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25 Animal Idioms Explained to English as a Second Language Learners

Updated on September 30, 2012
The black sheep of the family? Not quite.  A black sheep of the family is an unwanted family member.
The black sheep of the family? Not quite. A black sheep of the family is an unwanted family member. | Source

Idioms or idiomatic expressions are word combinations in the English language that have figurative meanings.

They cannot be taken literally because their meanings are usually derived from native English speakers’ cultures and experiences.

For these reasons, it is often tough for learners of English as a Second Language or ESL to understand idioms or idiomatic expressions.

Below are 25 idioms related to animals that are meant to help ESL learners in their study of the English language.

1. The Black Sheep of the Family

The black sheep of the family is a member of the family who is most unpopular or not accepted by the other members.


Strangely, mother is the black sheep of the family so none of us enjoys talking with her.

2. As Meek as a Lamb

A person is as meek as a lamb if he or she is gentle, passive, and timid.


She is as meek as a lamb in front of other people. At home, she becomes wild and loud.

3. Rat Race

A situation is a rat race if people there are required to work and compete very hard. Unfortunately, people in a rat race do not get any valuable compensation for their hard work and effort.


I had been stuck in a rat race for many years until I realized that I had to do something worthwhile with my life.

4. Make a Silk Purse out of Sow’s Ears

To make a silk purse out of sow’s ears means to be resourceful, smart and creative by making something valuable out of things that seem to be worthless.


Mother made a silk purse out of sow’s ears by founding several businesses out of her meager money.

5. When the Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play

We say when the cat’s away, the mice will play when subordinates engage in activities that are otherwise forbidden by their superiors. They do this just when their superiors are not around.

We also say when the cat’s away, the mice will play when somebody gets into trouble because his or her guardian is not looking after him or her.


Surely, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. She began going out with boys soon after her boyfriend went overseas for a brief company training.

6. Play Cat and Mouse

To play cat and mouse means to trick people into doing what we like them to do. It also means to search for and hide from someone.


Robbers had played cat and mouse with the cops before they could finally be arrested.

7. Work Like a Horse

To work like a horse means to work very hard.


Mom worked like a horse so she could save up for our future.

8. Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Straight from the horse’s mouth means to hear something directly from a highly reliable source.


We heard straight from the horse’s mouth that she will resign and move to a competitor.

9. Put the Cart Before the Horse

Put the cart before the horse is an idiom that means to do things in the wrong sequence.


Shopping and paying with your credit card before actually earning money is putting the cart before the horse.

10. Hold One’s Horses

If we are told to hold our horses, then we are advised to patiently wait for the right time to do something.


Hold your horses. It is not the right time to talk back and say bad words.

11. Dog and Pony Show

A dog and pony show is a situation that was set up simply to impress someone.


The meeting of the leaders of the states was a dog and pony show. Nothing much was accomplished in it.

12. Dark Horse

A dark horse is a little known person who can gather support from people and become successful.


He was the dark horse in the campaign but because of his humble beginnings, he gained massive support from the voters.

13. Beat a Dead Horse

To beat a dead horse means to keep on arguing about an issue that has already been settled. It also means to go on fighting even after the fight has already been won.


Grandmother was beating a dead horse when she raised the old family conflict.

14. You Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

You can’t teach old dogs new tricks is an idiom that means that it is difficult to teach something new to the elderly and that it is hard for the elderly to learn new things.


It is tough for our trainers to teach old folks in the countryside how to use the computer. They say that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

Top dog? Nope.  A top dog is the most important person in an organization.
Top dog? Nope. A top dog is the most important person in an organization. | Source

15. Top Dog

A top dog is the most important person in an organization.


You will be interviewed by Mr. Brown, the top dog of this company.

16. Rain Cats and Dogs

To rain cats and dogs means to rain very hard.


It has rained cats and dogs for several days so classes and work have been suspended for three consecutive days.

17. Bark Up the Wrong Tree

Bark up the wrong tree is an idiomatic expression that means to ask questions to the wrong person or to act using a wrong course of action.


Joy barked up the wrong tree. She refused to take care of her daughter who could have looked after her in old age.

18. A Sacred Cow

A sacred cow is a favored person who cannot be touched, criticized, or changed even if necessary.


Sissy is the sacred cow in the family. Mother always protects her, never disapproves of her actions, and by no means asks her to do household chores.

19. Take the Bull by the Horns

When we take the bull by the horns then we are making an important decision and acting to directly do a task or solve a problem.


Kyli took the bull by the horns and began to build a successful career.

20. Hit the Bulls-eye

To hit the bulls-eye means to directly address a concern or to keenly focus on something.


Lia hit the bulls-eye when she resolved to never be bankrupt again and started to work towards financial security.

21. A Cash Cow

A cash cow is a product, service, or a company that makes a lot of money. Many stable companies are cash cows.


The telephone company is a cash cow of the conglomerate. It earns a lot of profits from telephone subscribers.

22. A White Elephant

A white elephant is a thing that does not give any benefits but costs a lot of money to maintain.


That nuclear plant is a white elephant. It cost the government $5.5 billion to build but has long been shut down because it is unsafe.

23. Serve as a Guinea Pig

If a person serves as a guinea pig, then that person is used as a subject in product or service tests or trials.


It was not fun for me to serve as a guinea pig. I had to answer so many questions and had to endure several physical examinations.

24. Lion’s Share

A lion’s share is a big part of something.


The government got the lion’s share of our company’s earnings. We had to pay so much taxes.

25. Eager Beaver

An eager beaver is a person who is very enthusiastic about work.


Thelma is such an eager beaver that she was able to double her monthly earnings in a year.

Copyright © 2012 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved

Animal Idioms in a Song


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    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Nice one, a useful hub for those learning English. It's so full of idioms in here there's not enough room to swing a cat! Ooops, didn't want to upset the cat lovers.

      Voted up.


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