One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Hog Wild

She was constantly shouting questions at him:
Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?
Are you hollering down the rain barrel?
Are you sitting in the catbird seat?

James Thurber
Catbird Seat

I never understood the phrase hog wild. After all, pigs were domesticated some 10, 000 years ago, and yet, are they still an animal you wouldn’t want to turn your back on? You don’t think of cows jumping from one unrestrained act to another. You don’t say, Lucy went sheep wild when you talk about her shopping spree. So why do pigs get the bad rap? Is it all the rooting around? Does the wallowing lower their moral fiber?

For most, rolling in mud is a humiliating act, but a pig seems blissfully unaware that there is a world outside its pen. They call this moment of Zen hog heaven for little does a pig knows that is as good as it gets. But what about the rest of us? Where is our hog heaven?

Well, surprisingly, a lot of our happiness comes from the pig. To live high on the hog means to live in the lap of luxury. But did you know the meaning comes from the most expensive cuts of the pig, being the back and the upper parts of the legs.

The love of the pig only grows when it comes to barbecue ribs. There is even a barbecue restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee called Hog Heaven. But how would you get there? Well you could jump on your hog aka motorcycle. And if it’s the middle of August, you can point your wheels towards the Black Hills for the Sturgis Rally aka Harley Days which is like a Shriner’s Convention but with motorcycles and helmets instead of toy cars and fezzes.

In fact, a Zen moment for a biker might be riding his hog to Sturgis with neither hand on the handlebar for he is still trying to finish a rack of ribs. But no worries! The roads in South Dakota only go straight. He will have plenty of time to finish his meal before he arrives at his favorite campground, Hog Heaven.

For some, such accommodations would be less than stellar, but for a road warrior, it would be the bee’s knees: a highly admired person or thing.

Here is a phrase that kept evolving with the times. In England during the 1800’s the phrase indicated something small or insignificant. By the early 1900’s the expression in the United States meant pure nonsense. By the Roaring 20’s it got a kick in the pants because it was the time of Flappers.

 

Flappers

Flappers flapping

 

When it came to flapping, everybody had to be impressive, and to be impressive you had to sound impressive. If the language had yet to catch up, then you made it up as you went along. The bee’s knees were only part of it.  There was also the cat’s pajamas, cat’s meow, eel’s hips and salamander’s sciatica.  (Last one made up in the spirit of flapping.)

The bee’s knees may no longer be used to describe a wonderful time but that doesn’t mean it’s not around. There is a tapas bar in Augusta, Georgia that goes by the name. You may be able to saddle up to the bar and order a Bee’s Knees Cocktail.

 

  • 2 oz gin
  • ¾ oz honey syrup
  • ½ oz fresh lemon juice
  • 5 knees from a bee*

*minnow’s lips are no substitute.

 

For some drinking a Bee’s Knees with friends would be the elk’s uvula. Others might think they are in the catbird seat: a position of great advantage.

There isn’t a moment in any day where we all don’t crave to be in the seat of a catbird. But what is a catbird? Is it a bird? Is it a cat? How can it be both? Can mortal enemies be combined? Does a catbird have an uncontrollable urge to pounce on itself?

 

Gray Catbird

Catbird not sitting

 

There are those who say the catbird is aptly named for it has the ability to mimic the cat’s meow except for one problem. I just called a North American Gray Catbird and all I heard on the other end was what sounded like a geriatric bird trying to get up from the couch, which brings us to the second word of this most ridiculous phrase.

It’s difficult to visualize a bird seated on what? A chair? A stool? A chaise lounge? A cat I can see sitting, a fat cat, most definitely, but to see a bird lounging in some advantageous position.

When I’m attending an outdoor concert, the barn swallows will swoop from beam to beam of the band shell or hop around on the ground. Never once have I seen one sitting next to me on the bench chirping, “This is the life. Pass me some popcorn, will ya?”

So, how did it start? Well the phrase can be traced to one source: famed baseball sportscaster Red Barber who seemed to take a page from the smart-talking Flappers and make up stuff on the go. To be in the catbird seat in Red’s world was to be a batter with three balls and no strikes. Why a catbird seat? Why not? Barber spent most of his days in a sweltering booth, describing a game which is the equivalent of rush hour traffic. He had to bring in colorful language from his rural Mississippi upbringing to keep himself awake.

So if Red thought birds can sit, can they also shed crocodile tears: an insincere sign of sorrow.

