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语言与文化 Figurative meanings of animal words in English and Chinese culture  

2008-09-22 11:27:35|  分类: 语言与文化 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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 Figurative meanings of animal words in English and Chinese culture


1 Same animal association vehicles and similar figurative meanings

As all human beings live in the similar environment, the Chinese people and English people nearly have the same knowledge of animals. Therefore, they have the same or similar figurative meanings to animal words. For example,

     English people would say, “He is a fox.” Similarly, Chinese people can understand the meaning of the sentence “He is a fox.” in Chinese “他是一只狐狸。” This example shows that in English “fox” can be used to describe somebody who is cunning and dishonest. This example indicates that different languages and cultures endow “fox’’ the same figurative meanings.

     “Sheep(羊) or lamb(羔羊)” can be considered as a kind of animal with a sweet and tame temper. As a result, the “sheep(羊) or lamb(羔羊)” is used to show the character with a sweet and tame temper both in English and Chinese, for example: “as lovely as a little sheep (像小羊羔一样可爱)”.

      Wolf(狼) is a kind of greedy, savage and cruel beast, so in Chinese there exist such expressions:







Similarly, the greedy, sinister险恶的, dishonest character of wolf also displays vividly and incisively in western culture, e.g.:

 “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing or a wolf in lamb’s skin (披着羊皮的狼)”;  

“wake a sleeping wolf (自找麻烦)”;

 “hold a wolf by the ears (骑虎难下,进退两难)”;

“keep the wolf from the door (勉强度日)”.

     “Ass(驴)” in English and Chinese has the same connotation and figurative meaning “foolish, stupid”. In Chinese the expression “笨驴” is used to indicate a fool or an idiot. In English, most of the set phrases, idioms and proverbs including the word “ass’’ all imply the meaning of “foolish”, e.g.

“ass in grain (十足的大傻瓜)”;

 “an ass in a lion’s skin (from Aesop’s Fables, 冒充聪明人的傻瓜)”;

 “all asses wag摇动 their ears (谚语:驴子摇耳朵,傻瓜装聪明)”;

“asses’ bridge (笨人难过的桥)”;

 “act the ass (做糊涂事)”;

 “make an ass of oneself (做蠢事)”;

“sell you ass (口语:不要这样呆头呆脑)”.

       “dove” in Chinese and English shares the same meaning, and symbolizes for peace. We regard the dove as “peace dove”. In some grand celebrations, we often see the scene of taking the doves away, standing for cherished desire for peace world of all of us.

      The following are some other familiar examples:

as free as a bird (像鸟儿一样自由);

as ugly as a toad (像癞蛤蟆一样丑);

as busy as a bee (像蜜蜂一样忙碌);

as slow as a nail (像蜗牛一样慢).

This kind of terms with same or similar figurative meanings show that in different cultures there does exist something in common, which reflects the commonness of different national cultures.







在英语中,a pig意为a greedy, dirty or bad-mannered person(贪婪,肮脏或举止粗鲁之人),因此常用以喻指贪婪,懒惰,肮脏的人。英语中有不少含有pig的习语短语,几乎都含有明显的贬义,如eat like a pig(喧闹而贪婪地大吃大喝),

make a pig of oneself (大吃大喝,狼吞虎咽),

pigs in clover(行为卑鄙或粗鲁的有钱人),

buy a pig in a poke (未经过目而买下的上当之货)。

2. Same animal association vehicles and different figurative meanings

Different living conditions have caused varied states of mind and ways of thinking, so Chinese and English people have different ideas and attitudes to some animals such as dragon, dogs, etc. And their figurative meanings in both languages and cultures differ greatly.


2.1 Some animal words with commendatory figurative meaning in Chinese, but with derogatory figurative meaning in English


“dragon (龙)” is completely opposite in Chinese and English. “Dragon (龙)”is not a real animal but an imaginary one. In China, dragon is the symbol of the Chinese nation, especially in the ancient time, people worshiped dragon to beg for rain. And the Chinese feudal emperors were often referred to as sons of dragons (龙子), wearing clothes with designs of dragons (龙袍). And also the Chinese all call themselves descendents of the dragon(龙的传人)and are very proud of being the descendents of the dragon. However, in Western people’s minds, the dragon is some evil monster with a large tail with wings and claws, breathing out fire and smoke. It symbolizes evil.

      “Monkey (猴子)” has different figurative meaning in Chinese and English languages. In Chinese, “monkey” is often likened to a smart and agile person, with commendatory sense. The Chinese people often jokingly call clever and cute children “little monkey”. But, if you praise a western child “You are like a little monkey.”, he will be angry, thinking that you curse him. Because in English, “little monkey,” means “a troublesome playful child”. And “monkey” is often likened to a person with a whole bag of tricks, e.g. “The man is as tricky as a monkey. (那人诡计多端,极为狡猾。)” Therefore, in English, expressions with “monkey” have derogatory meanings, e.g.

