These Sayings are the Cat’s Meow: Our Favorite Feline Phrases and Idioms

It’s one of our favorite days of the year: National Cat Day! Not only do we think kitties are just purrfect, we also love those whiskery words and feline phrases. Here’s a brief history of cat idioms and where they might come from.

16th century: Kings, care, and the cover of darkness

“Two Children Teasing a Cat,” Annibale Carracci, 1587-88

Cats have minced their way through many a proverb since at least the 1500s. A cat may look at a king is an early one. From about 1546, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it means that there are certain things an inferior might do even in the presence of a superior.

Care killed the cat is from around the same time. Here “care” means worry or sorrow, says The Phrase Finder, so the proverb seems to mean that worry or sorrow would kill even a creature with nine lives — in other words, a cat. Curiosity killed the cat came later, around 1898.

The saying that all cats are gray (in the dark) is from about 1550, says the OED, and means that under certain circumstances, distinguishing qualities between people or things become unimportant.

17th century: Raining and swinging

“A cat and a dog fighting over fowl, a column with draped curtain and coastal landscape beyond,” David de Coninck, 1636-1699

The phrase to rain cats and dogs goes all the way back to at least 1661, says the OED. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it probably comes from cat-and-dog meaning inharmonious.

If you live a tiny space, you could say there’s not enough room to swing a cat, which is from about 1665, again according to the OED.

18th century: Bags, bells, and beaming

“Spring Play in a Tang Garden,” 18th Century

Revealed a secret? Then you’ve let the cat out of the bag. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this phrase is attested from 1760 and probably comes from the French expression acheter chat en poche, “buy a cat in a bag.” This is in contrast with the saying buy a pig in a poke, that is to buy something without looking at it or knowing its true value. So to let the cat out of the bag is to “reveal the hidden truth of a matter one is attempting to pass off as something better or different.”

To bell the cat, meaning to take on a perilous task on behalf of a group, may come from a late 14th century fable about mice belling a cat, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. And while we might think the saying to grin like a Cheshire cat comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was published in 1865, the saying is attested from 1770. However, what the connection is between the English county of Cheshire, grinning, and cats is unclear.

19th century: Skin, tongues, cowards, and copiers

“My Wife’s Lovers,” Carl Kahler, 1893

Poor kitties. So far they’ve been killed by both care and curiosity, swung, and put in bags. By the 1840s, there was also more than one way to skin them, which of course means there’s more than one way to do something.

Cat got your tongue? you might say to someone on the quiet side. While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1911, The Phrase Finder’s is from 1859. However, why a cat would have one’s tongue is unclear.

By 1871, a timid person might be called a fraidy-cat, perhaps from the puss’s practice of leaping and scattering when startled. The term scaredy-cat was scared up a bit later: in 1906. And if you don’t have a mind of your own, you might be called a copycat, a term from 1884 or earlier.

1920s: Cat phrases are the bee’s knees

Ad for the 1926 Paramount film The Cat’s Pajamas

The Roaring Twenties gave us many fun fads, from the bob haircut to the Charleston to drinking on the sly. Another one was animal-themed nonsense phrases that described something excellent. As per the OED, cat’s meow is from 1921 while cat’s whiskers and cat’s pajamas are from 1923 and 1925, respectively. An non-excellent cat phrase from 1928 is to look or feel like something the cat dragged in.

1980s: Herding and more swinging

The phrase herding cats — trying to control something unwieldy — is from the mid-1980s. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1986 while other sources mention a slightly earlier one from 1985. The saying was made even more popular by a commercial from 2000.

Reminiscent of the 17th-century phrase not enough room to swing a cat is the more macabre can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something there are too many of. From a Jan. 22, 2018 article in NBC Montana: “In California you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Tesla.” World Wide Words says the phrase is from the late 1980s.

Want more animal words and phrases? Check out our posts on regional slang terms for dogs, linguistic (and literal) animal blends, and how to speak rabbit.

