Idioms add colour and character to any language, and it is often said that a grasp of idiomatic phrases and their uses is a key stepping stone to mastering a new language. Every language has its own collection of special phrases that are used every day by native speakers and which don’t make literal sense. The English language is said to have over 25,000 idioms, and I suspect we use many of them every day without a second thought.
It was on a recent walk, when I stopped to photograph these lovely Limousin cows, that I realised how many peculiar phrases exist in English relating to cows – or more specifically to bulls. I wonder whether this is due to the eighteenth century fictional character John Bull who is said to be a ‘national personification of the United Kingdom’.
I counted over forty different bull-related idioms. Some of my favourites are:
- Bull in a china shop – a very clumsy person
- Bull at a gate – someone trying to complete a task very quickly (and often aggressively)
- Hit the bulls-eye – to be on target, derived from the word for the centre of a dart board
- Like red rag to a bull – something that is very provocative
- A cock and bull story – a tale that is complete nonsense or invented, similar to
- A load of old bull – a story that is total rubbish (in a stronger sense than cock and bull)
- Grab the bull by the horns – to take the initiative
The bull abroad
The number of English idioms incorporating our bovine friends led me to wonder whether the idiomatic bull cropped up in other languages. I wasn’t able to find many, perhaps because cows have a higher status in some countries. If you’re aware of any more interesting bull idioms leave a comment below. There is a Finnish phrase which directly translates as ‘to make a bull out of a fly’, its actual meaning is similar to the English idiom ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. One of my favourite French idioms, which I often use against myself in that typical self-deprecating British way, is ‘on parle français comme une vache espagnole’. This literally translates as to speak French like a Spanish cow, and means that you are butchering the language or speaking without much grammatical finesse.
If you want to explore English language idioms in more depth The Free Dictionary claims to have the largest online collection of British, American and Australian English idioms. There’s also a searchable alphabetical list on the Idiomsite and you can easily lose a an hour or so browsing some of the fascinating posts about a whole range of idioms on the OED blog – there seem to be quite a few about the weather, a peculiarly English obsession.