local fauna expressions (part one)

When I come home after a long day's hay-feverish work, I often give my eyes a good rub and suffer the mascara-smeared consequences. [Incidentally, the second syllable in mascara sounds like care in (most northern, at least) AmE and like AmE car in (most south-eastern, at least) BrE.] When Better Half sees me after my eye-rubbing catharsis, he'll say something like "Hello, panda eyes." But in my AmE dialect, what I have are raccoon eyes. Think of a black-eye-masked animal in the US, and one naturally thinks of a raccoon. Think of one in the UK, and the panda more readily comes to mind. [Raccoon eyes is also the informal, and descriptive, name of a medical condition--bilateral periorbital ecchymosis.]

This got me thinking on the theme of animal expressions that don't work in other dialects because the animal isn't native to other dialect's area. I'm finding it easier to think of AmE expressions that don't translate into BrE. For instance, while the hedgehog is a native species in Britain, there don't seem to be any hedgehog-based clichés. So, I'm going to cheat a little and offer pissed/drunk/tight as a newt, meaning 'extremely intoxicated'. There are newts in America, but (a) they are different genera than the newts in Britain and (b) salamander is, in my experience, the more common way of referring to them in AmE. (But this may differ in parts of the US with different kinds of newts.) According to Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack, the newts in pissed as a newt weren't originally animals, but young men who were hired to watch gentlemen's horses while they were out on the town. The gentlemen would return from their libations to find that the "newts" had tippled too. However, there's no record of this sense of newt in the OED and Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the phrase probably comes from Army officers' slang. Is Albert Jack a quack? (For some clues as to the answer to this question, see Arnold Zwicky's post at Language Log.)

Martin Willett, in the glossary of his Debate Unlimited website, notes that as a newt doesn't need a word meaning 'drunk' in order to convey drunkenness:
Pissed as a newt and pissed as a fart; expressions of extreme drunkeness. The ending “as a newt” can be added to other expressions to express the concept of drunkness e.g. “Did you see Caroline Aherne receive her award last night, she looked, er, relaxed... as a newt.”
On the internet, one also finds cute as a newt (a few times). Since this is on the Urban Dictionary and MySpace, we might suppose it's a recently coined phrase. It doesn't mean 'drunkenly cute', but something more akin to AmE cute as a bug.

Both these BrE phrases can be compared to drunk as a skunk, which involves a North American animal, but nevertheless is said in Britain as well. Like cute as a newt, we can presume that it's caught on in large part because it rhymes--not because of any lack of sobreity in skunks or because of the inherent attractiveness of newts.

This one phrase has taken rather longer than expected, so I'll leave the rest of the American animals for tomorrow (or thereabouts). Stay tuned...


  1. Here's a Telegraph comment on some Harvard scolarship: Consider some lines in Henry VI concerning a soldier who "fought so long till that his thighs with darts/ Were almost like a sharp-quilled porcupine". According to Greenblatt, "Shakespeare himself had in all likelihood not served in the wars and had never seen a soldier's thighs pierced with arrows, but as a country boy, he had almost certainly seen his share of sharp-quilled porcupines."

    1. Hedgehogs possibly but not porcupines in England.

  2. Nice quotation, but it doesn't really count in my quest for local fauna idioms because (a) there are porcupines in N America too (though to be fair, they're in a different family), and (b) it's not an idiom, it's a quotation. That is to say, it's something Shakespeare wrote, but not something that's a set phrase used generally by speakers of the dialect. Still, nice quotation.

    Of course, I cheated with newt and counted pissed as a newt even though there are newts on both continents--but there we did have an idiom and different ways of referring to them in the two countries.

    Last night I couldn't think of a way to test whether newt is more common in the UK than salamander and vice versa for the US; if you search newt on the internet you get Newt Gingrich, nicknames for towns named Newton, acronyms for companies/products, etc. But today I thought of a test: searching the phrase catching ~s. It seems to work pretty well. Just to be safe, I specified that the newt ones couldn't have Gingrich in them (this didn't make a big difference). The only problem (as ever) is that one can't search US-only sites because it's the country without a country-specific URL suffix. But comparing these phrases between .uk sites and rest-of-world (not .uk) sites, we get:

    UK: catching newts = 109
    catching salamanders = 3

    RoW: catching newts = 472
    catching salamanders = 746

    So, I think it's fair to call newt and salamander 'dialectal' words--at least as far as speaker's preferences for one over the other go.

    And before you tell me that newts and salamanders are different things, note the following from Caudata Culture:

    Surprisingly, there is no really meaningful difference [between newts and salamanders]. The distinction is more historic than scientific. Newts are a subgroup of salamanders. All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts.

    So, you could call a newt a salamander, but in the UK, one generally doesn't.

  3. "there are porcupines in N America too": "too"?

  4. Oh, if it's folk wisdom you want: "You'll wait until the kye come home". But that's cheating, isn't it?

  5. Ah, ok, your point (and the Telegraph's--the link would've been helpful!) with regard to Greenblatt is that Shakespeare wouldn't have seen a porcupine. That's probably true--he's probably referring to a non-local animal.

