There are many UK expressions and idioms that we use in our daily lives which help us to convey our thoughts and feelings to others. These tend to be things that we’ve heard said by family members since childhood, and we’ll likely pass them on to future generations too.
These idioms may seemingly make no sense at all but their meaning is universally understood. That is if you’ve heard them before. If you’re not a UK native or are a younger person then you may have not actually heard them at all.
Many of these such phrases mention various animals, including dogs, chickens, horses and cows - but their meaning doesn’t relate to creatures at all. Here, we take a look at 15 of the most popular animal-related phrases, what they mean and where they come from.
To learn even more about the language and etymology, check out our dedicated words and meanings page and also articles such as unusual English phrases explained: meanings and origins of 14 idioms such as ‘break a leg’ and why do you say white rabbit on the first of the month?
‘Don’t count your chickens’
Meaning: The long version of this saying is “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, but this is usually shortened. It means that you shouldn’t make plans on the basis of something that hasn’t yet happened.
Origin: The saying originates from one of Aesop’s Fables called The Milkmaid and Her Pail. Aesop was a Greek fabulist and storyteller who lived from 620-564 BC. The story is about a milkmaid who literally decides she’s going to use the money she makes from the milk she has to buy a chicken, so that she can then sell milk and eggs to make even more money. She gets too carried away with her excitement though and ends up spilling all the milk she has, so she has no money at all.
‘To chicken out’
Meaning: To be too scared to do something after previously agreeing to do it. This can be because people have a fear of the unknown, but they are sometimes thought of as being cowardly.
Origin: The idea of a chicken being used to refer to someone being cowardly or scared dates back to the 17th century. William Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder used it in this context in 1600, saying “It did him good to have ill words of a hoddy doddy! a hebber de hoy!, a chicken! a squib."
‘To pig out’
Meaning: To eat too much. Usually over-indulging with food, sometimes on what is known as ‘cheat day’ when someone who has been making an effort to eat healthily allows themselves a day to eat what they like.
Origin: The first records of the phrase date back to the 1970s. It comes from the idea that pigs are gluttonous eaters.
‘I need to see a man about a dog’
Meaning: A phrase used when people want to go somewhere, but don’t want to say where they are going. Usually, this is also because they want to leave somewhere else.
Origin: The expression was first used in a play called The Flying Scud, which was written by Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault in 1866. In the play a character gets themselves out of a difficult situation by saying "Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog."
‘As fit as a butcher’s dog’
Meaning: To be very healthy.
Origin: The phrase “like a butcher’s dog” was first used in A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words written by John Camden Hotten, which was published in 1859. The specific simile “fit as a butcher’s dog” has been traced back to the county of Lancashire in the North West.
‘In the dog house’
Meaning: A person who is in the dog house is said to be in trouble.
Origin: This one comes from the classic J.M. Barrie children’s novel, Peter Pan. In the book, Mr Darling takes himself to go and sit in pet dog Nana’s kennel in the back garden when he blames himself for his children being kidnapped. The first official use of the term came in 1926 in James. J. Finerty’s glossary of the language of criminals, Criminalese, in which being “in the doghouse” is described as being “in disfavour.”
‘Get off your high horse’
Meaning: This expression is used by someone when they are asking a person to stop behaving in a superior way.
Origin: In history, the first references to high horses were literal ones as high horses were large in stature. John Wyclif wrote about them in his Select English Works, which was published around 1380. He wrote: “Ye emperour... made hym & his cardenals ride in reed on hye ors”. At the time, this was a positive reference as people who rode horses were those in power and were actually viewed to be superior. Over time, however, as people became fed up with some powerful figures, the meaning of the phrase gradually changed to have negative connotations.
‘A dark horse’
Meaning: A person who has skills or abilities that are not immediately obvious which tend to surprise others, particularly as they have not previously disclosed them to others.
Origin: The term was first used in the context of horse racing in the sense that a race horse that is unknown to gamblers is difficult to establish betting odds for. It was first used in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel The Young Duke, which was written in 1831.
‘Talk the hind legs off a donkey’
Meaning: The expression is used to describe someone who talks a lot, usually too much.
Origin: According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms a version of this phrase, “talking a horse’s hind leg off”, was already considered an old expression by 1808. It’s not known exactly when or why the phrase changed from “horse” to “donkey”. The earliest use of this version of this saying is said to have been found in The Leeds Times on 24 June 1854.
‘Like a bull in a china shop’
Meaning: A person who acts in this way behaves in a careless manner. The reference to the china shop relates to the fact that although the person is acting in this clumsy way they are actually in a place where they should be more careful because the things around them are delicate, like china.
Origin: The exact origin of this phrase is unclear, but it is said that the first recorded use of it was in Frederick Marryat’s novel, Jacob Faithful, written in 1834. Some people think it may also have its origins in another one of Aesop’s Fables, The Ass and his Masters, about a donkey in a pottery shop, which is obviously a similar analogy.
‘To be a fly on the wall’
Meaning: This means when someone can listen to something or see something without being noticed. It is often used in the context of people saying that they wish they could hear or see something that they aren’t able to.
Origin: The expression first appeared in popular culture in a February 1921 issue of The Oakland Tribune in the United States. The phrase in the article was "I’d just love to be a fly on the wall when the right man comes along”. It then became popular in the UK as well.
Meaning: This phrase is used to describe an item which is of the highest quality, or a person which is held in the highest regard.
Origin: This phrase allegedly came into use during the 1920s when the flappers, young women who had bob haircuts, wore short skirts and listened to jazz music, compared almost anything they thought to be brilliant to a part of an animal. The expression is said to have been coined in the 1920s by American cartoonist Tad Dorgan.
‘To kill two birds with one stone’
Meaning: To complete two goals at once by doing just one task.
Origin: This phrase does have a somewhat literal meaning. It dates back to the 1600s and references people using a slingshot to literally kill birds. It is not actually possible to kill two birds with one stone, of course, and at the time the phrase was used as a criticism for someone taking on too much. Over time, the connotations of the expression changed and it is now actually synonymous with being efficient.
‘It’ll happen when the cows come home’
Meaning: When someone says an event will only happen when the cows come home they mean that it will take an extremely long time for it to happen, possibly even that it will never happen.
Origin: The phrase is said to have been used since the 16th century and could have originated in the Scottish Highlands, where cows were allowed to graze for months and then go home at an undefined time, usually at a very slow and steady pace.
‘Two shakes of a lamb’s tail’
Meaning: This phrase is used to express that something will be done very quickly.
Origin: The earliest known use of the expression in written use was in Ingoldsby Legends by Richard Barham, written in 1840. It is not known exactly where the phrase first came from.