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20 Common English animal idioms

11 November 2022
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If you’ve ever been to an English-speaking country, you’ve probably heard native speakers say some weird phrases – “I’ll do that when pigs fly” or “he drinks like a fish!”. No, they’re not talking nonsense, they are using English idioms… and every language has them! The English language has thousands, and because of our universal love for animals, many English idioms revolve around these adorable creatures.

But they can be confusing for those learning English, which is why we’ve put together a list of some of the most popular animal idioms you might come across.


What is an idiom?

But first, what is an idiom? Idioms are phrases that have an alternate meaning to the one its words might suggest. For example, in English, when someone is referred to as being a ‘fruitcake’, they are actually referring to that person as being crazy. Despite the word itself and the meaning having no obvious connection, it is a widely accepted term that most native speakers recognize and use.

Most idioms have been around for centuries, with some even being traced back as far as the 1500s! They often originate from a particular incident, with the phrase then evolving to mean something else. For example, it is thought that the phrase “saved by the bell” comes from a time when coffins included a bell inside, just in case the person being buried was still alive – so if they were, they would then be saved by the bell!


Why do we use idioms?

Idioms add flair and color into everyday conversations, in addition to creating a more vivid mental image. For those still learning English, knowing local idioms allows you to have a deeper understanding and familiarity of the language.

Besides, they are also quite fun to learn!


Examples of animal idioms

Show off your knowledge of the English language with these 20 commonly used animal idioms:


  1. Different kettle of fish:
    A different idea or thing than previously suggested
  2. Chicken out:
    To change your mind about doing something last minute due to fear
  3. Open a can of worms:
    To say or do something that creates a complicated situation
  4. Bark is worse than his bite:
    When a person seems more aggressive than they are
  5. Ants in your pants:
    Feeling restless or nervous and unable to sit still
  6. The straw that broke the camel’s back:
    A final action that causes a huge, and often destructive, reaction
  7. Get the lion’s share:
    To receive the majority portion
  8. Horse around:
    Playfully messing around
  9. In the doghouse:
    To be in trouble with someone
  10. Let the cat out of the bag:
    A secret is revealed
  11. Curiosity killed the cat:
    When being too inquisitive leads to trouble
  12. Cat got your tongue:
    Unable to speak, usually due to shyness of shock
  13. A little bird told me:
    Used when revealing information heard from someone else, without naming that person
  14. Raining cats and dogs:
    To describes heavy rainfall
  15. Take the bull by the horns:
    Face a difficult situation head on
  16. Lock horns:
    To engage in conflict
  17. Like a moth to a flame:
    To be attracted or drawn to something that might cause hurt or destruction
  18. Hold your hoses:
    Used when urging someone else to wait and be patient
  19. What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander:
    If something is good for one person, it should be good for another
  20. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink:
    You can provide someone with an opportunity, but you can’t make them take it


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Which one’s your favourite animal idiom? Try and pick a few and add them into your English conversations… it will impress your friends (and make them laugh)!


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