“monkey business (捣鬼,骗人的勾当)”; “monkey around (闲荡,瞎弄)”;

 “monkey meat (美俚:劣等牛肉)”;

“suck the monkey (英俚:酗酒)”.

      “petrel (海燕)”. In English the petrel is considered as an omen of disaster. The Longman Dictionary of English-Chinese offers us the explanations: “A stormy petrel is a person whose presence excites discontentment, quarrelling, etc. in a social group.” The reason for such a dislike is that they think petrel is the symbol for disaster. However, in China the word “petrel” is associated with braving hardship and adversity, advancing with perseverance and courage. The spirit is well reflected in the poem petrel written by Gorky, a famous Russian writer.

     magpie (喜鹊), To English people, if a magpie (喜鹊) flies near a window, it is a symbol of bad luck. There are two explanations in The Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary: (a) person who collects or hoards things (爱收藏或贮藏东西的人), (b) person who chatters a lot (爱饶舌的人). All these explanations are figurative with derogatory meanings. On the contrary, a magpie is a symbol of good luck in China. If a magpie sings in a tree near houses, people would think some happy things would happen. So Chinese people often say, “Magpie sings, happy thing comes.”

     “fish”,  “fish” and “鱼” has quite different cultural figurative meanings in English and Chinese. In English “fish” has derogatory meaning that refers to bad things and persons, e.g.:

“a poor fish (可怜虫)”;

“a loose fish (生活放荡的女人)”;

 “fish in the air (水中捞月)”.

In Chinese the letter “鱼” and “余” are homophones. Therefore, in the important festivals such as Spring Festival, Chinese people would like to use “fish” as an indispensable dish to symbolize “abundance”.

     “elephant (象)”,  In China, “elephant (象)” is a mascot(吉祥的东西). Many places in China are named for the letter “象” such as

“象山” in Zhejiang province,

“象州”, “象鼻山” in Guangxi province,

“象河” in Tibet, etc.

“Elephant” also symbolizes status. For example, in remote antiquity古代, the noble ladies wore clothes with designs of elephants (象服); The emperors rode on elephants. The “elephant” is doted溺爱 by Chinese people because of the Buddhist legends. It is said that the Buddhist patriarch was the reincarnation化身 of white elephant. On the contrary, in English white elephant (白象) is likened to things that are useless and often expensive. The allusion is originated from a folk story that in Siam (now Thailand), the king would give a white elephant as a present to a subject that he did not like. The subject would have to spend all his money on looking after the rare animal. Therefore, there exist such expressions in English,

“elephantine (笨拙)”,

 “elephant humor (蹩脚的幽默)”,

 “elephant task (累赘的活儿)”.


2.2 Some animal words with commendatory figurative meaning in English, but with derogatory figurative meaning in Chinese


“dog”. The dog is very interesting and closely related with people. Most of the “dog” expressions possess a commendatory sense or at least a neutral sense in English. It is all right to refer to certain people as

“big dog (重要人物)”,

“top dog (优胜者)”,

“lucky dog (幸运儿)”, etc.

in English. “To help a lame dog over the stile阶梯” means “to help someone in difficulty”.

“To let sleeping dogs lie” means “to make no trouble” or “not to disturb people”.

“Every dog has its day,” means “every person will some day succeed or become fortunate.”


Such usage does not contain derogatory meaning. But figures of speech like these are not proper in Chinese as the word “狗” in most Chinese phrases is associated with some derogatory meanings, as is reflected in sayings like









狗嘴吐不出象牙”, etc.,

even though most Chinese now think the dog is man’s faithful friend.

However, in some cases the word “dog” may have derogatory sense in English, as is shown in the following examples:

“yellow dog (卑鄙之人)”,

“dirty dog (龌龊之人)”,

“sly dog (阴险之人)”,

 “dead dog (无用的人)”,

and some vulgar languages:

 “son of bitch (狗杂种)”,

“you dog (狗东西)”,

“that cur (小杂种狗)”, etc.

      “Owl (猫头鹰)” is very popular with the western. The Greeks use “owl” to stand for Athens雅典, which is famous for its many owls. And it’s said that Athena, the woman patron saint was given an owl as her mark. It symbolizes wisdom, calmness, gravity and steadiness. In dispute among birds and beats, it is the owl that they go to for advice, and we can see such idiom

“as wise as an owl”.

