Photo by Tischman Pet Photography, NY; Ricky and Lucy are available for adoption*
My son is 6 years old, and I am smitten with him. What do I cherish most? 'Tis a good question. Is it his super hero masquerades, his lengthy sword fights with imaginary friends, or his determination to ascend the staircase backwards? I'd be hard-pressed to pick one.
The other day, clad in his bright-orange tool belt, he determinedly helped me scope out our turn-of-the-century home (turn of the last century, that is) for creaky floorboards and loose hinges.
Spotting a doorknob and a cabinet drawer in need of his screwdriver, I suggested he "kill two birds with one stone" by using one tool to fix two problems.
My son's face went pale. He has many boyhood fetishes, but ruthlessness is not among them.
"I don't want to kill birds, Mommy."
I offered a chirpy explanation of idioms and the foolishness of the English language. He did not grasp it.
"Why would you ever kill a bird with a stone?"
I tried to salvage my reputation. "Mommy would never kill a bird..." but after casting a sideward glance, he pulled out his tool and moved on.
Idioms, aka proverbs, have long infiltrated and colored our language, often confusing children and foreigners alike. But what of them? Many, still lodged in the agricultural age, are outdated and in need of some modernization. Here are a few popular phrases that belong to a different era.
• Don't count your chickens before they hatch. When is the last time you saw a live chicken?
• Hold your horses! Great advice for a rancher but hard to envision a city dweller bracing a herd.
• A wild goose chase. The vision seems comical, but not too realistic.
As a parent and dog trainer I'm programmed to look at life from another's perspective, and this time my impulses took a refreshing turn. With idiom dictionaries in hand, I scrolled through and took a look at the origin and meanings of idioms that evolved from our relationship with dogs and cats. It's been a delightful romp!
Like a dog with two tails
Favorite. Idiom. Ever. This one connotes a happy dog, not a mean, frustrated or barking one. I like the visual. A dog with two tails? Very, very joyful indeed.
Clean as a hound's tooth
Until very recently, dogs lived outdoors and chewed bones constantly. Their teeth sparkled -- so much so that this phrase became a favorite of multiple presidents (including Eisenhower and Nixon). It was good to be as honest or clean as a hound's tooth!
A whipped hound doesn't hunt
I learned this one from my brother who claimed it was a southern proverb. Though I've found no trace of it, as a positive reinforcement junkie the phrase is dear to my heart. It sends a warning to pet owners, spouses and parents alike. If you whip the hound he'll be too busy looking back at you in fear to do any inspiring or cooperative.
Bark is worse than your bite
Okay, this one has my goat! Dogs, like people, have a good reason for vocalizing and need to be provoked to rise to anger. I despise idioms that cast my favorite species in a bad light. It's a pet peeve.
This term arrived around the turn of the 20th century, or so it's recorded, to mean a personal aggravation that may or may not bother someone else. My personal pet peeves are sayings or experiences that cast our domestic animals in a bad light, people who don't clean up after their dogs, and retractable leashes on the sidewalks. Yours?
Who'll bell the cat
It took me a minute to wrap my thinking around this phrase, although it has some modern relevance -- especially in homes where cats and birds coexist! The saying originally traced back to a fable about mice who devised a clever plan to outsmart their catty predators by tying a bell around the cats' neck. The only problem was which mouse would "bell the cat." Clearly only a dauntless do-gooder could rise to the challenge.
Let the cat out of the bag
I love cats -- we have three living in our midst. This idiom evokes imagery involving a Sherpa bag, a yearly veterinary checkup, and three confused kitties. Confinement and cats don't mesh. To sum it up, if you let a cat out of the bag, it's not going back in anytime soon. Swap "cat" for "coveted information," and you get the picture.
Promise me you won't Google this one. The photos will make you cry. Personally, I work incredibly hard to keep my family in good health, no matter what the species. Even the lizard gets a daily walk. As a daily expression, this connotes someone who is well-off and not afraid to show it. To me, the person -- or the cat -- is just plain sad.
Cat got your tongue
I can envision the perplexing look my son would give me for this one. "Why would a cat have my tongue, Mommy?" Actually, there is no record of why a cat was chosen for this particular phrase, though its first recorded mention was in the novel Bob Hardwick (Henry Howard Harper, 1911). This one is used to question someone who keeps to themselves or is silent and is used as either cloaked criticism or an invitation to open up.
Keep a dog and bark yourself
I had no idea what this meant when I read it, but I can relate to it 110 percent. Envision it. Why would you bark -- especially if you had a dog in the house? Crazy, right? Digging for a deeper meaning, I discovered that this refers to persons like myself who hire others to help with a certain task then continue to do the task themselves! Crazy, right? Right!
Have we not outlawed dog fighting in this country? I think this idiom has outstayed its welcome or met its day. In other words... it's done!
Please add your favorites to the list. I'd love to see someone more lyrical than I revise some age-old favorites to give them a more modern spin.
• Why hire a housekeeper and dust yourself!
• It's a network warzone out there.
• Hold onto your thumbs a minute!
* These young Papillon mixes are available for adoption from Adopt-a Dog shelter in Armonk, NY.