local fauna expressions (part two)

Previously on SbaCL: I started a discussion of expressions that include names of animals that are special because both the expressions and the animals mentioned in them are local to either BrE or AmE. The discussion started with the AmE raccoon eyes and (slightly cheating) BrE pissed as a newt. While I was having a hard time coming up with more related to British (and not American) animals, Swedish Teacher's Beau yesterday suggested flat as a hedgehog, which works. The thing to understand here is that hedgehogs are very often roadkill (orig. & chiefly AmE). There are only a few examples of this expression on the net and a couple more of flat as a steam-roll(er)ed hedgehog:
The sign said WATCH OUT THIS HOUSE COULD FALL DOWN AND KNOCK YOU FLAT AS A STEAMROLLED HEDGEHOG. --Story by a (BrE) pupil/(AmE) student at Abernethy Primary School
I have to make the point that the McFly version is as flat as a hedgehog on the M1! --'Michael' on Ramair 1350am Forum
But still, I can think of more relating to American animals, possibly because there are more American-and-not-British animals to name.

The groundhog, aka woodchuck, has a day named after it, Groundhog Day, which will be a familiar phrase from the 1993 Bill Murray/Andie McDowell film/movie. The other week, I had to disabuse a friend of the notion that the observation of Groundhog Day and the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil were not products of a screenwriter's imagination, but real cultural treasures of the United States. The superstition is that on the second of February, groundhogs awake from their hibernation and pop their heads out of their burrows. If the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter (so he pops back into the burrow), otherwise, spring will come early. The OED records another groundhog expression: a groundhog case--'a desperate or urgent affair'. Thisis mostly a regional term, chiefly used in the southern Midlands and South, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English. Here's a current use of the term:
Groundhog Case A term used by CS professors to describe a student hopelessly below the passing grade mark that absolutely needs to complete the course for a variety of reasons (graduation, marriage, work, MOM, etc...) --Software Engineering Terms glossary, West Virginia University Insititute of Technology
As for woodchucks, there's the tongue-twister How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

On to the skunks! There's the verb to skunk, meaning either 'to defeat, to prevent from scoring' as in (1) or 'to cheat (by not paying)'. These are listed in the OED as originally and chiefly American.
I've played games where I 'skunk' the opponent, winning without any meaningful response, and it's ego-building, but not nearly as fun. --emlprime on Digg
But there's another verb sense of skunk that the dictionaries don't record: 'to be sprayed by a skunk'. If one Googles "got skunked", one finds lots of examples of that sense:
Our dog recently got skunked for the 2nd time in 5 months. --from Berkeley Parents Network advice forum
Another skunk-derived expression is the adjective skunky, meaning 'to smell/taste bad, in a skunk-like way'. This is not completely foreign to BrE (OED doesn't mark it as AmE), but it's not quite as, um, pungent here as one can't be expected here to know what a skunk smells like--but there are few mainland Americans who've escaped this unpleasant bit of education.

To play possum is listed in the OED as 'orig. U.S.', but again, it's one I've had to explain when I've used the phrase in the UK. It means 'to play dead; to feign injury/illness; to pretend to be asleep'. This follows from the fact that (o)possums are thought to play dead in order to trick their predators--in fact, what they do is pass out, but it has the same effect.

Goodness knows, there are probably other local fauna expressions I'm missing. I've speciali{s/z}ed here on a certain size of animal, it seems. Feel free to add other examples in the comments.


  1. Doesn't Groundhog Day derive from Candlemas day? German custom looked for a badger seeing its shadow -- a sunny Candlemas predicted six more weeks of winter.

  2. "squirrel away" something?
    "duck's tail/bum hairdo"?
    "shag(ged)" as in tired, worn out or, ahem, screwed?

    But these, AFAIK, aren't likely to have BrE/AmE variants, so maybe they don't count.

    I've been trying to think of some AusE terms.

    You can call someone a galah - dopey, stupid in an endearing sort of way. Is that an AmE turkey?

  3. I suppose you know that perhaps the most common use of 'skunk' in Britain these days has nothing to do with fauna and more to do with flora (of the illegal kind)...?

    And even if it's a bit off topic, murray's comment does have me wondering if there is an AmE equivalent of 'shagging', with all its teenage/common as muck connotations.

  4. Galah? No, they only use that on Home and Away and is therefore specifically designed for the British audience (like Foster's).
    I'd use 'turkey' more often that 'galah' to be honest, but that could be due to the ubiquity of American culture in Australia. Sigh
    On expression comes to mind in AusE, although it's both figurative and literal at the same time. Flat out like a lizard drinking refers to being 'flat out' as in 'busy'.
    If anyone's lived in the NT or north QLD in recent years, they might agree that flat as a cane toad is as appropriate as the Hedgehog.

  5. I think that "haring off" is unlikely in AmE. If I understand British correspondents correctly, this seems to connote somewhat random action. In AmE, one might "rabbit off" (run away, often in fear), which doesn't seem to have the same connotations.

    Also, a quick Google search seems to indicate that in BrE one might "rabbit on". I've not heard this one in the wild, so to speak, but from context it seems to mean something like "excessive volubility".

  6. Thanks for all the additions. Amta's right about the Candlemas connection. As for the other expressions, I didn't do squirrels or ducks because they're found in both countries--even if the expressions aren't. Was going for both ways. But I should be ashamed of missing turkey.

    I knew the Australians would have more to add!

  7. Oh, and Sharon, on the flora use of skunk--I didn't include that because it's used in both dialects.

    There isn't a good AmE word for shagging. But then we have a nice set of baseball metaphors that BrE doesn't have! It's (BrE) swings and roundabouts.

