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Animal Based Metaphors about Growing Old. by Alleen Pace Nilsen Don L. F. Nilsen. 1. Animal-Based Metaphors are Visible Evidence of Human Attitudes towards Gender . Species are valued differently based on their gender.

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animal based metaphors about growing old
Animal Based Metaphors about Growing Old


Alleen Pace Nilsen

Don L. F. Nilsen



animal based metaphors are visible evidence of human attitudes towards gender
Animal-Based Metaphors are Visible Evidence of Human Attitudes towards Gender
  • Species are valued differently based on their gender.
  • With farm animals, the female is usually more valued than the male because females reproduce the species as well as furnish eggs or milk.
  • This value-plus is reflected in language by the way people use the female term as the generic species name.



Goose, for example, is used as the generic species name:

a goose down comforter goose bumps

goose pimples goose egg score

goose step (march) to goose an engine

goose neck lamp silly goose

  • The honking of geese was a familiar sound long before the honking of cars.
  • Mother Goose rhymes got their name from the old women who used to “herd” geese and at the same time entertain children with stories and poems.
  • The male term of gander is seldom heard except in “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” and “to take a gander,” which is an aimless walkabout.



Peacock is one of the few barnyard animals where the male’s name is used as the generic term.
  • This is because the male is the one with the beautiful feathers, and peacocks are valued not for their eggs or their meat, but because of their beauty.
  • When Alleen’s students wrote sample sentences using a variety of animal names, the students alluded to females more often than to males in such sentences as:

She’s as colorful as a peacock!

She struts like a peacock.



animal names as value metaphors
Animal Names as Value Metaphors
  • Some animal allusions are based on simple comparisons to shape or appearance, but others allude to behaviors and reveal speakers’ attitudes towards males and females.
  • For example, a comparison of how much more valued is the brilliant male peacock compared to the drab peahen, makes it easier to see why women resent being told that they are included in the masculine pronouns of he and his and inthese so-called “generic masculine” nouns: mankind, man on the street, chairman, man-made, the best man for the job, and the common man.



three extreme archetypes
Three Extreme Archetypes
  • With animals that are not so common or “intimate” with humans, speakers do not have names marked for gender. We just say things like “a mother bird,” or “a male swan.”
  • But some archetypes are so firmly set in our minds that we have given female-sounding names to the whole species. Teachers have to explain to children that there are male, as well as female,

Black widow spiders

Lady bugs

Sea Cows (also called manatees, from Spanish)



age related animal terms

Many animal terms are positive when based on young animals, but negative when based on old or middle-aged animals, e.g.

  • Playboy bunnies vs. *Playboy rabbits.
  • A bird vs. an old crow or an old bat.
  • A filly or being vs. an old nag

frisky as a colt

  • A lamb vs. an old crone

Note that old men refer to their buddies as their cronies. One dictionary says this might come from chronos related to time, but since the h is missing, we suspect that it is a jocular way for men to insult their friends in a similar way to when fussy old men are referred to as old maids or old hens.



from chick to old biddy
  • As soon as a girl is too old to be called a chick, she goes to hen parties and cackles with her friends. When she marries, she feathers her nest, but after she has her brood, she begins feeling cooped up and wonders if she made a mistake by putting all her eggs in one basket. Finally she begins to henpeck her husband and turns into an old biddy.
  • An especially mean-spirited comparison of women to chickens appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign. Pundits created a fried-chicken Hillary Meal Deal mug: “Two fat thighs, two small breasts, and a bunch of left wings.”



In the mid-1800s, English speakers in America decided to “gentrify” their language. They changed the word cock to rooster. As part of this, Louisa May Alcott’s father changed the family name from Alcox to Alcott.
  • Refined people began referring to light meat vs. dark meat so at the table people would not need to ask for a leg or a breast.
  • But that we still describe assertive people as cocky and have such phrases as cocking a gun andthe cock of the walk, show how much easier it is to bring in new usages than to remove old ones.



from sex kitten to cougar
From Sex Kitten to Cougar
  • Parents used to name little girls, Kitty, and encourage them to act kittenish, at least with the opposite sex.
  • Older girls were more likely to become catty, and to engage in cat fights or live in cat houses.
  • Puss, an alternate name for cats (and vaginas), is cognate with pouch and purse. It’s connection to sexuality was shown in one of the James Bond films about Pussy Galore and Her Flying Felines.
  • The most recent cat-related term to come into general use is the word cougar for an older woman who goes “prowling for young men.” Whether cougar is a positive or a negative term differs as shown by how a recent Arizona incident was treated in the media.



don t forget about horny old men
  • While there aren’t as many negative animal metaphors about men, men too suffer from growing old.
  • Just think about what happens to a player on the Los Angeles Rams football team. He is so loved by LA fans, that they buy him a Dodge Ram truck, which he is careful not to use as a battering ram. He has inherited his grandfather’s Civil War ramrod muzzle and while he stands ramrod straight on the football field, he tries not to ram his ideas down the throats of his friends. Nevertheless, he eventually turns into an old goat, otherwise known as a horny old man. He gets the name even if he doesn’t have a goatee.



We’ll open this up for discussion by citing the relatively new animal-based metaphor. Thanks to Sarah Palin, the “Soccer Moms” of the 2008 election became the “Mama Grizzlies” of the 2010 election.
  • What do you think this shows both about language and culture?