Every animal has its place.

Animals and human beings have shared this planet as their home for ages. Human civilization is inextricably linked to animal life. Our language reflects this link. Here are some animal idioms with a common structure comprising two nouns and a preposition.

I came across “elephant in the room" only recently, though it comes from the 1950s. The elephant can refer to a problem that everyone can see, but feels embarrassed to talk about. It can also refer to a risk which people would rather ignore. Here is a sentence: “The problem was thoroughly discussed, but the elephant in the room was where the money would come from."

Similar to elephant in the room is bull in a china shop. It refers to a person who is clumsy, and knocks down things around him. Today, its use is metaphorical rather than literal. The Merriam Webster online defines it thus: a person notably clumsy or ill-adapted to the situation in which he finds himself.

Another unwelcome visitor is dog in the manger. A manger is a trough from which horses or cattle can eat. The allusion is to one of Aesop’s fables, written in about 600BC. A dog rests in the manger in which there is enough hay for the cattle. But when the ox tries to eat the hay, the dog barks furiously and chases it away. At last the ox gives up and goes away muttering, “Ah, people often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves."

Cats can generally be found in every part of the house, but when a cat decides to sit on the wall, there is a problem. The cat on the wall can be a fence-sitter, who does not take sides. Other people have to wait to know which way the cat would jump. Cats on the wall can be priceless commodities at the time of tightly fought elections.

Two idioms which appear similar, and have an old-world ring to them, are bee in the bonnet and bats in the belfry. To have bats in the belfry means to be insane. The belfry is the bell tower of a church. These can be dark spaces where bats linger.

A BBC report (August 2011) says that a North Yorkshire church had to cancel services and virtually close down because of the general damage done by bats that chose to stay in the belfry. The bat is a protected animal and to drive the bats out, the church needs a licence from a government agency.

A bee in one’s bonnet conveys the idea of someone being obsessed with an idea. The word is traced to Scotland. The speaker considers the subject very important and cannot stop talking about it, while the listeners don’t think it is important. She has a bee in her bonnet about dieting. This applies to a notion that you harbour, and you harp on it at every opportunity to the annoyance of listeners.

Fly in the ointment is an idiom which refers to a drawback in a situation which is otherwise enjoyable. The phrase has been traced to the King James Bible. “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour" (Ecclesiastes 10:1). Wikipedia has the definition, a small defect that spoils something valuable or is a source of annoyance. Example: We will surely enjoy our school annual day. The fly in the ointment is that the teacher in charge of our group is a tough person.

An idiom that has its origin in India and China is frog in the well. The corresponding Sanskrit name is koopa mandooka. It can refer to a person with a closed mind, who refuses to see the big picture of the world outside.

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