Friday, 11 January 2008

A.W.A.D. - Whose what? (animal edition)

A few weeks ago we featured terms in the "x's y" pattern -- descriptive phrases that can be called Whose whats. Going by your comments, it was one of the most popular weeks in AWAD's history. This week we'll reprise the theme with five more such terms, this time from the animal kingdom.

The English language is filled with everyday terms based on animals, from the lion's share (largest part) to the dog's chance (slim chance) and the snail's pace (very slow) but there are many unusual terms too. For this week's parade we have selected five mammals: mare, dog, sheep, donkey, and cat.

mare's nest
(mairz nest) noun
1. A confused mess
2. A hoax or an illusory discovery

[The original sense of the term was a false discovery since clearly a mare doesn't have a nest. Nowadays the term implies a confused situation. A term with a similar origin is the Greek calends meaning a time that doesn't exist:]
dog's letter
(dogz LET-uhr) noun
The letter R

[From Latin littera canina, literally dog's letter. In Latin the sound of the letter R was trilled. Think Grrr! of a snarling dog. A good example of a trilling R is none other that the Spanish word for a dog: perro.]

sheep's eyes
(sheepz eyez) noun
Shy amorous glances.

[The origin of the term is uncertain. Various theories attribute the term to Gaelic or any of the various Germanic languages. It has also been suggested that the term refers to the docile appearance of a sheep's eyes.]

donkey's years
(DONG-keez yeerz) noun
A very long time

[Probably from the punning reference to a donkey's long ears.]

cat's paw
(cats paw) noun
1. Someone used as a tool by another.
2. A kind of knot used to connect a rope to an object
3. A breeze that ruffles the surface of the water over a small area.

[The first sense of the term comes from the fable in which a monkey uses a cat to pull roasting chestnuts from a fire. The monkey gobbles up all the nuts while the cat is left with a burnt paw. See Edwin Landseer's 1824 painting Cat's Paw:

The second sense refers to the supposed resemblance of such a knot to a cat's paw:

The origin of the third sense is unknown.]

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