The Origins of 11 Funny Animal-Related Sayings

There’s a reason clams are so happy.

It’s a flying pig.
It’s a flying pig. / Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Chances are, you’ve uttered an animal-related saying recently—did you go “chew the cud” with a pal? Wonder what it would like to be “a fly on the wall”? Perhaps you went and “looked a gift horse in the mouth”?—but you still might not know where such freely used adages came from. A “doggie bag” might sound obvious, and clams sure look happy enough to belie their own saying, but the origins of various animal-related sayings are often more complicated (and fun) than you’d expect.

Doggie Bag

Although the term doggie bag might sound relatively self-explanatory—it’s leftovers for your pet—the saying actually has a surprisingly interesting history. During World War II, food was scarce for everyone (including pets), but that didn’t help curb restaurant wastefulness; packaging up leftovers (regardless of who they were for) wasn’t yet standard practice. Eventually, a group of San Francisco cafes began to offer “Pet Pakits” to their diners in order to zip their scraps home to the furry ones. The practice soon spread around the country, ensuring that restaurant waste went down and the spread of doggie bags went way up.

When Pigs Fly

Various iterations of sayings about piggies flying have existed for centuries. It’s believed that the first use of a flying pig comment (in appropriate sassy and disbelieving context) appeared in John Withals’s 1616 English-Latin dictionary, A Shorte Dictonarie for Yonge Begynners. The dictionary included a list of proverbs, which included “pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward.”

Busy As a Bee

Trees blossomed early in Turkiye's Edirne
Those bees sure are busy! / Anadolu/GettyImages

It was Geoffrey Chaucer who gave us this particular saying. The first known use of a busy bee adage appeared in his Canterbury Tales. In “The Squire’s Tale,” a passage reads: “Lo, suche sleightes and subtilitees/
In wommen be; for ay as busy as bees/
Be thay us seely men for to desceyve,/
And from a soth ever a lie thay weyve.
/And by this Marchaundes tale it proveth wel.” 

Wild Goose Chase

Although William Shakespeare is believed to be the first author to use the phrase wild goose chase (it appears in Romeo & Juliet), his version of such a chase referred to a type of horse race that was popular during his time. It wasn’t until centuries later when it appeared in its current form, already a part of the vernacular, as shared in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811. By then, it had been defined as “a tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy."

As Happy as a Clam

The first mention of seemingly smiling clams was published in 1833, in James Hall’s The Harpe’s Head: A Legend of Kentucky: “It never occurred to him to be discontented ... He was as happy as a clam.” But although Hall’s mention appears to be the first on record, the actual saying is “as happy as a clam at high water,” reflecting the one time of day that clams and their ilk don’t have to worry about land-loving predators. That saying popped up in an 1844 edition of The Adams Sentinel, a Pennsylvania newspaper, and is still considered to be the appropriate version to use when quoting the adage.

Black Sheep

Black animals have long been viewed as bad omens, and although black cats seems to have gotten the bulk of in-person fears, sheep have been saddled with the most popular saying regarding their fur pigmentation. It’s unclear why this happened—some sources blame an unchecked version of a 1535 Bible (which muddled the story of Jacob and his flock of animals, making it sound as if black sheep were the ones cast out, which isn’t true to the original text), but a clearer version pops up in Thomas Shepard’s 1640 work, The Sincere Convert. Shepard wrote, “cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100 places.” Not very nice.

Cat Got Your Tongue?

Research Center Breeds Turkey's Famous Van Cat
No one‘s got this cat’s tongue. / Chris McGrath/GettyImages

Theories abound about where this adage—a snappy remark made to a silent person—came from, but most of them are dubious at best. According to The Phrase Finder, “it isn't derived as a reference to the cat o’ nine tails or people’s tongues being fed to cats in ancient Egypt. Both of these have been suggested and there’s no shred of evidence to support either of them.” It was seen in print as early as 1859, and it appeared in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine in 1881, in a single line that read: “Has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?”

In the Doghouse

It’s long been believed that the term in the doghouse first appeared in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan—after all, beloved father Mr. Darling sends himself to the dog’s house as a personal penance for letting his kids be temporarily stolen by their high-flying new pal—but the saying was around much earlier. An actual definition of the term (“in dog house, in disfavor”) appeared in J.J. Finerty’s 1926 book Criminalese, a book meant to share “the language of criminals.”

Red Herring

This one is actually fairly complicated. Although it’s easy enough to locate the first use of red herring in a text—by John Heywood in 1546, as part of a glossary of proverbs he compiled—it’s less obvious how the saying developed its meaning (“something misleading”). Although some people believe it springs from the old use of fish to throw off the scent of hunting dogs, most believe we owe the tricky saying to an actual trick.

The story goes that in 1672, British clergyman Jasper Mayne died, leaving behind a trunk for one of his servants. When the servant popped it open expecting something good, he discovered that it was filled with herring. Although that herring was salted, later reports referred to it as being red, a mistake on top of some misdirection.

But other etymologists trace the story to a 19th-century article in the Weekly Political Register criticizing the British press for false reporting on Napoleon's defeat, taking their attention off of domestic issues. To illustrate the story, the journalist, William Cobbett, invented a tale about a young boy dragging a red herring to distract hunting dogs. Despite being fictional, it might be the origin of the hunt myth.

Swan Song

Mute Swan Cygnets at Abbotsbury Swannery
Swans don’t actually sing. / Finnbarr Webster/GettyImages

The idea that swans “sing” just before they die has been disproven time and time again, although that hasn’t stopped the spread of this saying. In fact, Pliny the Elder included a mention of the falsehood-rooted saying in his A Natural History, all the way back in 77 CE. Still, the swan song saying and ideation pops up in the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Chaucer, proving that no one can avoid a poetic vision, even if it’s false.

The Bee’s Knees

Tempted to dismiss this one as “flapper talk”? You’re not the only one. Although the bee’s knees has been around since the 18th century, when it meant “a type of something small or insignificant,” it was only adopted into its current use (as “something cool”) during the Roaring Twenties. Even in a 1922 newspaper article in Ohio’s The Newark Advocate that sought to explain various new wave terms, the piece declared “that’s flapper talk,” just another saying appropriated by the young and hip.

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A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.