As you know, every language has its own set of figures of speech, cliches, and colloquialisms—those quirky verbal bits that occur in all languages. They are called tropes by the literati. As a word, trope is muscling its way into popularity. I expect it to replace all those other words in the way that venue has supplanted the words site and place. Venue sounds classier, I suppose.
English has a vast number of tropes, many linked to the animal world. We might say, for instance, that Trudy is a goose. (That’s a simile, of course, though it could also be a mathematical equation: Trudy = goose.) Now…are all geese silly? Flighty? Not too bright? Pretty much. Being called a goose is no compliment.
And then there are rabbits. Bunnies. We have a mama rabbit who nests every year in the hawthorn bushes outside our kitchen window. Scientists say that the rabbit is “exhibiting site fidelity,” returning to the same place every year for the same purpose. Our big cat Bob understands scientific lingo, and so every year he pillages the nest several times. We shake our heads and say, “Dumb Bunny!” knowing that there will be enough babies left over for us to qualify as a Rabbit Preserve.
The animal that’s done the hardest work for humankind for over 6,000 years is the ox, or bullock as he’s called in some countries. Oxen, symbols of strength and fortitude down through the ages, are castrated male cows—much stronger and steadier than horses. But brainy? Well, no. And so we say, “Strong as an ox!” which is true.
If you want to compliment someone’s brain in animal terms, you should compare him or her to chimpanzees (number 1), pigs (number 2), bottlenose dolphins, parrots, and whales—the top five according to many scientists. This ranking considers an animal’s brain in terms of its success in its environment, its overall adaptability, and its ability to solve new problems.
As the smartest of all domesticated animals, the pig is nearly always underestimated. But once you learn the facts about pigs, you never forget them. Pigs love being clean and given a chance would shower many times a day; pigs enjoy solving new problems or puzzles; in Europe, trained watch pigs patrol their territories with vigilance, whereas many dogs fall asleep on the job. So here, the old tropes fail us completely. We should be saying, “Ooh, smart as a pig!” instead of “Smart as a whip.” A whip knows nothing, for heaven’s sake.
These beloved old tropes actually work only part of the time—sometimes not at all. As in the case of pigs. And jaybirds. One old cliché describes someone wearing no clothes as being “naked as a jay bird.” Hah! Have you EVER seen a naked jaybird??
Also, though you probably know this, geese, rabbits, and oxen do not appear in the list of the top 25 smartest critters on the planet.
© Joan D. Carris