In any case, I was struck this weekend by the inability to recall the animal-derived verb we English speakers use to mean “to search out, to rummage, the produce with much effort.” Only because my dad eventually spoke this phrase later the very day I was trying to remember it did I get to put my mind at ease. “Something something and then he ferreted out what was really up.” I can’t remember what the context was. But does it not seem odd that we’d have such a readily recognized expression taken from an animal with which most English speakers, I’d wager, I have little to no contact? Yes? It does? Good. I thought so as well.
As a consequence of this very problem, I’m listing here below what, as far as my experience and research can yield, is a list of the various verbs we derive from animal names.
- to dog (as in, “to fix a negative, aggressive facial expression on someone”)
- to hound (used similarly, but more in the sense of fixing a vendetta upon someone)
- to wolf down
- to horse around
- to monkey around (meaning much the same as the previous one)
- to pig out
- to pony up
- to ape
- to parrot (again, meaning much the same as the previous)
- to fox (though this one is most always spoken as “to out fox,” with the adverb preceding the verb, it stands to reason that it is as valid as “to horse around” despite its jumbled word order)
- to cat around (meaning, surprisingly, "to look for a sexual mate")
- to duck (which does come from the same word as the kind of bird, I found)
- to goose
- to skylark (though I think we usually just call them “larks”)
- to leech
- to sponge (most often meaning “to freeload” or something like it, though I’d bet this came from the synthetic, inanimate kind of sponges used for cleaning and not from the sea creatures, which, I think we can all agree, are for all practical purposes just barely count as animals)
- to clam up
- to mole (which apparently can be used in the sense of acting as a mole, though I can’t imagine how those near-sighted tunnel-diggers ever got tangled up in espionage)
- to coyote (in a similar sense, when speaking of illegal immigration across the Mexican-U.S. border)
- to beaver (though it’s more referring to the anatomical sense rather than to any function of the animal)
- to pussy out (and likewise)
- to dragon (in the sense of inhaling from a cigarette and blowing it out one’s nostrils; though I’ve heard this spoken, I must admit it is a stretch at best)
- to rat
- to crow (which may be spurious in that the verb only connotes making a noise like the animal does)
- to snake (as in “to steal”)
- to fish (perhaps the only of these verbs that derives from the act of killing the animal it is named for)
- to worm (okay, so there's two)
- to whale (okay, so there's three)
- to chicken out
- to squirrel (most often spoken as “to squirrel away”)
- to weasel
- to badger
- and, of course, to ferret
(Also, just so nobody calls me on it, I’d like to point out that a handful of homonym verbs that resemble animal names but have no actual animal associations, like “to bear.” I think I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention “to cuckold,” which if I’m not mistaken arrived long ago into English from an old version of French, hence the fact that it doesn’t directly resemble the word “cuckoo.” Most wordologists, however, agree that the word comes from the notion that the cuckoo bird kicks out the eggs of some unknowing hen and tricks her into raising a brood that’s not actually her own.)
Furthermore, a surprising number of the entries in the above list have duplicate meanings: namely “to horse around” and “to monkey around”; “to ape” and “to parrot”; and “to clam up” and “to turtle up.” Why, the cunning linguist must ask, should such disparate animals yield verbs with the same meanings? Why must everything that a parrot and an ape do, for example, be boiled down to mere mimicry? I for one have observed both animals — though, admittedly, never at the same time — and I feel that their collective actions should rightfully include clucking (parrots), snapping (parrots), scratching (apes), eating bananas (apes), crawling up cages (both), exposing their genitals (apes), frightening me on some level (both) and mastering crude sign language computer programs (apes). Parrots copy us as a parlor trick, sure, but do apes really even imitate humans? Or does their mere existence as our distance evolutionary relative renders them mimics? And isn’t that a little self-centered, especially since apes have been around longer than we have?
Additional weirdness: “to squirrel,” “to weasel,” “to badger,” and “to ferret.” Why should four slender, nimble, toothy, furry and altogether similar beasts all get verbs, when animals that are much more frequently the subject of interaction by humans — cows, for example, or goldfish or seagulls or rabbits or raccoons or ants — get the shaft?
And finally, why should any of the meanings we associate with these verbs have stuck so soundly? Humans, as a rule, generally love dogs. And dogs, in my experience, generally love us back, a fact that is so often exhibited by the glazed, tongue-lolling expressions of absolute mirth and complete loyalty they shoot us. Rightly, “to dog” should mean something else — to fetch a ball or trot faithfully by one’s side or to eat one’s vomit only moments after having purged it. For this, I feel that the notion of “dogging” as we currently understand it is a total misnomer.
I speak no language besides English fluently, but I know enough of others to understand that we writers are lucky to have it. Its status as a verbal melting pot makes it a convenient one to write in since we’re afforded so many ways to say the same thing that we’re nearly never without a word or phrase that can describe the precise shade of meaning we’re striving for. Thus, I’m not suggesting that we should crawl back through centuries of lexicon-building and omit these words. No, as much as some of their strange associations bother me, I’m happy to keep them. However, I have to wonder why we don’t utilize other members of the animal kingdom — both domestic and exotic — in a smarter way and derive more of these spot-on, that’s-exactly-what-I-meant terms from the various unused beasts.
For what else could one mean by the expression “to penguin about” than to frolic and slide about on the tundra while eating fish and dressed in formal wear? If I said that Barnaby’s younger, slighter brother refrained from speaking to the party guests and merely moused about his family’s grand ballroom in an earnest attempt to remain at the event but escape notice, wouldn’t you know exactly what I meant? Would any explanation be needed if I told you that Yoyo Ellenboggan could have easily avoided the wrath of the minister’s daughters had she refrained from peacocking about town in her new jewel-encrusted dress and matching hat? To mosquito? To sphinx? To vulture about a buffet table, awaiting the appropriate time to dive in for seconds? I find it’s all fairly straightforward, especially if you simply take in the words and the images they suggest, rather than rhinoing through without any caution to the deliberation the writer took in selecting each word.
And beyond the mere colloquialisms we could use the ignored animals for, the writerly readers currently reading this and readying to write their own response should stop to consider the more poetic implications of pairing the perfect animal for the action needing to be described. “By late October, the leaves had already begun to lose their green and, one by one, butterfly away from their branches in their final act of natural beauty.” How perfectly does that verb — one, as far as I know, undiscovered by English speakers — capture the motion of a leaf through the air? And what could be meant by the verb “to moth,” other than the notion of being destroyed by the thing that one desires most? And how obvious? And how beautiful, if even in a melodramatic sense?
And how — for God’s sake — could any of these await coinage while every one in the United States can immediately understand “You’re badgering the witness” despite the fact that relatively few have ever actually been harassed by a badger?