The stock market’s gyrations these last months have led to speculation about whether the market will rally and become a “bullish” market, or else retreat into a “bearish” market. I got thinking about how American culture, any culture, uses animal metaphors. Such metaphoric communication is called zoomorphism, the tendency to describe human activities and behaviors in terms of the behavior of animals. When animals are paired and then contrasted in descriptions, we gain insights into what is being described metaphorically.
Bears and bulls
Bears hibernate in the cold months of the year; i.e., they retreat into caves and lairs to sleep. And while a mama bear with her cub can charge a summer hiker who stumbles across one in the mountains, a bear usually runs away when disturbed.
Bulls, as we know from viewing a rodeo or a bullfight, seem wired to attack. A “bully” at school is a stronger child who makes fun of or physically attacks weaker children. None of us likes a bully. However, anyone with money invested in the stock market hopes for prices to charge ahead. To that end, Merrill Lynch uses a bull for its logo, and visitors to the Shanghai stock will see five golden bulls at the entrance.
Hawks and Doves
Hawks are predator birds, skilled hunters with keen eyesight. One often sees a hawk perched on a fence post or tree limb, ready to swoop down on an unsuspecting prey. Used metaphorically, hawks are those individuals who advocate an aggressive foreign policy based on strong military power, and who see war as a logical response.
Doves, on the other hand, value peace and try to resolve international conflicts without the threat of force. A dove is a bird with a heavy body, small head, short legs, and long pointed wings. A dove has a soft “cooing” sound. Some birds in the dove family, like pigeons, are kept as pets. Doves appear in art as peaceful birds in idyllic scenes.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Aesop, an ancient Greek write (620-564 BCE) is said to have written many fables, stories with a moral teaching to them. Many of his stories use animals that speak and have human characteristics. One of his most famous stories is that of The Tortoise and the Hare.
The story concerns a hare (a rabbit) who challenges a slow-moving tortoise to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through the course. When he awakes, however, he finds that the tortoise, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him and won the race. Today people might describe a person (or themselves) as a tortoise, a seemingly mild criticism but with a subtle message of a persistent person who wins out in the end.
Cat and Mouse
“Cat and mouse” is an old English idiom that means an action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Sometimes the idiom “cat and mouse game” implies that the contest is never-ending, as in a battle. If you’ve ever observed a cat chase a mouse, you’ll know that often the cat can’t quite capture the mouse, who is weaker but smart. Sometimes a cat appears to "play" with the mouse by releasing it after capture, only to pounce on it later.
In all of the examples above, commonly recognized animal characteristics are used to describe human behavior. At times English language application of zoomorphism is confusing. A person can be described as a “lazy dog.” However he or she can also “work like a dog,” meaning to work hard. Some animals have such a variety of observed behaviors that their metaphorical usage in English is mixed, and therefore confusing for people of other cultures.
Many of you reading this blog are from non-English cultures. What are some of the animals that have appeared in idiomatic phrases and descriptions in your language?
I welcome comments, or questions about other zoomorphic pairs used in English communication.