Monday, May 21, 2012

Fleas, Cats & Whips

In considering the animal kingdom an ancient sage asked the question, “Why was humankind created only on the sixth day and as the very last of all creatures?” He answered the question himself saying, “It was God’s way of telling humans whenever they become overbearing and swollen with pride, ‘Best you remember that even the flea preceded you in creation.’” Of course, the Bible is also quick to point out in the early lines of Genesis that man is given dominion over the other animals, but in some cases that ascendancy is hard to discern. Ever feel defeated by mosquitoes or houseflies? Ever try asserting your dominance over a charging bull? No surprise that our language is so rich in simile and analogy with reference to the animal kingdom—raining cats and dogs, a game of cat and mouse, a snake in the grass, as wise as an owl, a mousy person, a bullish buyer, gentle as a lamb. All those creatures created before man have left a clear mark upon our culture and civilization, and especially upon our language.

Usually the tiny flea points in a metaphorical sense to something small and trifling, something of small importance. But to literally put a flea in someone’s ear is quite the serious matter, and maddening enough to drive that person to the edge of sanity. It is not rare to see a dog with a flea in its ear, restless and scratching, perhaps running in circles. But dogs and cats are far from being the only victims of the lowly flea. Only a few of the many different species of flea choose a human host, but chronicles going back as far as 700 AD tell of Saxon nobles complaining bitterly of flea bites.

Fleas were especially aggravating around the time of the medieval knight. Recall the drawings or movies depicting knights clad in chain mail from head to foot and imagine an adversary more worrying than the one carrying a lance and sword. Much worse were the small gluttons locked inside the knight’s chain mail and unable to hop away even if they wanted. But why leave a host unable to hinder the delicious progress from juicy underarm to delicate earlobe. The flea bit where it pleased and even when sated could find no easy exit. But on occasion the flea made its way to the knight’s ear, settling there for long periods, intermittently biting and jumping and causing the knight endless torment. And there we have the origin of the expression ‘a flea in one’s ear’ denoting something particularly maddening. 

At first hearing this expression gives the notion of rescue, of freeing an animal that by hook or crook got itself caught in a bag unable to escape. But we all know the words mean nothing of the sort, referring instead to a secret suddenly revealed. It started with unscrupulous purveyors of suckling pigs in the country fairs of England in earlier times. The young pigs were most often sold already wrapped inside a sack, but there were occasional tricksters who sold sacks containing not a suckling pig but a cat, a deception not discovered until the buyer got his ‘pig’ home. The wary buyer always insisted on opening the bag immediately to examine the pig.

There is another custom connected to this expression and it comes to us from a practice in Britain’s Royal Navy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ‘cat’ referred not to the animal, but to a whip known as the cat-o’-nine-tails, an instrument of punishment kept in a sack until the day when misdeeds aboard ship were called to reckoning. To let the cat out of the bag meant to take out the whip for a flogging. To readers of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, the expression is familiar from several of the books in the series.


  1. This post is cute as a bug. But expressions using animals are like 800-pound gorillas because there are so many they are like ants in your pants and are not as rare as hen's teeth and trying not to use those expressions is like beating a dead horse or changing horses in midstream while nearby a one-legged duck swims in circles.

  2. How about the saying "buying a pig in a poke".....meaning that one buys something but doesn't know what he's buying.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America