Weird But True

Animal idioms we can’t resist: Why do we say ‘cat got your tongue’ and other popular phrases?

Why do we say “elephant in the room”?

Why do we say “dog and pony show”?

And why do we say “sly as a fox”?

These and many other popular expressions are part of everyday life in the English language — yet most of us don’t really know their interesting origin stories.

Here’s a fun dive into three popular expressions with the common theme of living creatures in their phrases.

How well do you know where these phrases came from — and what they really mean?

3 popular phrases with deeper meanings

‘Happy as a clam’

The phrase ‘happy as a clam’ is commonly used to refer to someone who is elated and extremely pleased about something.

The first recording of the idiom was apparently somewhere between 1830 and 1840, according to Dictionary Online.

‘Happy as a clam’ dates nack to the mid-1800’s. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some theories suggest the phrase was originally longer, as in “happy as a clam at high tide.”

That’s a reference to the notion that clams, once they’re in the rapidly rising waters, are safer than at low tide and can no longer be dug up by fishermen.

Although no origin is confirmed, many people frequently use the expression almost without thinking.

‘I could eat a horse’

There a various theories as to the origin of the idiom ‘I could eat a horse.’ Getty Images

This phrase tends to refer to someone who is extremely hungry, almost to the point of fatigue.

People might say, for example, that they’re “so hungry they could eat a horse” when dinner time is approaching and they haven’t eaten anything at all that day.

There are a few different theories as to this idiom’s origins.

The first is that it came from Tobias George Smollett in 1824, who said, “For I be so hoongry, I could eat a horse behind the saddle.”

Another theory is that the phrase came from author George H. Johnston in his 1946 “Skyscrapers in the Mist,” in which he wrote, “I’m starved. I could eat a horse.”

An alternative to the popular expression of hunger is, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a brick.”

‘Cat got your tongue’

Same trace the origin of ‘cat got your tongue’ to the Middle Ages. Getty Images/iStockphoto

This popular saying is often used in the form of a question when wondering why someone isn’t speaking up about something.

For example, if two people are in an argument and one is not responding, the other might ask, referring to the silence, “Cat got your tongue?”

Some theories as to where this saying originated include this time: During the Middle Ages, people who did not tell the truth were to have their tongues cut off and fed to the king’s cats.

Another theory is that it was originally said by members of the English Royal Navy when sailors didn’t follow orders and were hit with a cat o’ nines tail — also known as a whip.

Others attribute the expression to the first written occurrence in 1881 in the magazine Bayou’s Monthly: “Has the cat got your tongue, as the children say?”