There’s a little mouse in your muscle! | Sunday Observer

There’s a little mouse in your muscle!

Animals may be having their own language to communicate among themselves, but we have no way of communicating with them effectively. However, some members of the animal world have unwittingly enriched the English language. This is one reason why we should be more considerate about our dumb friends.

Animals lurk everywhere in English. Aesop’s fables, Panchathantra and many other children’s stories give prominence to animals. In fact, we identify certain animals for their qualities. The lion is brave and is the uncrowned king of all animals. The tiger is ferocious while the fox is a cunning fellow. The rabbit and the deer are timid and innocent creatures. We consider the dog as a faithful companion.

We call a brief snooze a catnap. Some of your books are dog-eared. Sometimes, we describe a fellow worker as a snake in the grass. If you describe someone as an eager beaver, you mean they are very enthusiastic about work or anxious to please other people. This is because beavers are often associated with hard work, as they spend a lot of time building shelters and dams out of mud and wood. During election times we sometimes back the wrong horse, meaning we support the wrong person. Similarly, we describe someone as a dark horse when you know very little about them, although they may have recently had success or may be about to have success.

Film buff

You call someone a buff when you find them very interested in a particular subject or activity and know a lot about it. So we have film buffs and opera buffs. If you find someone in the buff, you mean they are not wearing any clothes. As a verb, ‘buff’ means to polish something with a soft cloth. Some people go to the gym to buff up their body. Buff comes from the obsolete English word ‘buffe’ derived from the French word for buffalo. When buffaloes were abundant in the 19th century, their hide was a popular material for making coats. New York firefighters once wore buffalo-skin coats.

Sometimes, we are surrounded by bombastic people. The word has nothing to do with bombs and it does not mean loud, booming or bomb-like. Such people are simply empty, inflated and unsubstantial. The word is derived from ‘bombyx’, the ancient Greek word for silkworm. From this arose an old French word ‘bombace’ which meant another type of soft cotton padding. In English, the word ‘bombastic’ proved to be a handy synonym for overly padded, pretentious speech.

We are quite familiar with the word ‘asparagus’ which is a plant whose succulent young shoots are eaten as a delicacy. Asparagus was popularly known as ‘sparrow grass’ as if eaten by or otherwise favoured by sparrows. However, the word evolved as a learned name for what was rather a delicacy, not just a grass for sparrows.

If you are a music buff, you will know the meaning of ‘catgut’. It is a cord made from the dried intestines of an animal and used for stringed instruments. Catgut is indeed made from ‘gut’, but certainly not that of a cat.

The usual animal source is the sheep, although the gut of horses and donkeys has been used. The origin of ‘cat’ is something of a mystery. It is tempting to think that there may even have been a reference to ‘caterwauling’ from the sounds produced on violin strings by amateur players.

Most of us erroneously believe that the centipede has 100 legs. Of course, it has lots of legs. Some centipedes have 100 legs, but most do not. The number of legs can vary from 15 pairs of legs to 190. The word ‘cent’ is not exactly 100 but simply ‘a large number.’ A former name for the centipede in English was ‘forty-legs.’

We use the adjective ‘chubby’ for someone who is plump. We also see ‘chub-cheeked’ and ‘cub-faced’ boys and girls. The origin of the word is quite interesting. It comes from the European ‘chub’, a dusky green, white-bellied river fish notable for its obese appearance. English speakers have been using the word since the 17th century.


When we see someone who avoids danger or difficulty, we call him a ‘coward.’ The origin of the word can be traced to old French ‘coue’ (modern ‘queue’) meaning ‘tail’. A coward is like a dog that runs away with its tail between its legs. If the comparison with a dog slinking away is not acceptable, there may well have been an influence from another animal ‘coart’, which was an old French word for ‘hare.’ Hares are often cowardly, timid creatures.

Those who are glued to the small screen every morning will know what ‘zodiac’ means. The signs of the zodiac are represented by animals.

Taurus the Bull, for instance, Scorpio the Scorpion, and Leo the Lion are familiar signs of the zodiac. ‘Zion’ was the Greek word for ‘an animal.’ From it was formed ‘zoion’ which originally meant ‘a small animal.’

Later it came to be used for ‘a carved figure of an animal.’The zodiac was visualized as a ‘circle of figures’ (of animals and mythical people). It was originally known as ‘zoidiakos kuklos’, a circle of curved animals and from this we get the word ‘zodiac.’

If you are very popular among the people, you can win an election hands down. ‘Hands down’ means unconditionally or easily.

Surprisingly, the expression comes down from the world of horse racing. A hands-down victory occurs when a jockey’s win is so assured that he drops his hands and relaxes his grip on the reins when nearing the finish line.

Hackneyed phrases

Teachers instruct their students not to use hackneyed phrases and ideas when they write essays. Such phrases and ideas are no longer interesting.

The word comes from ‘hackney’ meaning ‘to use a horse for general purposes’ and later ‘to make something uninteresting or ordinary by using it too much. For instance, ‘We beg to inform you …’ is a hackneyed phrase found in official letters. Sometimes, we attend cocktail parties where they serve a mixed drink with a spirit base.

The name obviously suggests ‘a cock’s tail’, but it has been disputed. An earlier meaning of ‘cock-tail’ was ‘horse with a docked tail.’

The ancient Romans referred to a muscle as ‘musculus’ meaning ‘a little mouse.’ The twitching muscle under the skin resembles a mouse under a blanket. English speakers used the word ‘mouse’ as a synonym for ‘muscle.’

At airports, banks and post offices we are sometimes compelled to stand in a queue which is a line of people waiting for a certain purpose.

The word ‘queue’ is derived from the Latin ‘cauda’ meaning tail. However, English speakers borrowed the word ‘queue’ from the French ‘queue’ which also means ‘tail.’

Dolphin’s nose

The ancient Greeks called a certain flower ‘Delphinium’ because the nectar producing part of the flower looked like a dolphin’s nose. They called it ‘delphinion’. Its Latinized form ‘delphinium’ now acts as the flower’s scientific name.

When you meet a long-lost friend you say, “I haven’t seen you for donkey’s years.” Does it mean that donkeys live long? Certainly not, the phrase originated as a pun on ‘donkey’s ears’ which of course are fairly long.

Sometimes, you may not be familiar with the word ‘kibitz’ which means ‘to look on, offer meddlesome advice or make wisecracks.’ The word is derived from the German verb ‘kiebitzen’ which means ‘to look on, especially, in an annoying way, while others are playing cards. Interestingly, the German word ‘kiebitz’ was the name of a little bird which is noisily imitative.

If you happen to visit China, you might be served with a cup of ‘Oolong’, a strong dark tea.

The beastly name is derived from the Chinese word ‘wulong’ meaning ‘black dragon.’

We are indebted to animals for enriching the language, but most of us are not grateful to them.

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