David Knopf - Beating a dead horse won’t make a tiger change his stripes

09/17/2013 7:56 AM

09/17/2013 7:56 AM

It’s clear our relationship with animals has evolved. It’s just that our language hasn’t.

Animals were once a means of survival, both for food and as beasts of burden. Let’s say your covered wagon was stuck in quicksand and the buzzards had begun circling.

You couldn’t call AAA for a tow. You needed a horse, mule or oxen, and quickly.

A pioneer might feel affection and pat his mule or give him a slug of whiskey, but animals generally were subordinates. There were no “Is Snook-ums a good boy?” endearments we hear today.

In fact, a pioneer might not think twice about shooting the mule if he, Maw and the young-uns could take cover behind it while arrows, bullets, the typhoid or twisters kicked up the parched dirt around them.

It was a hard, hard life.

And that’s the only explanation I can find for the mean things we say about animals today.

Cats seem to bear the brunt of our unkindness, but horses, birds, lambs, fish, ducks — even dogs — aren’t immune. Three phrases top my list.

“Killing two birds with one stone,” probably the most common, stems from a feat of efficient marksmanship at a time when people were more likely to eat birds than marvel at their colorful plumage.

A second expression, “No use beating a dead horse,” is figurative language intended to make a point, not prevent brutality. But let’s say a horse stepped in a hole and broke a leg. It’s easy to imagine Paw cursing his luck, stomping on his hat and kicking the beast before finally shooting him.

The phrase that mystifies me most, though, is “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

I’ve always wondered why you’d need even one way, let alone two. But who’s to say if the illustrative meaning — you can accomplish the same thing in different ways — didn't stem from a time when mountain lions were skinned so Maw could have a rug for the foyer.

Back in the day, when conservation laws were less stringent, people used to scoop up road kill and take it home. The pelts could be sold, so it may be that the expressions “We sure skunked ’em!” and “Sly as a fox” got their start during some heated bartering negotiations.

Generally, cats take the brunt of verbal assaults. It’s always a cat whose paws are getting burned on hot tin roofs, for example. It makes sense since it’s hard to imagine a dog shinnying up the drain pipe to see what’s there.

That might explain the saying “Curiosity killed the cat.” It’s not a death sentence, but for the cat that has to know what’s on the roof there’s always the risk of toasty paws.

But how do we explain the very harsh “No room to swing a cat?”

Wouldn’t that depend on the size of the cat? And why would you want to swing a cat in the first place, unless he’s been skinned more than once and didn’t take kindly to it?

That might explain why cats sometimes run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

You try walking on a hot tin roof.

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