Black sheep and cans of worms: animal idioms, part 4

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By Kate Woodford

This post – the last in our popular ‘animal idioms’ series – looks at idioms featuring animals that range in size from an elephant to a worm. Most of today’s idioms have a rather negative meaning.

Let’s start with the elephant idiom. If people know that a problem exists but they find it too embarrassing or difficult to talk about, the problem may be described as the elephant in the room:

We all know that Tom will have to retire at some point, but no one mentions it – it’s the elephant in the room.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back (or the final/last straw) is the last in a series of bad events that makes you unable to continue with a situation:

I’d been unhappy at work for a while but when Lauren left, well, that was the last straw.

She had endured a heavy workload for years but when they cut her pay, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In a family, the black sheep is a person that the other members disapprove of because they have done bad things in the past:

Daniel wasn’t welcome at gatherings – he was very much the black sheep of the family.

If you describe someone as being like a bear with a sore head, you mean they are in a bad mood and slightly angry with everyone:

I’d avoid David if I were you. He’s like a bear with a sore head this morning!

If something happens or moves at a snail’s pace, it happens or moves very slowly:

The economic recovery continues to proceed at a snail’s pace.

The traffic was so bad – we were moving at a snail’s pace.

The lion’s share of something is the largest part of it:

They continue to own the lion’s share of the smartphone market.

If you watch someone like a hawk, you watch them all the time, usually to make sure they don’t do something bad:

I was worried my three-year-old was going to snatch some food so I was watching her like a hawk.

A red herring is something that someone mistakenly focuses on, taking their attention away from the thing that they should be focusing on:

The police investigated a number of clues, but they all turned out to be red herrings.

Finally, a can of worms is a difficult subject or situation that is so complicated that you don’t want to deal with now:

There’s a gender imbalance in the company, but let’s not open that can of worms.

17 thoughts on “Black sheep and cans of worms: animal idioms, part 4

  1. Maryem Salama

    When we want to say that someone is in a bad mood, we idiomatically say he or she looks surrounded by black hens. I suggest not to speak with the boss now as he seems surrounded by the black hens. You have picked up very expressive idioms. Thank you, dear Kate.

      1. Idioms enrich our language skills but using them depends on the other person’s grasp of the same otherwise it looks like that you are babbling!

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