Animal Idioms – same dog different dog

From Chinse Zodiac to Animal Idioms and then the different culture.

Chinse Zodiac

The Chinese zodiac is a mathematical cycle of 12 animals. Each animal represents one year. People are associated with the animal for the year that they are born. The signs are determined by the lunar year where you were born. The Chinese believe the animal ruling one’s birth year has a profound influence on personality and destiny.Unlike Western astrology, which is based on the months of the year, the , traditionally called the Sheng Xiao, is based on a twelve-year cycle with each year represented by an animal. The twelve animals are: rat,ox,tiger,rabbit,dragon,snake,horse,goat,monkey,rooster,dog,and pig.

Animal Idioms

The Chinese Zodiac is found in several East Asian countries besides China. Zodiac animals can also represent hours of the day and directions. Although it is called the Chinese zodiac, this system is also used in several other countries in Asia such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Year of the Dog

The dog is man’s good friend who can understand the human’s spirit and obey its master, whether he is wealthy or not. The Chinese regard it as an auspicious animal. If a dog happens to come to a house, it symbolizes the coming of fortune. The invincible God Erlang in Chinese legend used a loyal wolfhound to help him capture monsters. People born in the Year of the Dog are usually independent, sincere, loyal and decisive according to Chinese zodiac analysis. They are not afraid of difficulties in daily life. They are Supportive and loyal, not like rush in doing things, patient and steady.These shining characteristics make them have a harmonious relationship with people around.

Chinese animal idioms make animals as metaphors may create different connotations. Maybe the most typical example is how people in these cultures regard the dog. Both Chinese and English people keep dogs as pets, but they have a different attitude towards this kind of animal. It is conceivable that most Chinese people keep dogs to protect their house and treasures, so dogs are regarded as guards or slaves. Dogs are inferior. And many idioms related to dogs are derogatory, such as 狗急跳墙,狗仗人势,狼心狗肺,狐朋狗友,偷鸡摸狗 and so on. However, dogs have high status in western culture. English-speaking people regard dogs as a member of families and dogs are their best friends. So, English idioms about dogs have no derogatory meaning. For example, “lucky dog” means a person who has good luck; “every dog has its day” means every person will have success or good fortune sometimes, etc.

Animal Idioms

Idioms are both the essence of language and a significant portion of vocabularies. The idioms, terse but comprehensive, mean a lot. There are short phrases and sentences, which are the reflection of a country’s culture. Hence, idioms, no matter what kind of languages the idioms are, they have a closed connection with its country’s history, yet the national culture, just like rabbit and carrot. Based on the long history and colorful culture resources, English and Chinese have produced real but featured animal idioms, which leads to vitality to both English and Chinese. As a saying goes, animals have contributed a lot to human beings, in which enriching the language is one side of it, a fact that for the most part is neglected. However, while the animal idioms, demonstrating the national cultures, enrich their own cultures and condense the languages themselves, they cause cultural confusion and visual translation barrier. The research of English and Chinese animal idioms will benefit us a lot, which may lead to a successful intercultural communication, what’s more, it may bring about a further understanding of English-speaking countries cultures. As a result, it will push us forward in the cross-communication.

Actually, the idioms reflect the different living tradition. To a large extent, Chinese keep dogs for looking after their houses. Owing to the gap between animal and human beings, they could not have known what were their masters’ biases or what were their masters’antipathy. They bark whatever strangers they come across; they bit whoever might infringe upon the benefits of their masters. However, in English-speaking countries, most of them keep a dog as their friend, an intimate company. They play with their dog, yet even take a bath for it. To the westerners, a dog is a beloved for them. Dog idioms, the product of the phenomenon, are mostly positive, about the lack of a blue-eyed boy.


Animal’s world has a close relationship with human being’s world. For instance, many English expressions are expressed by means of animal metaphors so that there are a lot of animal idioms. All ethnic groups have the same knowledge of animals’outlook, however, because of different cultural background that we belong to, different ethnic groups may assign a quite different connotation meaning to the same animal.