Twitchers, Megas, and Life Lists: A Brief Guide to Birdwatching Lingo

“Birdwatching in Panama” by Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0)

Avian celebration is definitely not for the birds. There are no fewer than four days that fete our feathered friends: National Bird Day from the Avian Welfare Coalition on Jan. 5; World Migratory Bird Day from the Environment of the Americas on the second Saturday in May in the U.S. and Canada and the second Saturday in October in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean; and finally Bird Day on May 4 as established in 1894 by Charles Almanzo Babcock, a superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pa.

Whichever day you choose to honor these winged creatures, we hope you enjoy these birdwatching terms.


Those who practice ornithoscopy have a few different names. Birder is American English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first appearing in a 1945 issue of, appropriately enough, Audubon Magazine: “As a birder and a soldier, I’ve wandered up and down the country.”

Twitcher is a British English term that came about later and refers specifically to a birdwatcher “whose main aim is to make sightings of rare birds,” says the OED, often traveling “great distances to do so.” It might also mean an “enthusiastic or obsessive birdwatcher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation from a 1974 article in The Guardian: “An exhausted North American spotted sandpiper..has become the latest target for the ornithological ‘tick-hunters’ or ‘twitchers’ of Britain.” As for twitcher’s origin, it might come from “the nervous excitement of a birdwatcher.” To twitch is to spot or seek a rare bird.

Or stringers and lists

If someone calls you a stringer, watch out: it might be the worst insult in birding. A stringer is someone who not only often misidentifies birds, they add such mistaken identities to their life list, a record of all the species a birder has seen in their lifetime.

A correctly identified species seen for the first time by someone keeping a life list is a lifer, which can also refer to the sighting itself. A regular addition to a life list is a tick., which the OED defines as “a ticked item on a list, esp. a list of birds to be observed.”

While it’s not clear where stringer comes from, life list dates back to 1900, lifer to 1958, and tick to 1975, all according to the OED. 

Birdwatching hits and misses

Want to attract a little bird’s attention? You might make a noise like pish. Just miss seeing a rare bird? You’ve dipped or dipped out. Meanwhile, the just-missed bird is a dip. Someone else see your dip and tell you about it? They’ve gripped or gripped off

The birds themselves

Of course the birds themselves have nicknames as well. A common species might be referred to as a peep or LBJ, which stands for “little brown job,” while a BOP is a bird of prey. Rare birds might be called mega, mega-find, mega-rarity, and mega-tick.

Battle of the birdwatchers

If you haven’t already noticed, birdwatching can get pretty competitive. Hence, the big year, an informal competition brought to you by the American Birding Association in which twitchers see who can observe “the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.” It’s also the inspiration for a book and a movie.

Want more bird words? Check out these singular bird names and these “wirds” of a feather.

Happy World Elephant Day! Celebrate with Seven Elephant-Related Words and Phrases

We hope you didn’t forget — it’s World Elephant Day! Observed every Aug. 12, this special day seeks to raise awareness about the protection and preservation of this massive mammal. We’re celebrating the way we like best: by exploring some elephant words and idioms.

elephant in the room

“England enter the Guinness Six Nations with a united squad after addressing any grievances over Saracens’ salary cap scandal, described by Jonny May as the ‘elephant in the room.’”

Duncan Bech, “England players address ‘elephant in the room’ as Saracens scandal is discussed,” PA Media, Jan. 24, 2020

This phrase meaning an obvious problem or issue that’s being ignored or avoided might come from a 1984 book title, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

An earlier sense (the “type of something obvious and incongruous, esp. (in Logic and Philosophy) in discussions of statements which may or may not correspond to observable facts”) is from a 1935 book American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow: “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not.”

white elephant

“But the project’s still a white elephant. The elevated tram from the Willets Park station near Citi Field to the airport doesn’t create a one-seat ride to LaGuardia.”

Post Editorial Board, “AOC is right: LaGuardia AirTrain is a worthless white elephant,” New York Post, Jan. 14, 2020

A white elephant is a burdensome possession — basically something that yields very little return on investment. The OED’s earliest citation is from a Dec. 16, 1721 issue of London Journal: “In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made.”

As for the origin of the phrase, one theory says it comes from a story about a king in Thailand who would gift white elephants in order to bankrupt his enemies. However, there might be no such story as, according to Thai historian Rita Ringis, white elephants would never be considered a burden by Thai monarchs and in fact are a symbol of good fortune.

