Michael Macrone

Why Black Sheep Are Outcasts and White Elephants Are Useless
(National Enquirer, November 28, 1995)

Ever wonder where animal-related cliches like "hair of the dog" came from? You'll be happy as a clam to learn that the origins of 151 such phrases are explained in the new book "Animalogies" by Michael Macrone. Here's a fascinating excerpt.

National Enquirer The phrase "black sheep” was coined in England. Black sheep were worthless to the English wool industry – which is why they now stand for the embarrassing members of any family.

Before chemists perfected the art of dyeing, a farmer couldn't do much with black sheep except eat them. There just weren't enough of these rare animals to produce a useful quantity of black wool.

BATS IN YOUR BELFRY — If you ever watched bats try to navigate in a bell tower, or belfry, you'd think they had lost their senses. Bats rely largely on sonar to get around, and small echoey spaces like belfries give them an overload of information -- so they zigzag, dart and spin around as if crazed.

Since there's an analogy between the top of a tower (belfry) and the top of a human (head), “bats in the belfry" came to mean crazy – as did "batty."

WHITE ELEPHANT - This expression for a big, useless, expensive object comes from Thailand. In olden times, whenever a rare albino elephant was born or captured, it would be turned over to Thailand's emperor.

Nobody except the emperor could ride a white elephant or dispose of it. So any aristocrat who got under the emperor's skin would be given a sacred white elephant. The victim couldn't do anything with the animal except feed and maintain it - which was costly.

RED HERRING -- This phrase for a false, misleading clue arose in the 17th century. The powerful odor of a red (smoked) herring obliterates just about any scent -- so escaping thieves foiled pursuing bloodhounds by dragging a red herring behind them, then dropping it.

HAIR OF THE DOG - The ancient Romans believed that "like cures like.” So if you saw a Roman walking around with a patch of dog hair stuck to his skin, you knew it was the hair of the dog that bit him - which was thought to be the best medicine. From that evolved the modern version of "hair of the dog": taking a stiff drink the morning after to "cure” a hangover.

LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG - The best theory is that this phrase, which means to give away a secret, originated at English country fairs. A popular scam was to advertise "pigs in pokes," or suckling porkers packaged in sacks - and suckers often discovered they'd just bought an old cat.

Sometimes the victim would be spared when someone opened the bag before it was sold — thus "letting the cat out of the bag.” This also is the origin of the saying, "to buy a pig in a poke” – that is, to buy blind.

HAPPY AS A CLAM - This phrase, which was in circulation by the 1830s, is taken from the saying, "happy as a clam at high water." High tide is when clamming is most difficult.

From the book, ANIMALOGIES: A Fine Kettle of Fish & 150 Other Animal Expressions by Michael Macrone. Copyright ©1995 by Cader Company, Inc., and Michael Macrone. Published by Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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First published in National Enquirer (November 28, 1995)

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