If we use “owlish” to describe somebody, we want to say he is clever or serious, e.g. “Patrick peered owlishly at us through his glasses. (帕特里克透过他的眼镜严肃而机智地审视着我们。) ” But in Chinese, the figurative meaning of the word “owl” is quite different. “Owl” is described as the devil, ill omen征兆 and evil. People are afraid of seeing an owl, especially seeing its entering the house, so there are proverbs which go like these:



The mere sight of an owl or the sound of its hooting might cause people to draw back in fear.

      “bear”. To Chinese people “bear” means “cowardly and timid” or “stupid”, such as “笨熊”, “瞧那熊样”, etc. However, in English, people use “bear” to refer to those persons having special ability, for instance, “He is a bear at music. (他是音乐天才。)”


3 Different animal association vehicles and similar figurative meanings

    Different animal words have similar cultural connotations in English and Chinese languages and people use different animal words to express similar meanings. Even though the animal association vehicles are different, they have similar figurative meanings.


For instance, agriculture is the foundation of China’s economic development, so the cattle (牛) play a great role in Chinese culture. There are so many expressions which use “cattle” as association vehicles, such as





However, in the Middle Ages, horse was not only the inseparable part of Knights’ lives, but also the animal kept and used by the imperial families. So English people give horse many good figurative meanings such as

“as strong as a horse”,

“to work like a horse”,


In English, there are many figurative expressions using the word “horse” as association vehicles, e.g.

 “change horse (换马)” is likened to “change groups or leaders (换班子或领导人)”;

“from the horse’s mouth (第一手的)”;

 “talk horse (吹牛)”, etc.

Similarly, Great Britain is an island country, so fishery is important. Therefore, there exists such figurative expression

“to drink like a fish (牛饮)”.

To Chinese people, “tiger” is referred to as the king of animals and stands for power, vigor and bravery. So there are many expressions with the letter “虎”:





“虎将”, etc.

But in English “tiger” symbolizes cruelty. The western regards “lion” as the king of animals. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language interprets “a person felt to be like a lion especially in courage, ferocity, dignity or dominance (一个象是狮子的人,特别指勇气、凶猛、威严或权势方面)”. We use “as bold as a lion” to describe a brave person. The lion enjoys high prestige. In addition, English people regard lion as the national emblem of Great Britain. “A literary lion” is referred to a famous person in the field of literature.


“Snake” and “中山狼” share the same figurative meaning in English and Chinese, which are both likened to a person who returns hate for love. The only difference is that Chinese language uses “中山狼” as association vehicle, but English language uses “snake” as association vehicle.

      For generation the fable of “中山狼” has circulated among the people. The story is that: Zhao Jianzi shot at a wolf in the wood. The wolf escaped and asked master Dongguo for help. Mr. Dongguo was softhearted and hid the wounded wolf in his bag to keep it from being caught by Zhao Jianzi. But the wolf wanted to eat him. So the figurative meaning “恩将仇报” of “中山狼” is created.

    “Snake” is referred to a person requiting kindness with enmity敌意, which is originated from Aesop’s Fables, that is, a snake was frozen stiff at the verge of death. A pedestrian saw it and warmed it in his bosom. After a while, the snake came round and bit its benefactor to death. So it causes the figurative meaning.


Different animal association vehicles with similar figurative meanings can be also seen from such expressions:

 “as timid as a rabbit, chicken-hearted or pigeon-hearted (胆小如鼠)”;

 “like a cat on hot bricks (热锅上的蚂蚁)”;

 “as stubborn as a mule (犟得像头牛)”;

“wet as a drowned rat (落汤鸡)”;

 “goose flesh (鸡皮疙瘩)”; etc.

Other associations:

add fuel to the flames 火上浇油

a thunder of applause 雷鸣般的掌声

burn one’s boat (破釜沉舟) 。

Burn one’s boat 出自古罗马恺撒大帝带兵乘船出击外敌,有意烧毁船只以断绝其士兵退路,强迫他们下战死的决心。

而“破釜沉舟”说的是楚霸王项羽“引兵渡河,皆沉船,破斧甑,烧庐舍,持三日粮,以兵士卒必死,无一还心”(《史记·项羽本纪》) 。


pull one’s leg 不等于“拖后腿”,英语中的pull one’s leg 是“开某人玩笑”(to make a fool of sb /to make fun of sb. ) 的意思,而汉语的“拖后腿”意为“成为别人或事物前进的障碍”;


a rat in a bowl (瓮中之鳖) 和kill two birds with one stone (一箭双雕) ;


cry up wine and sell vinegar (挂羊头,卖狗肉) ,

fish in the air (水中捞月) 等等。

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