Regardless of where the phrase came from, during the winter holidays many of us are victims participants in white elephant gift exchanges, otherwise known as Yankee swaps, during which unwanted or ridiculous presents are foisted on others in exchange for something else unwanted or ridiculous.

pink elephant

“In the film, the circus’ water bucket becomes tainted with Champagne, causing both Dumbo and his rodent sidekick to see visions of terrifying pink elephants engaged in trippy shapeshifting, morphing into musical instruments, and forming a giant super-elephant made up of elephant heads.”

Sarah Baird, “The Boozy Underbelly of Saturday Morning Cartoons,” Eater, Aug. 10, 2015

To see pink elephants means to hallucinate from drugs or alcohol. The OED’s earliest citation is from an April 1900 issue of Blue Pencil Magazine: “She don’t stand for this booze business, and I’m opposed to it myself. D’ye see them pink elephants running up my pants legs?” Perhaps the most famous hallucinatory pink elephants are from Disney’s 1941 animated film, Dumbo.

to see the elephant

“It is not positively an eternal Gun-Cotton-dom which they crave, but simply to see the elephant — to have a great time, and retire.”

Seeing the Elephant,” The New York Times, March 1, 1861

To see the elephant is an old-timey way of saying to see the world or get experience in life. It originated in American English, says the OED, perhaps around 1835: “That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the elephant.”

elephant joke

“How do you get six elephants in a Volkswagen? Three in the front and three in the back. This fad began in 1960, when Wisconsin toy maker L.M. Becker Co. released a set of 50 elephant-joke trading cards.” 

Bathroom Readers Institute, “Why the Chicken Actually Crossed the Road—and the History Behind 9 More Jokes,” Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1, 2018

Elephant jokes refer to a series of riddles involving, you guessed it, elephants, which was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. The trading cards mentioned in the quote seem to have been released in 1960 by now seemingly defunct toy manufacturer L. M. Becker. The OED’s earliest citation for elephant joke is from the 1968 comedy film Don’t Just Stand There starring Robert Wagner and Mary Tyler Moore: “Well, hell, do isometric exercises, tell elephant jokes, write postcards.”


“Despite how easy it is to snap those all-pervasive self portraits, the short distance from the camera combines with the wide-angle lens to puff the proboscis.”

Leslie Katz, “Yes, selfies do make your nose look bigger,” CNET, March 1, 2018

Before proboscis jokingly referred to a person’s nose, especially of Cyrano proportions, it meant an elephant’s trunk. Ultimately from the Greek proboskis, meaning “elephant’s trunk” but literally translating as “means for taking food,” the word’s elephant sense is from the late 16th century while the human one is from 1631. From The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart by Ben Johnson: “No flattery for’t: No lick-foote, paine of loosing your proboscis.”


“The bill takes aim at a problem of mammoth proportions: up to a third of the world’s food is wasted, much of it rotting in landfills.”

Lindsay Abrams, “France’s bold attack on food waste: Law will prohibit supermarkets from trashing unsold food,” Salon, May 22, 2015

Mammoth meaning a prehistoric elephant-like mammal is Russian in origin, coming from mamant, which probably comes from probably an Ostyak word meaning “earth” since the creature’s remains were dug up from the ground in Siberia. Its first recorded use in English is from 1706: “The old Siberian Russians affirm that the Mammuth is very like the Elephant.” 

It was around 1801 that mammoth came to mean huge or gigantic. In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I recieved [sic] … a present of a quarter of a Mammoth-veal which at 115. days old weighed 438. lb.”

Check out this list for even more elephantine words.

Mutts, Mongrels, and Curs: 12 Regional Slang Terms


We don’t think we’ve met a doggo we didn’t like, but there’s something about mutts and mongrels that tugs extra hard at our heartstrings. We’re not talking designer dog blends but those curs of more mixed or indeterminate breeds.

The names are as varied as the tykes themselves, and often change depending on where you live. The Dictionary of Regional American English (DARE) has captured much of these through their 1,800 field recordings (now freely available online) from across the United States. On this National Dog Day, we bring you 12 of those regional slang terms for mutts, mongrels, and curs.

