in bacon.”

Maggots have a free-range diet, but for you bacon-eaters out there, it’s sometimes hard to imagine anything better than a house made of bacon. Germans are truly besotted over pork (they consumed over 115 pounds of pig meat per capita in 2015), so it’s not a shocker that this idiom has something to do with living it up in style.

So. If you’re of German-Swedish-American descent, could we say you eat like a maggot in bacon sliding with shrimp onto the silver spoon in your mouth?

Hen & Snake, Thailand

“The hen sees the snake’s feet, and the snake sees the hen’s boobs.”

Read it again. Yes, you probably read it right the first time. In Thailand, this expression describing an intimate snake-hen moment is used when two people know each other’s secrets. Unlike male swans (who have hidden balls, thank you very much) snake feet and hen boobs are harder to find zoological evidence for. But that’s the whole point. Secrets between two people—or animals—are meant to be kept.

Dog, Korea

“A dog with feces scolds a dog with husks of grain.”

The introduction of fecal matter in any context—with the exception of Everyone Poops—undoubtedly demotes whatever subject it’s related to. In this instance, we’ve got a dog with poop (not a nutrient) scolding a dog with grain (a nutrient and also not poop). Maybe the poop-dog shouldn’t be doing the scolding? This Korean idiom essentially conveys the idea that a person of lower social standing shouldn’t denigrate someone of higher status, when the former has nothing but...poop...for support.

Frog, Venezuela

“Cleaner than a frog’s armpit.”

As cute as this idiom sounds, you wouldn’t actually want to be in the position to say it. This funny Spanish expression loses its humor in Venezuela, where it’s used when someone has no money or is flat broke. In the US, we do have the similar phrase “cleaned out,” but English idioms describing financial woes tend to relate to physical states of being “broken.” If a measure of resiliency is positive thinking, it might be better to be cleaner than a frog’s armpit than busted!

Wolf, Italy

“Live in the butt of the wolf.”

Once upon a time, there lived in the butt of a wolf a girl named Little Red Riding Hood. Yow. This is getting gruesome fast. Well, in Italian, the main clause of this sentence could be read as, “there lived far, far away a little girl named Little Red Riding Hood.” Okay, that’s better. Startlingly macabre fairytales aside, the Italians have some other interesting “wolf” and “butt” expressions: the English translations “in the mouth of the wolf” and “in the whale’s ass” mean “good luck.”

Rat, India

“Rats jumping in stomach.”

In English, we get butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous, but in India, the stomach is home to a different creature. You’ll be feeling rumbly in your tumbly and hearing your belly growl if you’ve got “rats jumping in [your] stomach,” a Hindi expression to describe feeling very hungry. Try snacking throughout the day; otherwise you might find yourself eating a horse. Ba da tss.

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