20 Animal Idioms in English

Idioms with Large Animals

#1 – the elephant in the room

“The elephant in the room” is an idiom for a problem or controversial issue that is too big to ignore, but that everyone tries to avoid talking about because it is embarrassing or will cause conflict.

#2 – one-trick pony

English Idioms - Pony

A pony is a small horse, which is often used for shows, competitions, and exhibitions. People teach ponies “tricks” to perform at the shows. If a pony only knows one trick, then it doesn’t have a great variety of abilities. So describing someone as a “one-trick pony” means the person has only one ability or good quality that he/she is known for, and doesn’t have any other abilities.

#3 – the lion’s share

English Idioms - Lion's Share

Image: yaaaay

“The lion’s share” of something is the biggest part or portion.

#4 – Hold your horses!

This idiomatic expression means “Wait a minute! Don’t be in such a hurry.”

Idioms with Small Animals

#5 – That really gets my goat.

If something “gets your goat,” it means it annoys you.

#6 – pig-headed

English Idioms: Pig-Headed

Describing someone as “pig-headed” means that person is stupid and stubborn (close-minded and inflexible).

#7 – weasel out of something

English Idioms: Weasel out

Image: Keven Law

Weasels have a reputation for being sneaky. If a person “weasels out of” some responsibility, it means they abandon their responsibility or commitment in a way that is sneaky or cowardly.

Idioms with Domestic Animals

#8 – the cat’s meow

If you think something is “the cat’s meow,” it means you think it is excellent, wonderful, really great.

#9 – let the cat out of the bag

English Idioms: Let the cat out of the bag

To reveal a secret.

#10 – go to the dogs

If something “goes to the dogs,” it means it goes bad, deteriorates, or becomes poor-quality.

#11 – let sleeping dogs lie

English Idioms: Let sleeping dogs lie

If you make a suggestion to “let sleeping dogs lie,” it means not to talk about things in the past that might cause problems if you mention them today. This idiom comes from the fact that a sleeping dog is peaceful, but if you wake it up, it might be angry and bite you.

Idioms with Birds

#12 – wild goose chase

English idioms: Wild goose chase

Image: Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com

This idiom means going after something that you are not likely to get, or a pursuit that is a waste of time because it is unlikely to succeed. It comes from the fact that it is very hard to catch a wild goose, so if you try to chase one, you are not likely to get it!

#13 – quit cold turkey

English Idioms: Quit cold turkey


If you quit something (a habit like coffee, smoking, drinking, etc.) “cold turkey,” it means you stop completely. Quitting smoking cold turkey would be deciding one day never to have another cigarette again. (Differently from slowly decreasing your smoking habit over time and eventually stopping).

There are two possible origins for this idiom – one is that when someone is addicted to drugs, and suddenly stops using the drugs, their skin becomes cold and gets bumps like a plucked turkey (a turkey without its feathers). The other possible origin is the fact that cold turkey is a dish that is quick and easy to prepare.

#14 – watch something like a hawk

English Idioms: Watch like a hawk

Image: Dori

A hawk is a bird of prey – that means it hunts small animals for food. Because of this, a hawk needs to have very good vision and watch carefully to find the animals. So “watching something like a hawk” means watching extremely carefully.

Idioms with Fish

#15 – like a fish out of water

English Idioms: Fish out of water

The natural place for a fish to live is in the water – if a fish is outside the water, it would feel very uncomfortable! If you feel “like a fish out of water,” it means that you are very uncomfortable in a particular situation or environment.

#16 – fish or cut bait

Idioms: Fish or cut bait

This worm is being used as “bait” to attract a fish. Image source.

In the sport of fishing, “bait” is the food you put on the hook to attract the fish. If you “cut bait,” it means you abandon the bait and stop trying to catch fish. This idiom means “either do something, or else get out of the way” – you can say it to a person who is indecisive in order to motivate them to take one action or the other action.

#17 – red herring

English idioms: Red herring

A hunting dog can be distracted by the strong smell of a herring. Image source

A “red herring” is a piece of information that draws attention away from the real facts of a situation. This idiom comes from the fact that a herring is a type of strong-smelling fish. If you are hunting with the help of a dog, and the dog smells a herring, it will be distracted by the strong smell and go in the wrong direction.

Idioms with Insects

#18 – ants in your pants

English idioms: Ants in pants

If you have “ants in your pants,” it means you can’t stay still because you’re very agitated, excited, or worried.

#19 – mad as a hornet

English idioms: Mad as a hornet

Image: © entomart

Someone who is “mad as a hornet” is extremely angry. Hornets are dangerous when they are angry, because they can sting.

#20 – wouldn’t hurt a fly

If you say that someone “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” you are describing the person as very peaceful and non-violent. It is a person who is so gentle that they wouldn’t hurt anyone, even a small insect like a fly.

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