Three Aspects of the English and Chinese Animal Idioms

1, Same Referent, Same Metaphorical Meaning

Numbers of English and Chinese animal idioms originate from animals’ nature and habit. During the long time interaction with animals, the human has already built a thorough understanding of animals’ nature, and to most of the animals, different cultures hold the same view. I am convinced horse represents the vitality of the Chinese nation. We can see that from the many legends about horses, in which an excellent horse is said to have the ability to run tens of thousands of miles per day, besides, a sky horse(天马)can run both on land and in heaven while a dragon horse(龙马) not only can fly in the sky but also can dive in the water. 龙马精神 (the sturdy, struggling, fearless spirit of dragon horse who can both fly and swim ) has been cherished by Chinese people for thousands of years. While in western culture, the horse is the symbol of speed, elegant and noble.

Moreover, the horse is one of the most favored and honored animals. According to the Bible Revolution, Jesus and all of his guards ride white horses. Horses are also our tools when we are farming and our companions when we are fighting against enemies. So, there are not fewer horse idioms in each language. Among those idioms, the dark horse has been familiar to Chinese people along with the interaction and fusion of Chinese and western culture, which often appears in media coverage. In Chinese, sheep is gentle and pure, so there come the idioms such as “as innocent as a lamb”; ox represents the characteristic of strong, such as “as strong as an ox”(力大如牛); while bee is busy and industrious, so there is “as busy as a bee”; bird is free, so there is “as free as a bird”; Fox represents cunning, there are Chinese idioms such as “狐朋狗友,狐狸尾巴”, and “as cunning as a fox”; butterfly represents beauty, such as, “as light as a butterfly” and “social butterfly”. Wolf gives people the bad impression as greedy, rude or artificial.

So we have idioms such as “eat like a wolf”(饿狼吞食); “wolf something down”(狼吞虎咽) means to eat something quickly and greedily; “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”(披着羊皮的狼), which refers to a person who appears friendly or harmless but is really an enemy. A snail’s most significant property is slowness, so people use the snail to illustrate people who act slowly, e.g. at a snail’s pace. Monkey is used to describe a naughty and lively child in both English and Chinese, e.g. “as mischievous as a monkey”; “as tricky as a monkey” (像猴子一样顽皮).

Idioms related parrot are derogatory in both Chinese and English. People in both culture regard parrot as an animal liking to repeat the words or actions of others without thinking. E.g. “鹦鹉学舌”.I am convinced these idioms illustrate the nature of certain animals vividly. Chinese and western cultures hold the same comprehension to these animal idioms, which originates from the long period close relationship between people and animal in either daily life or production. What’s more, there also exist many Chinese and English idioms that hold the same meaning no matter in literal or in connotation to say the same culture phenomenon. Consequently, they show the same characteristics in many aspects. Because English and Chinese people live in different cultural environment and background, examples of this kind is limited in number, most idioms are different in referent and meaning.

2, Same Referent, Different Metaphorical Meaning

Samovar once said that “It is more accurate to say people have meaning and that words elicit these meanings. We can have different meanings for the same word”. Dragon, for example, which in Chinese culture has an important status, represents God, powerless, auspiciousness and wealth. So most of the Chinese idioms relate to dragon create commendatory senses, for instance “龙腾虎跃”, “龙子龙孙”, “龙马精神”, etc. All Chinese parents “望子成龙”,that means to expect one’s child to become a successful and famous person when he grow up. Chinese call themselves 龙的传人(the descendants of dragon). However, in English cultures dragon is evil’s guard who keep evil’s treasure safe. Dragon was rumored to have three heads and a mouth that can give out fire. Therefore English idioms relate to dragon always have derogatory senses, such as the old dragon (evil). There are other examples, such as magpie in Chinese creates commendatory connotation, so there are idioms like “喜鹊叫,喜事到”,”喜鹊叫,贵宾到”; while in English magpie is to some extent nagging. There are a lot of examples of this kind. For instance, the bat, which in Chinese represents lucky and happiness, associated with ill characteristics in English idioms, such as “as blind as a bat”, “crazy as a bat”, “have bats in the belfry”, etc. In English, owl is the symbol of wise, so idioms relates to owl always has the association meaning of wise, such as “as wise as an owl”. In contrast, owl is regarded as an ominous animal in Chinese culture, because it always acts during night and its ugly outlook. Owl’s cry makes people feel nervous because they assume that it foretells the death of someone. Of course this is superstition. There is another example. “春蚕到死丝方尽”. Silkworm is only a common insect without any special association sense in English culture, while in Chinese culture it is eulogized for its selfless sacrifice. So, the difference in custom, cultural tradition, mode of thought, values, geography environment and regional situation will not only cause the bias to different animals while expressing or communicating a certain message, but also lead the same animal image to opposite connotative meaning. I am convinced the same animal image’s pragmatic meanings differ greatly while used in different languages, this is a phenomenon called “language culture conflict”.