This phrase goes back to the 12th Century when French explorers noticed crocodiles producing tears when eating one of their co-workers. Why is that? Was French cuisine so much better than the local Egyptian fare?

The tears may actually be biological instead of recognition of a fine meal as the glands that produce the tears are near the throat. So when a crocodile goes hog wild and gorges on water buffalo, the pressure on the glands releases the tears.

A 2007 study at the University of Florida found this myth to be true. Researcher Kent Vliet found in a controlled experiment:

 

  • 5 out of 7 crocodiles produced tears when eating
  • 6 out of 7 pretended to “well up” when watching the Hallmark Channel
  • 7 out of 7 expressed genuine sadness when told the experiment had ended

 

So how did a feeding frenzy turn into a phrase of insincerity? Like most things involving stunted emotions the phrase took root in England.

If that the earth could team with woman’s tears
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile

William Shakespeare
Othello
1565

What a romantic picture! Did The Barb use other animals to describe complex emotions? Lama Lust? Whipperpoorwill woe? Frankly, it’s hard to believe any animal capable of emotion. So how did a 1970’s song about muskrats take over the charts?

Nibblin’ on bacon, chewin’ on cheese Sammy says to
to Susie, “Honey would you please be my missus”

Willis Alan Ramsey
Muskrat Love
1976

It’s nice to see muskrats having a love of meats from the pig, but to court, woo and possibly marry? Are muskrats more amorous than other rodentia? Being semi-aquatic are they more comfortable hanging out in hot tubs? Do they like to kick back with a cocktail and let the beaver do all the work?

 

Muskrat Love

Muskrats not working

 

I guess I can see it. Muskrats are better looking than sewer rats and less nervous than squirrels. Maybe love is part of their M.O. Plus, it’s better to be a fool in love than a lame duck: one who is weak and falls behind in ability.

Finally, an animal phrase that makes sense! After all, flying is important if you are a bird, and you are no longer in the catbird seat if you have a broken wing. Vulnerable would be one word to describe your situation. Exposed is another. So it’s not surprising to see this phrase about wounded waterfowl ending up in the cut-throat environment of finance.

Yesterday being the settling day for India Stock,
the bulls had to balance to pay the bears to the
amount of 23%.  Only one lame duck waddled out of
the the alley, and that no greater a sum than 20,000.

Edinburgh Advertiser
1772

What does this paragraph even mean? I have no idea other than it looks like quite a few animals traded on the market. The report goes on…

The cat shorted the dog on the pound. The exposed
eland on shares of Shopshire Electric shored up
its shell company with silver and shipping. The
dingo divested from the depleted diamond mine
before it lost one more dollar.

It was in 1863 when the phrase of an incompetent investor migrated into the political sphere. Politics is about the future and those officials without one are already in the past. Never is that more apparent than the president of the United States. Calvin Coolidge was the first to be slapped with this label when he decided to remove his giant cowboy hat from the ring and not run for another term.

 

Calvin Coolidge

New Sheriff needed

 

So, if the lame duck broke its wing by slipping on some ice, would it be able to seek restitution in a kangaroo court: mock court in which the rule of law hops right out the door.

How did kangaroos get saddled with this phrase? Are they a judgmental breed?

 

“Wombat? Try dingbat.”
“Sorry emu, some feathers just don’t fly.”
“I’m not so coo coo for kookaburras.”

 

Surprisingly, this phrase did not originate from the kangaroo’s home of Australia, but may have started during the California Gold Rush.

The Wild West was the tenor of the day as traveling judges went from claim to claim to settle disputes. And since the judges were not paid with a salary but through collected fines, it didn’t take much to tilt the scales of justice to the highest bidder.

At first these cases were called mustang court due to the unsophisticated nature of the setting. But soon the kangaroo started to pop up as judges “hopped” over any evidence to arrive at a predetermined verdict. Plus, kangaroo court sounds cooler, so much it is even recognized in Black’s Law Dictionary, unlike these animal-related law definitions.

 

lemming court = Jurors blindly follow the lead prosecutor
hyena court = All cases end in a mistrial
turkey court = Defendants are tried, convicted and pardoned before lunch

 

Speaking of lunch, let’s talk cold turkey: sudden withdraw from an addictive substance.

