Week of June 14, 2020

Beasts of Learnin’


We say that someone showing insincere grief or remorse sheds “crocodile tears.” This term traces back to a questionable report from a 14th century book asserting that crocodiles cry after eating their prey, including humans. Shakespeare and many others bought into the idea of these weeping reptiles. Crocodiles eat in the water, making the observation of extra eye moisture difficult to this day, however, tearing while eating has been observed in some close reptile relatives of crocodiles, such as caimans and alligators.


In the annual ritual of Yom Kippur, ancient Israelite priests symbolically transferred the sins of their people onto the head of a goat. The animal was then driven into the wilderness or killed, hence the term “scapegoat” for an innocent who bears the blame of others.


There are many versions of the old fable – including one from Aesop – in which a lion and other animals enjoy a successful hunt together only to see the lion take “the lion’s share” of the kill. In all variants, the lion claims most or all of the meal, and in one version even kills a hunting companion, too. The usual lesson of these tales is to be cautious when partnering with those more powerful.


Someone living or eating “high on the hog” is flaunting wealth or status because the most expensive cuts of pork are said to come from the animals’ back and upper legs. By contrast, poorer folk are more likely to buy the belly, feet, and other parts of the animal.


Since cows are known to take their sweet time in doing nearly everything, anything that will continue “until the cows come home” will likely take a while.


The origin of the term “to let the cat out of the bag” to reveal a secret is a more debated idiom, with at least two more popular origin theories. In one, the term refers to an old livestock swindle where a jostling bag claimed to contain one or more piglets for sale was revealed to contain a feline instead. The other involves the unsheathing of the brutal “cat ‘o nine tails” whip for maritime punishment in the bygone days of the British Royal Navy, with the sailor exposing the sins of his shipmate being the one to “let the cat out of the bag.”


Once established, the social hierarchy of a chicken flock remains fixed, and the more dominant birds keep lower rankers aware of their place with painful pecks. This is the origin of the term “pecking order.”