Friday, November 19, 2010


(I have no idea what this picture is about, I just couldn’t resist.)

Do we still liken each other to animals when we want to insult each other? I was pondering this today in class as we discussed the various animals that figure amongst medieval name calling, and it seems to me that animal insults have somehow over the years lost some punch. No doubt the terms “bitch” and “ass” are still popular favorites, but it seems that after centuries of increased urbanization and subsequent distancing from quite a few animals, human/animal comparison have faded significantly in the contemporary vernacular.

Now to veer off track a bit. A simple google search on the subject of “animal insults” brought up a very interesting site that catalogues a number of animals and their associated meaning when applied to human beings, revealing some interesting discrepancies. For instance, in English when we refer to a person as a “chicken”, we intimate that that person is a coward. In Turkish however, it evidently signifies someone who goes to bed early…. ? A camel is likened to a “stupid, nasty man” in the Portuguese language. In German, a “rhinoceros” might mean a stupid person. Can you compare anything to a rhinoceros? Perhaps these usages are a bit archaic, so I wanted to invite anyone fluent in a second language to comment. I noticed in a BBC article that dealt with “swearing” in a very broad sense, that an old Icelandic insult was to call someone a “cod”, but the word no longer carries derisive connotations. Nowadays the word “jam” might be used as an affront, (primarily amongst the young Icelanders).

But even with regards to the English language, do you feel that animal comparisons make the most denigrating insults, or have we moved on to stranger terms to verbally abuse our peers? Just something to think about.




  1. I also thought about this in class. Maybe I'm not drawing from enough examples, but I think now many of the most offensive insults do not allude to animal characteristics/behavior.

    After running through all kinds of insults in Korean..I do think most of the most offensive yet commonly used insults have some allusion to an animal.

    For an example,
    여우(fox) is commonly used to call (usually) a woman sly and cunning.

    According to, in English, "foxy" does mean cunning or crafty but there is a separate entry for its slang usage. I think nowadays "foxy" is more used to compliment someone for being sexually appealing or attractive.

  2. Perhaps what we need is a comparative list of animal compliments to put the animals insults into perspective. A glance at this thread (Use of animal terms for insult and compliment) suggests that there are far more insults than compliments drawing on animal imagery, and yet, off the top of my head, albeit thinking only in English, it feels like there are potentially just as many compliments as insults, so perhaps we just remember the insults more easily? A woman wouldn't want to be called a dog, but she might like being called a fox; a man might not like being called a mule, but being called a stallion would definitely be a good thing. A full taxonomy would need to consider which animals can be used as both compliments and insults: pigs seem to stick out as never good, but how much depends on the stories available in a culture? Wilbur was "some pig", after all!