Short thoughts on the way we talk about animals.

            “Achilles fought like a lion in battle.”

 

            There are few things as inspiring as hearing of a man who fought like a cornered wolf to defend his home, of a woman who battles like a mother bear against all odds to keep her children alive. These phrases conjure up images that immediately have a taste, a vibrancy, that tells a whole story in a handful of words. It seems that there are a few readily visible answers – it grounds us to animal roles which we might instinctually desire to fill, it reminds us of the best or worst relationships and moments life has led us into. But what does our attraction to these phrases ultimately mean, perhaps more importantly, what does our telling of these stories do to us?

            To some, these phrases may remind us of formative moments. I think I will always be able to remember the first time I heard the scream of a cougar while camping, the first time I saw a bear even from afar, my important friendships with a canine or feline companion. To others, these events may never have happened – nor remembered with such detail, or (at least consciously recognized) import. I doubt that these moments explain much of these phrases’ meaning, even to those of us who have them.

            Rather, it seems their beauty and pleasure come from the way they make us feel: to use them or to hear them. Insulting or berating someone, “you worm, you weasel, you sniveling, scurrying cockroach, you little rat.” We are the statuesque, commanding, in-control man towering over the pitiful and wretched creature. This is perhaps the most common usage, especially in the modern day. Compliments can be found though, “clever as a fox, loyal as a wolf.”, though these often leave the delineation between man and animal intact by their simile form as opposed to the more common metaphor found in the above insults. A woman or man with preternatural, animal wit – or some other trait, rather than fully an animal.

            We like to separate ourselves and our heroes from “common folk” by granting them animal traits, and to place ourselves above less-than-common folk by relegating them to the realm of the beast. The phrases can be beautiful in fiction, and can grant comedy or righteous relief to anger, or deserved weight to praise in reality, but the fact that each of us is capable of the same wormlike depths or lionlike heights should make us wary of using them too often in our own heads. They can charge the theatre of socialization with worthwhile splendor, but should perhaps not enter into our internal codification of the world, wherein it is too easy and too common to see ourselves as uniquely positioned, whether it be in the manner of the (perceived) injustice we face or in the praiseworthiness of our personal characteristics.

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