TESOL/Animal idioms

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"I'd like to have been a fly on the wall when your boss heard he'd been fired."

By using concealed cameras, fly on the wall television programmes or films show people doing what they normally do every day. Big Brother is a good example of this type of reality TV programme. We use the expression "fly on the wall" because if a fly settles on your wall at home, you do not normally notice it.

We use many animal idioms in English. Here are a selection of those involving both larger and smaller animals. How many of these do you know?

Larger mammals[edit]

Idiom Example Definition
a bull / bear market The bull market of the Eighties and Nineties is unlikely to return for some time. situation where price of shares on the stock market are rising (bear market: prices falling)
take the bull by the horns I decided to take the bull by the horns and tell him he was upsetting Jane. face up to problem instead of avoiding
do the donkey work If you tell him to take it easy, he'll sit back and let you do all the donkey work. manual labour or jobs that are routine or least important
flog a dead horse Invest in shares and the chances are you'll be flogging a dead horse. waste time on something unlikely to be successful (flog = whip)
the lion's share The lion's share of her money - over 80% - went to her nephews and nieces. the majority
a stag night I'm having my stag night on the same day as my Sue is having her hen night. a social/drinking evening for groom's male friends prior to wedding (hen night = social/drinking evening for bride's female friends)
could eat a horse I skipped breakfast so now I could eat a horse. be very hungry
"I could eat a horse."

Smaller mammals[edit]

Idiom Example Definition
keep the wolf from the door If you can't get a better job, you won't be able to keep the wolf from the door. earn enough to buy food and other essentials
dog tired He was dog tired - out on call all night and then took surgery in the morning. very tired
let sleeping dogs lie She doesn't need to know he's been unfaithful. Let sleeping dogs lie. not interfere; not mention something that could cause trouble
let the cat out of the bag He couldn't keep it secret, let the cat out of the bag and told her everything. reveal a secret
cat nap I like to cat nap for half an hour after lunch. A short sleep
smell a rat They intended to trick him but they were always larking about and he smelt a rat. sense that something is wrong (lark about: behave in playful, childish way)

Birds and fish[edit]

Idiom Example Definition
a wild goose chase I didn't know her flight number so trying to find Amy at Heathrow was a bit of a wild goose chase. a search that has no chance of success
up with the lark We'll have to be up with the lark tomorrow - the flight leaves at seven thirty. awake early
chicken out They are short of funds so I think they're going to chicken out of this project. stop participating in something which is too dangerous or difficult.
a fish out of water I didn't know anyone at the reception so felt like a fish out of water. uncomfortable
a cold fish He showed no emotion at this aunt's funeral - he's a cold sort of a cold fish. unemotional
have other fish to fry They wanted me to join them on this project but I told them I had other fish to fry. have other things to do or more important matters to attend to.

Insects[edit]

Idiom Example Definition
a fly in the ointment It will be an exciting trip. The only fly in the ointment is that Sue can't drive. a difficulty which prevents total enjoyment
not hurt a fly He has an awful temper but he wouldn't hurt a fly. gentle
no flies on someone There are no flies on Jacob - he is fully aware of all aspects of the operation. said of someone who is alert and clever, not easy to deceive
a busy bee She's a busy bee all right - if there's a job to do, she just has to get on with it. very busy person
have a bee in your bonnet She's got a bee in her bonnet about eating raw fish to stay fit and healthy. be obsessed with something (bonnet = hat)
the bee's knees With her first class honours degree and job with the UN, she thinks she's the bee' knees. someone who is very clever and important

See also[edit]

English grammar

Resources[edit]