Describing people using animal words and expressions.

Describing people using animal words and expressions.

written by Lilian Ndongmo. ESL Teacher

The English language is fond of using nouns that are usually attributed to animals to describe the actions, feelings and behaviours of humans. These nouns can take the form of idiomatic expressions or compound words. In whatever way they appear, they all have one thing in common: a word related to an animal.

The meanings of some of the words and expressions are obvious and can easily be deduced from the actions and lifestyle of the given animal. For example, if you say someone is a church rat, what does it really mean? This has to do with the kind of things that rats like. Think about it. The house in which you live has more food in it than a church. If a rat finds its way into your house it is certainly guaranteed a feast. The large variety of rat food coupled with the cozy environment makes your house a wonderful, joyful abode. While you’re out, asleep, watching TV or playing with your ipad, mister rat and his family will take over your house, running and playing around freely, and eating your cheese, bread, beans, cookies, candies, books and clothes. On the contrary, a church usually has very few things to offer: some papers, wooden benches or some scraps of bread or food leftover after a get-together, perhaps. A rat that lives in a church is a poor rat as it has failed to find itself a place where food is plenty. A church rat will steal and eat anything it finds in a church. If you describe a person as a church rat it means that that person has no money, and is so poor that he or she might take to stealing money from the contribution basket.

Let’s look at a few more of such animal based words:


The word scapegoat originates from the bible. A goat was used for cleansing, especially during the Jewish ceremony, Yom Kippur. The sins of all the people were put on its head, and then it was sent into the wilderness to die.

 A scapegoat is a person singled out or chosen to take the blame for others or someone on whom negative treatment is inflicted.

Example: Even though the boss was to blame, he decided to make Paul the scapegoat and fired him.

Black sheep

Black sheep is used to describe someone who has a bad reputation or who is not very popular among his peers or family because of his negative attitudes and behaviours.

Example: Among the four sisters, Majorie was the black sheep of the family.  She quit school, left home and was always unpleasant with everyone