    Rabbit on is a great BrE expession (though not a strictly British animal), and haring off is another good example. People don't talk about hares so much in AmE.

  8. The BrE expression rabbit or rabbit on is rhyming slang for talk (rabbit and pork).

    All this rabbiting on about rabbits prompts me to mention a saying which is both a local fauna expression and a metaphor for sexual activity. Whether this phrase is known in AmE, and what it means if it is, I have no idea; but there is an interesting comparison between BrE and French here.

    To a BrE speaker, the expression to f... like a rabbit means to do it frequently, whereas to those of the Francophone persuasion, the equivalent expression in French means to do it in a matter of seconds from start to finish.

    Just thought I'd mention that.

  9. AmE is like BrE (and unlike French) in that regard. We can also say f... like bunnies

    On that topic, I'd recommend a song by the Magnetic Fields called 'Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits'. They lyrics are here.

  10. In the U.S., sometimes people will refer to "skunked" beer -- beer that has been left in bright lights or in the sun.


    Great blog, always fun to read! :)

  11. I'd consider 'skunked beer' to be home brew that had been late-hopped with a big bag o' weed.

    It has happened!

  12. I really enjoy your blog; it's fascinating to read the British expressions.

    Here are some from Texas:

    "rolled/curled up like an armadillo": When threatened, they often curl up into a little armored ball.
    "fast as a roadrunner": They really do skitter across the highways; unlike armadillos, you don't see them often as roadkill.

    And in Britain, do they say someone looks "like a deer (caught) in headlights"?

  13. How about "to have a tiger by the tail"? It's used in AmE to describe a tricky situation that can't be escaped easily. Is that used elsewhere also?
    We also have "taking the bull by the horns."

  14. Bill--I have found skunked/skunky beer/wine on UK websites too--but I imagine it's primarily used by beer/wine connoisseurs here.

    Dan--thanks for the Texan animals. In the UK, one does hear like a deer (caught) in headlights, but more common is like rabbit (caught) in headlights. U.N.K.L.E. had a song called 'Rabbit in Your Headlights' (nearly 10 years ago now--my god, I am old), with a disturbing/moving video.

    Anonymous, I'm afraid you've missed the point! We're looking for animals that are native to these countries (preferably one and not the other). We'll get into exotic animals and livestock another day!

  15. Given that male deer in the US tend to be referred to as "bucks", rather than "stags" (unless I've misunderstood something here - not lived in the US for too long) does the phrase "stag night/party" qualify?

  16. Hi Lynne,
    Thought I'd check out your blog, there's some really interesting things on here. My favourite local fauna expression is the australian 'mad as a cut snake' when talking about someone being very angry.

  17. We do say stag in the US--at least, I've heard the term in the deery (and huntery) part of the country that I'm from, the_sybil. But I see in the American Heritage that stag is particularly applied to the red deer--which is what you find in the UK, rather than the white-tail more commonly found in the US. So you're probably right that buck is more common. That makes stag party a funny term, in that it's used in the US although the animal is found in the UK.

    Nice to see you here, Jo!

  18. Oops! Having always heard the term "bachelor party" rather than "stag party" here, I'd assumed that the latter wasn't used in the US. The equivalent expression "Hen party" (AmE = bachelorette party) doesn't seem to be understood at all.

  19. Stag party is most definitely found in AmE, but you're right about hen night. I discussed it here.

  20. Hi - great blog. Maybe one more for the English side of things is the verb 'to badger', meaning to constantly hassle someone over a matter, ie 'She keeps badgering me to mow the lawn'. Originally coined from the practice of badger baiting, which involved the teasing and harrying of badgers for sport or pleasure.

  21. We badger people in the US too, even though we haven't got the British badger. (I did find that there is an American badger that lives in the desert, but I don't think anybody's ever heard of it.)

    A really bad example of something is a turkey.

  22. The University of Wisconsin mascot is the badger. So, they're not unknown, and, yes, the phrase is used.

    I think someone raised turkey in the part 1 comments too. Fine example.

  23. The red deer is in fact found in North America, but not by that name: it is called the elk, or sometimes the wapiti. (Technically they may or may not be separate species.) The red deer and the roe deer are the only two deer native to Great Britain -- all the others are imports from the Continent in historic times.

    The European elk, on the other hand, is the North American moose.

  24. Among Australian animal terms of note, there's "flying fox" in the sense of AmE "zip line", of which here is a photograph of one at my parents' place:
    and then how about AuE "spider", which is the same as AmE "float" (i.e. what you get by pouring cola or other soft drink over ice cream in a glass).

    A popular Australian political joke in the eighties (when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and Andrew Peacock was leader of the Opposition) was Q: "Why is Parliament House like an avery?" A: "Because there's a Hawke, a Peacock, and a bunch of galahs".

    Incidentally, our possums are much better than yours...

  25. Late again, but what about "ferret(ing) out?" As in mthe following headline, "Energy detectives ferret out simple, power-saving fixes"

    Is that something used in BrE or just here in the US?

  26. Ferrets aren't particular to America, nor is the phrase ferret out. First OED example of this is from 1607.

  27. A few AmE terms to add:

    'to buffalo,' in the sense of to confuse. This is not often used, even in AmE, but I lived near Buffalo, NY for a while, where the meaning was better known. There's even a wikipedia article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_buffalo_Buffalo_buffalo

    'chipmunk cheeks,' when your cheeks bulge out like a chipmunk's full of seeds.

    'to skunk' - you've already mentioned the general meaning of 'to skunk as in 'to defeat.' I just wanted to add that in cribbage it has the specific meaning of 'to beat by 31-60 points.' If you beat your opponent by 61 point so or more, you've double skunked him.


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