3, Different Referent, Same Metaphorical Meaning

Cultural personality is a common existence; it wide spreads throughout each nation’s culture. As cultural personalities are different from each other, so to express the same kinds of figurative meaning, you may have to choose different Vehicles. The English idiom “slippery as an eel” is a metaphor of the eel, to illustrate the performance of a person’s disposition–cunning and can not be relied on. This idiom when translated into Chinese, it should be “滑如鳝鱼”. But that does not comply with the Chinese expression habits, poor acceptability. Meanwhile, there are Chinese idiom “滑得像泥鳅” which has the same figurative meaning of “slippery as an eel”. What surprised us is that this pair of idioms have the same figurative meaning but different vehicles–an eel and a coach. Why? The reasonable explanation is that the majorities of English-speaking countries have no loach, people in those countries, regard it as a fish, and do not think it is very slippery, which can not produce the associative meaning such as “slippery or not honest”. In accordance with customary, when to express the sense above, English speakers choose eel as Metaphors, instead of loach (泥鳅).

Chinese and English figurative idioms use different vehicles to express the same meaning, which to a large extent say that two nations, two cultures, and two languages have been affected by the characteristics of the society and the thinking style. In Chinese culture, the tiger is the king of the forest. While in western culture, the “king of beasts” is the lion. Tigers and lions are two kinds of kingly animals. In English and Chinese culture, the respectively represent bravery, powerless, vigor, decisiveness and dignity. British have made lion the symbol of their country: “regal as a lion”; “majestic as a lion”; “put one’s head into the lion’s mouth”. In the late 12 century, King Richard I was known as the lion because of his bravery daring. However, lions, in Chinese culture, are no more than a ferocious beast. The English counterpart of 拦路虎 is “a lion in the way” or “a lion in the path”. In English culture, ass is stupid, for example, “like an ass” (stupid people), “make an ass of oneself” (make a show of oneself), he is a silly ass for he believes everything other people told him (he is stupid, he believes everything that people say). It is conceivable that while in Chinese culture, beer is a slow response animal and behaves awkward, people use the bear as the metaphor to express the characteristic of stupid, useless or incompetent. “You are such a bear” means “you are stupid”; “you look like a bear” means “you are useless”. To figure the state of anxious, Chinese people always say that someone like the “ant on hot-pot”(热锅上的蚂蚁), while English speakers like to use the idiom “like a cat on hot bricks” to express such state. To figure “boast”, Chinese may say “blow the bull”(吹牛) while English would like to say “talk horse”. Many examples show that the root causes of the differences between the English and Chinese expressions may be that the different awareness forms produce different connotation, meanwhile the different express formula. In a word, “language is human, the human is language.” English and Chinese Metaphorical idioms use a different vehicle to express the same meaning, which to a large extent say the features that the two nations, two kinds of cultures and two languages are affected by their own society and thinking style. This, in turn, demands a keen sensory capacity, scientific comprehension, and conscious processing ability to deal with different customs and conflicts.


English and Chinese are both rich in animal idioms, which say the culture of a country. In turn, animal idioms are influenced by culture at the same time. English and Chinese differ from each other greatly in language culture; geographical environment and emotional awareness, as a result, a majority of animal words have different expression and culture connotation when used in different languages. There is no doubt that animal’s world has a very close relationship with human being’s world. Therefore, in the process of learning a foreign language or cross-cultural communication, we should pay attention to the words with ethnic or cultural background. Only by grasping the national culture connotation can we truly grasp a language, so that to make it work for us as a communicative tool. Besides, it is universally acknowledged that connotative differences influence a lot in cross-culture communicate, so we need to update our concept so that to adapt to other people’s culture to have a successful communication.

6 thoughts on “Animal Idioms – same dog different dog

  1. Wonderful post, loved it. Great comparison of Chinese and English language. Actually, I am learning Chinese these days and your articles are quite helpful for understanding Chinese language.

    Freya, UK

  2. Wonderful website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get feedback from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Appreciate it!

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