Figures of Speech on the Farm

Country clichés conceal nuggets of truth.

Waiting until the cows come home.

Tired of waiting ’til the cows come home? You might have a long wait.

iStockphoto.com/George Clerk

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Can we make it through the day without figures of speech? This morning, you woke up with the chickens and, since you ate like a bird last night, you were hungry as a horse. After hogging all the food at breakfast, you worked like a mule ’til the cows came home, and at the end of the day, you were dog-tired. Why do you do it? You’re not saying … but later, you’ll let the cat out of the bag.

There’s no doubt about it: no farm – and no farmer’s vocabulary – is complete without a flock of animals. Do these old sayings bear any relationship to reality? Let’s see.

Chickens: True! Chickens usually head for bed at dusk and are up with the sun, as are most birds. Besides, anyone who’s been within an acre of a rooster knows he’ll make sure we’re up at least as early as the chickens.

Birds: False! Compared to what we put on our plates, a bird’s supper is insignificant, but the reality is that birds must eat constantly, sometimes the equivalent of their weight or more. Depending on the species, a bird can eat half to all of its own body weight each day. That means a 200-pound man, if he were to eat like a bird, would eat from 100 pounds to 200 pounds each day – either option is probably not a good idea.

Horses: False! Most horses, if left to themselves, will browse a little bit here and there instead of eating one or two big meals. So “hungry as a horse” means you’re ready for a light snack instead of a full plate. If you’re famished, you’d be better off saying you’re hungry as a …

Hog: True! Ask anyone who raises a pig or two, and he’ll tell you that Porky will eat almost anything. The leftovers from your salad, odd greens from your garden, mash from beer-making, potato peelings, moldy donuts, even small reptiles and mammals. And they’re not polite, either. Pigs are happy to stand in the middle of the meal. That makes it easier to, um, hog their dinner.

Mules: True! Mules – the almost-always sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey – are hardworking and patient, according to aficionados. They’re more surefooted than horses or donkeys, won’t knowingly walk into any sort of trouble, and their hybrid coat resists cold and rain. Mules are reportedly one of the more intelligent farm animals, and their reputation for stubbornness is said to be quite inaccurate. They’re just cautious about doing something unsafe, even when a human insists.

Cows: Both! It depends on what kind of cow, really. Dairy cattle are generally kept on a strict timetable and have been known to “come home” when it’s time for their twice- or three-times-a-day milking. Beef cattle, often fed in the field or in a feedlot, don’t “come home” as often, strictly speaking. So, “’til the cows come home” could be as little as a few hours or as long as a year or more.

Dogs: True, depending on the dog and his “specialty.” Border Collie owners know their pooches will work to exhaustion. Scent hounds will follow a trail until there’s no trail to follow. Bird dogs will happily follow their owners out in any kind of weather or hour, and stay there. Really, though, have you ever known a dog that doesn’t like a good nap?

Cats: Both! This very old phrase refers to dishonesty by a seller who tried to pass off a cat in a gunnysack as a piglet (hence, also, “a pig in a poke”). If you let the cat out of the bag, the buyer knows the animal in question isn’t porcine. But anyone who’s ever tried to keep a cat quiet knows that only the most gullible person would mistake a cat for a piglet in any container, making the phrase dubious, at best.

So there you are … your day, in so many animal words. And that ain’t no bull!  

Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.