Where did this phrase come from? Some believe the skin of an addict in the middle of detox looks like a frozen turkey, but here’s the thing. It’s pure conjecture. It’s having an opinion and trying to tie it to the source. Just because something sounds true doesn’t ring it with truth. Everything I have written so far wouldn’t hold up in a court of law unless the presiding judge was a kangaroo. Still, it is fun to surmise. Sure, clammy skin is an easy explanation. Others have said cold turkey comes from the phrase talk turkey. In fact, the two were partnered at one time.

I’ve heard [Reverend Billy] Sunday give his booze
sermon and believe me that rascal can make tears
flow out of a stone. (A crocodile, not so much.)
And furthermore he talks cold turkey.

Des Moines Register
1914

 

Talks cold turkey! Is that good, bad or does it just make us hungry? What is known about the bird? Well, it’s elemental to our collective identity. Benjamin Franklin wanted it as our national bird. One thing is for sure. It’s a dumb animal.

I once saw a group of wild turkeys fly into an enclosed patio surrounded by ten-foot hedges. And as I ate my pulled pork sandwich from a picnic table, I watched the turkeys walk back and forth between the hedges, completely unable to remember that they flew in minutes before.

So, maybe to talk turkey is to tell the truth for you don’t have enough brain cells to fabricate a lie. Where to talk fox means you are a CIA officer trained in counter-intelligence. To have a tarantula tête-à-tête is to have a conversation that may turn deadly. To be in the middle of a cheetah chat is to be surrounded by braggarts. And if you having a penguin powwow, you are having a serious discussion on how to stay alive at 40 below zero.

Is this how turkey talk got so serious, by turning frozen? Was an adjective needed to bring some weight to a discussion? After all, if you talk turkey, maybe you’re just shooting the breeze. But if you talk cold turkey, then everything gets serious. And if you are serious, then there’s no need for talk. Just drop that verb and go cold turkey for that is the frame of mind you will need if you really want to give up an addiction.

Even though Barack Obama was a lame duck by the time he granted his final Thanksgiving pardon, he was not finished serving a healthy amount of corn when he pardoned two turkeys by the name of Tater and Tot.

Obama mentioned Tater and Tot were on the “gravy train to freedom” even though “Thanksgiving traffic can put people in a fowl mood.” And after he reminded everybody that “yes we cran” he went for the zinger:

 

Malia and Sasha are thankful that this is my final
presidential pardon. What I haven’t told them is
we are going to do this every year from now on.
No cameras. Just us.  Every year.
No way I’m cutting this habit cold turkey.

 

A fitting sentiment for a dad who relished endless ways to embarrass his already embarrassed daughters, but was this poultry speech his swan song: a final gesture or effort given before death or retirement.

Out of all the animal phrases so far mentioned this one has been around the longest, stretching back to the classics.

 

There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully,
in faint tears, in harmony with sadness, just as
a swan once, in dying, its own funeral song.

Ovid
Metamophoses
396

 

Swans were a symbol of beauty and harmony in Ancient Greece and there was a belief that they uttered beautiful music in the moment of their death. Really, without one lesson a swan will produce a beautiful aria?

This belief may have biological backing. The trachea of a swan penetrates the sternum and loops back before finally heading towards the lungs. To see it as a diagram is to see a rudimentary, organic brass instrument. But is this biological oddity enough to create music?

I watched a muted swan online and all I heard was hissing and snorting. To be fair the bird was still alive and probably upset that the person filming didn’t bring treats. However, American biologist D.G. Elliot noted that after he blew a swan out of the sky with his shotgun, the bird’s cries “… sounded at times like the soft running of notes of an octave.”

So in death the final breath of a swan is far more pleasant than the howl of a banshee or the grievance of a gibbon. It’s understandable why it may find affinity with the great poets of our time and singers of today.

 

Lana Del Ray - Swan Song

 

Why is a singer barely out of her 20’s hanging up the towel? Shouldn’t a swan song be a fitting tribute to a lasting career? Maybe Lana wanted to get hers out of the way before circumstances took over. After all, not all of us get to play our final game by winning the Super Bowl like quarterback Payton Manning or finish a world tour with the Heartbreakers before passing away like Tom Petty.  In the end we all become lame ducks. The question is how do we face those final moments? Do we try to sing like a mythical swan or do we just complain like a mallard with a broken wing? I, myself, hope to go out like a catbird, sitting on a park bench saying, “This is the life. Pass me the popcorn, will ya?”

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