Our Fine-Feathered and Four-Legged Verbs

Throughout human history, humans have had to interact at some level with animals, whether for food sources, companionship, study, repulsion, or fascination. Given the close coexistence of humans and animals, it is not surprising that words for animals have entered natural languages. For instance, Portuguese speakers, at least in Brazil, may refer to objects of affection as "gatinho" or "gatinha" (little cat). French speakers may call twilight the period "entre chien et loup" (between the dog and the wolf).

Animal metaphors abound in English, including such adjectives as "catty" and "foxy." Verbs represent one part of speech that is particularly rich in animal inspiration. The verb "lionize" ("to treat as a celebrity") suggests the idea that lions are deserving of attention, perhaps very fitting for the King of the Jungle.

Animal names that are used directly as verbs are plentiful in English. Among a few are "to chicken out" (to lose courage, suggesting that chickens are cowardly," "to fox" (or "to outfox") (to trick someone, suggesting that foxes are wily), "to ape" (to imitate, suggesting that apes are frequent mimics), and "to ram" (to hit something hard, suggesting the a ram's combative motion with its horns).

An extensive, but probably not exhaustive, list of animals used as verbs appears here.

In some cases, such as "to tomcat" (to be promiscuous, used of men) the link between the verb and the animal seems self-explanatory. In other cases, the link appears to be coincidental, such as as "to yak" or "to swallow." I doubt that yaks are notorious chatters or that swallows have exceptionally talented throats.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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