Mmm. This butcher’s dog has an uncharacteristic hangdog look.

7-minute read


I’ve got a bee in my bonnet at the moment about animal imagery, so when I read someone being described as fit as a whippet, it set me thinking about which animals or other things you can be as fit as.

Which other beasts in the animal kingdom do people invoke to beef up the idea of being physically fit?

The two similes that immediately sprang to mind were (as) fit as a fiddle (of course)* and the one the BH often uses, as fit as a butcher’s dog. ‘Fit’ in these well-known set phrases (‘idiomatic similes’) is used in its older meaning of physically fit rather than sexually attractive.

I started sniffing through corpus to see how large the menagerie is and came across a few surprises.

What animals can we be as fit as?

In the two data sets I dug into (2014 and 2018), there were the usual suspects.

(Use of as is optional; for some similes use without it is almost as frequent as use with.)

(as) fit as a fiddle is the most popular by a long chalk. (But we’re not interested here in Strads or Amatis! Editor). Okay, okay! I’ll try to stick to the point.

In order of popularity, and jostling to be first into the Ark, we have (as) fit as a flea, and (as) fit as a butcher’s dog. So far, so obvious.

Trailing behind them sprints, charges, crawls, springs or swims – yes, swims – a mottled menagerie of buck rats, greyhounds, whippets, bull moose, horses, trout, ferrets, fleas, Mallee bulls, mountain goats and pandas.

Pandas? Read on.

Oh, dear. When I saw this image I didn’t see the lead. Were I to anthropomorphize, I’d say those eyes are imploring ‘set me free’.

How ‘set in stone’ is the idiom?

It’s one of those that allow a certain amount of wiggle room in the noun group.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the animals invoked have to display certain characteristics attributed to them, in reality or by convention. And what are they?

  • brute strength in horses, bull moose, and Mallee bulls;
  • litheness, agility, gracefulness (and speed) in greyhounds, whippets, ferrets, trout (?) and mountain goats;
  • simple speed in buck rats, I presume (try shooing rats away, as I have, and you’ll see what I mean)

As for fleas, well, they do jump around a lot on, from and onto their hosts – so I’m told.


And as for the butcher’s dog, presumably it’s all the meaty titbits/tidbits said hound gets fed with, or snaffles, that keep it fit – at least according to the old idea that meat = health.

Alternatively, historically a butcher’s dog is a large mastiff or possible even a Rottweiler:

Gret bucher dogges, þe whiche bochers holdeth forto helpe hem to brynge her beestes þat þei bieth in þe contre. (Great butcher dogs which butchers keep to help them lead their animals that they buy in the country.)
a1425  Edward, Duke of York Master of Game (Digby) xv. 72

(You’re drifting off the main point! Editor.) So I am. Either way, we’re talking muscled mutts.

Why do we use these similes?

(Before going on, I should point out that these ‘idiomatic similes’ involving animals are a mere tiny subset of the (as) ADJECTIVE + NOUN GROUP type – think safe as houses, snug as a bug [in a rug], etc. –, which is itself a minuscule part of our lexicon of what can broadly be called metaphors. There’s a list of several as similes here.) In one way, they have an obvious expressive function. Our language would be very dull indeed if we only ever used neutrally descriptive words:

‘He’s very fit’
‘And? Your point is?’

They thus intensify the adjective more vigorously than a simple intensifier like very can achieve: he’s very fit vs he’s as fit as a butcher’s dog.

And they have an obvious social function: when you use them, you are selecting a morsel of language that you share with your interlocutor or reader and you thereby strengthen your connectedness. It has also been claimed (Carter, 2004) that ‘Simile is more designed for the recipient than metaphor, which often required more interpretation.’

On another level, they are part of the metaphorical compass we often use to navigate our way through the world using English. At its simplest, think of the omnipresent ‘journey’ that people use to describe an experience that has changed or developed them in some way. It has been suggested that similes in general are part of a convention of story-telling (Mary had a little lamb, her fleece was white as snow).

Jingle bells…

At the level of sound, it also seems clear why some are used more than others. After fit as a fiddle, fit as a flea is the commonest. Alliteration rules, OK! (how long is it since that formula was popular?) in both, as it does in fit as a ferret, which also has the repetition of the short /ɪ/ sound.

That double /ɪ/ jingle might partially account for fit as a fiddle’s pre-eminence, that and its antiquity (before 1605 in the OED). Fit as a whippet trumps them both by having the sound thrice. Compare it for pzazz with fit as a greyhound and the winner seems clear. Ramped-up alliteration combined with emphasis accounts for fit as a f****** fiddle. (As fit as a thistle, which also turns up once, can be explained by the almost-alliteration + vowel matching).

Another sound feature perhaps worth mentioning is number of syllables. Other than butcher’s dog, none has more than two syllables, and even it has 2 + 1.

How much variation?

Is it an ‘open set’ as linguists would call it: can you just add to it ad infinitum, provided the animal invoked fulfils the criteria? The safest approach seems to be that there is a small established set of animal similes generally recognized by English speakers (‘institutionalized’, to use the jargon) and beyond them a rather larger, fuzzy set where wordplay sometimes has a role. Some of these outliers are discussed under Examples later on.