    But...there is another possibility. there is evidence of porcupine being used to refer to hedgehogs (and one sense of porcupine in many dictionaries is 'an animal that has quills similar to a porcupine's'). Not evidence from Shakespeare's time, but I bring it up just to get the poor hedgehog some attention.

  6. Oh, and waiting for the kye. You could argue either way that that's cheating, but instead of doing that, I think you should start a blog about Scots English!

  7. In outback Australia one often hears Aborigines speak of 'porcupines'. We don't have porcupines, or hedgehogs or any of those strange things, they use the word in reference to the echidna.
    I don't think it has made it as far as the dictionary though (Kriol dikshenri, that is), it might be an isolated thing.

  8. Hedgehogs are also called "urchins" I read the other day.

  9. For hedgehogs, I offer: "The fox has many tricks, while the hedgehog has but one. But it's a very good one." (Translated variously from Ancient Greek, IIRC.)

    The metaphor seems to be pretty widespread, though I don't know whether it is more common on one side of the Atlantic.

    On the issue of animal names, the North American animal called a "moose" is called an "elk" in Europe, while the North American "elk" is a "red deer" in Europe. Also, the NA "caribou" is the same species as the European "reindeer".

    1. The fox vs. hedgehog proverb has come down to us through literary culture, rather than oral. It's been popular in modern times ever since it was used in a famous essay on Tolstoy by Isaiah Berlin in 1953. Woody Allen wrote a character in New York spouting off about which of her friends were hedgehogs and which were foxes because she's an intellectual, not because she'd ever seen either a hedgehog or a fox.

  10. Thanks for all of the useful comments. Forgot to look up the thing I needed to look up at work today (it was a whale of a day, to use an animal expression). So part 2 is still delayed!

  11. In the software-industry you have skunk works which, as an informal term, is the programming which the programmers do when they look like they're working on a company-project but are actually creating a system they enjoy writing. Employers have understandably discouraged such activity, but it's said that some good software has been published after the developers somehow fessed up to what work they had been doing instead of official projects.

    At one software firm where I worked, some of our customers got to know our products so well that they were able to look at the otherwise hidden parts of our code (programming language) and figure out what skunk works our developers were up to. They would then formally ask for such functionality to be offered in the published software, though without blowing our programmers' cover.

    Our people would then magnanimously accede to the request but postpone the release of the skunk works for a decent interval. That way, they hoped, management wouldn't rumble that the code had already been clandestinely written.

    I once set up a company's intranet as skunk works and was suitably thanked for it. It could well be that a lot of the development of the internet has been skunk works, where people controlling magnetic storage and telecommunications-links have informally made spare connection-capacity available for sending around all the whacky web-stuff we know and love.

    There is, I believe, a formal meaning of skunk works which refers to secret, customarily defence-related, projects.

    Given my idiosyncratic (but 100% valid and worthwhile) habit of hyphenating compound-nouns, I have to exercise huge restraint in not hyphenating this expression.

    Different from skunk works software is a beta release. This is software that hasn't been fully tested by the programmers but which they offer to their braver or more foolhardy users so that they can see if they can break it. Some wag once said that it was so-named because beta is Greek for "doesn't work properly".

    Meanwhile, over in the marketing-departments of software (and other) companies, there are people paid to write weasel words, whose role it is to (erm) portray the products and services in the best possible light.

    Of course, software can have bugs in it, which has come in to BrE principally to mean such a programming-error. There is not, as far as I can tell, a widely-used BrE bug meaning a small creature. BTW, bugs are confused with viruses. The former are accidental (or caused by negligence), the latter deliberate. As well as helping spread viruses, the internet is inhabited by spiders and worms. And, of course, the web itself implies arachnid origins.

    Conspiracy-theorists suggest that both web and net are so-called because they are designed to ensnare the innocent and unwary. The ingenuity of one species (spider, man) is used to construct a physical means of trapping animate prey (flies, fish).

    Perhaps an explorer will one day discover a fearsome animal in remotest Peru which the local folk call a /blɔg/.

  12. Bug traditionally in BrE referred only to the bedbug, Cimex lectularius, whereas in AmE it can be any insect or indeed any bacterium.

    There is a story that an American staying in England told his host that he had "killed a bug with a billiard cue", which the Englishman took as a slander on the cleanliness of his house.

  13. Re Pissed as a Newt.

    In traditional cider making in the south west of England, a frog was put into the barrel before it was sealed to finish the drink off. The frog was removed after a few weeks, still alive (indeed, it was suggested that the creatures longevity had been increased by the experience. This is a possible souce for the phrase.

  14. My Mum has an expression for people trying to con someone- "They're no feart the coos get them" but I have never heard it from anyone else even here in Fife, so I'd be astonished if it is known in the US.
    I have no idea why it means what it does either.

  15. There's a fantastic use of “as a newt” in the Yes Minister episode ‘The Economy Drive’, where minister Jim Hacker's advisors are briefing him on the newspaper reports of his appearance at a recent function:

    Jim: Do any of them say anything other than “tired and emotional”?
    Bernard: William Hickey said you were overwrought, Minister.
    Jim: Just “overwrought”, nothing about being drunk?
    Bernard: Just “overwrought”.
    Sir Humphrey: “Overwrought as a newt,” actually.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)