With the caveat that corpora cannot provide the full picture, on the basis of what I looked at and some further searches, the core, institutionalized group would be, in alpha order:

fit as a butcher’s dog
fit as a ferret
fit as a flea

fit as a greyhound
fit as a horse
fit as a mountain goat
fit as a trout

The boundary between ‘idiomatic similes’ which are fixed, institutionalized on the one hand and lexical creativity on the other is hard to set. In an earlier draft, I had surmised that antelope was an unlikely candidate because of its three syllables, despite fulfilling the criteria of speed and gracefulness. A Google search (17 October 2019) throws up just four examples (for frequency compare that with 2,200 for mountain goat), making it an almost-hapax (which is a contradiction in terms, but for my money 4 hits on Google is hapaxish in old money).
My late aunt once described my athletic cousin as ‘like a gazelle’ (she runs up mountains! Eek!) and, sure enough, as fit as a gazelle shows up 2,760 times on Google (same date as previously). Apart from being more prototypical for the qualities speed and grace, it also, crucially, has one syllable less than antelope.

Are there regional variations?

Fit as a Mallee bull is definitely Australian in origin. The mallee is scrub vegetation ‘consisting of dense scrub dominated by low-growing bushy eucalypts, characteristic of semi-desert areas of Victoria and some other parts of southern Australia’ (OED). For a bull to survive there, it would need to be fighting fit.

Fit as a buck rat seems to be a New Zealand speciality. (Are their rats different?)

Examples

A. First, about that panda…it’s an ironically humorous way of saying how unfit the speaker was: Gilbert has just completed a trek up the 19,340ft Mount Kilimanjaro with Wales rugby legend Martyn Williams in aid of Velindre Cancer Centre. He raised more than £ 4,000 in the six-day trek, despite saying he was about as fit as a panda.
chortle.co.uk, 2013

The possibly surprising fit as a trout is, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, a creation of Conan Doyle’s. In my corpus we had, The All Blacks had a light training in sunny Swansea on Monday morning and the big news is captain Richie McCaw is as fit as a trout. The sore hip that ruled him out
stuff.co.nz, 2015
While not confined to NZ, other searches suggest it is more popular there than elsewhere.

Occasional examples are metalinguistic, that is, they are making a comment on the phrase or referring to its use in some way: Thankfully William, who seems as fit as a proverbial mountain goat as he mentions his recent hike from Cape Reinga to Wellington, is happy to set a leisurely pace…
NZ Herald
, 2015

Even the men in the crowd freely admitted that Tony was looking as fit as a you-know-what.
Irish Examiner, 2004

The use of ‘proverbial’ indicates clearly that a simile is standard, as in I think it’s genetic. I don’t drink, I exercise three or four times a week (in the gym – hard training) take vitamins, manuka honey (how expensive is that stuff!), drink green tea endlessly, eat fruit, veg, chicken, brown rice. etc. and I ‘m still always flaming poorly. Other people abuse themselves constantly and are fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog.
Daily Mail, 2013 (Brit.)

B. Apart from the previous metalinguistic examples, there are minor variations that intensify the image, such as fit as a racing greyhound and‘Chico will take me out and do a bit of jogging along the waterfront,’ says Bobby, who adds worriedly: ‘Have you seen him? He’s fit as a butcher’s whippet’.
thisisplymouth.co.uk
, 2014 (Brit.)

The second intensifies the image by specifying the meat-monger’s hound.**

C. Occurring once only in the corpora consulted:
She confirmed that while Torro originated from the Uralla site, the pup had left her shop as ‘fit as a bull.
feeds.sma.com.au., 2015

This is a variant of the much commoner phrase (as) strong as a bull. Fit as a bull moose references Theodore Roosevelt: It was popularly known as the ‘Bull Moose Party’, after Roosevelt told reporters, ‘I’m as fit as a bull moose.’
thefreedictionary.com, 2017

I’ve been hitting the running pretty hard this week, and so far, I’m pleased with the results. My pants are loose, my arms are firmer and those HGH tablets I bought have made me as fit as a horse!
feedburner.com, 2013

This one riffs on the more frequent (and alliterative) healthy as a horse as well as on strong as a horse.

D. First occurrence according to the OED.

This is excellent ynfayth, as fit as a Fiddle.
a1605   W. Haughton English-men for my Money (1616) sig. Gv

1889   As fit as a flea, as ready and eager as a flea for blood.
J. Nicholson Folk Speech E. Yorkshire iii. 19

1960    ‘All right. How’s Bubby?’ ‘Fit as a Mallee bull! Got another tooth.’
Overland (MelbourneApr. 7


*The original meaning of fit in fit as a fiddle is ‘appropriate, apt’. It was only in the nineteenth century that it acquired its current meaning.

**In the frame as ADJ as a whippet, ADJ varies a lot, and fit is far less common than fast/lean/skinny/thin.

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