Heinz dog

Heinz dog is used throughout the U.S., says DARE. In addition to a dog of mixed or indeterminate breed, it’s a joking or uncomplimentary word for a dog in general. The term has a kennel of variants, including Heinz, Heinz 57, Heinz fifty-seven dog, fifty-seven varieties dog, Heinz mixture, Heinz terrier, and Heinzee hound.

The name comes from the Heinz Company’s advertising of its ketchup, which “somewhat mysteriously brags about the company’s ‘57 Varieties,’” says FastCo Design. However, there have never been 57 varieties of Heinz products. Company founder Henry J. Heinz was inspired by an ad for a company that made “21 varieties” of shoes, and came up with 57 by using his favorite number, five, and his wife’s, seven.

poi dog

Hailing from the Aloha State, this mongrel moniker once referred to a native Hawaiian breed that’s now extinct. It’s also a slur for someone of native Hawaiian ancestry. The DARE interviewees offer a few different theories for the origin. One is that the native breed was either “fattened on poi and served at feasts,” or served at said feasts along with poi. Another is that “poi is a mixture just like a mongrel is.”

sofkee dog

Got a mutt in Florida or Oklahoma? You’ve got a sofkee dog. Also sofkey, sofki, and sophky. The word sofkee comes from Muskogee (Creek) Nation safki and refers to a soup or gruel whose main ingredient is boiled corn, also known in some parts as hominy. Hominy comes from the Virginia Algonquian uskatahomen.

soup hound

All a soup hound’s fit to do is eat, says an Alabama resident. Might also be heard in parts of California, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington. The nickname might have to do with the idea of soup being mixed and having a variety of ingredients.


This saying for a hound, usually of mixed breed, or any nondescript dog, is from the Gulf States, which includes Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and eastern Texas. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it’s also a Caribbean term, and in North America once referred to a contemptible person. Someone who’s pot-licking is an obsequious brown noser.


Have a mixed pooch in Louisiana and you have a kyoodle, also spelled cayoodle, kiyutle, and kiyoodle. The OED says this expression means to make a loud noise, or to bark or yap, and is imitative in origin.

But which came first, kyoodle the dog or kyoodle the woof? The former it seems. The OED’s earliest citation is from John Steinbeck’s 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat: “The dogs..sought out a rabbit and went kyoodling after it.” DARE’s is from the 1906 My Old Bailiwick by Owen Kildare: “So you was going to have me arrested for finishing that kyoodle o’ your’n?”


If you’re an outlaw in southeast Alabama or south-central Louisiana, you’re a fugitive or a farrago or a fido. Another animal definition includes a horse that is unmanageable, chiefly uttered in the West.


While English and Irish setters were “originally trained to indicate the presence of game by crouching in a set position,” the only setting this cur in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio might do is on the edge of the road.

In addition to stones that make up a curb, curbstone also refers to someone untrained or unsophisticated, and by extension could refer to a mangy mutt. This sense might come from curbstone broker, which, according to the OED, means a broker who’s not a member of the stock exchange but who “transacts business in the streets.”


A small potpourri pup might be called a feist in the South and South Midland states. The term has many variations, including fais(t), faus(t), fife, and fist(e), and is a shortening of fisting-hound or foisting-hound, which ultimately comes from fist meaning to break wind. By extension, says DARE, it can also refer to  “a person or animal that is irascible, touchy, or bad-tempered.”

hound dog

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” sang Elvis. So it might not be surprising that this mongrel expression is popular in the Lower Mississippi Valley, which includes parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as Texas and the South Atlantic states.

hush puppy

In addition to deep-fried cornmeal and the brand name of a soft, lightweight shoe, a hush puppy might refer to a mongrel hunting dog in Alabama.

soon(er) dog

A sooner or sooner man is a lazy, good-for-nothing person, says DARE, ironically playing on sooner meaning the opposite, a quick or clever person. By extension is the South and South Midland sooner dog, as describes an east Tennessee resident: “I’ve got a sooner dog. He’d sooner lay in the house as out in the yard.”

Another meaning of sooner is someone “who settled homestead land in the western United States before it was officially made available, in order to have first choice of location,” and perhaps by extension, a resident of Oklahoma.

18 Linguistic (And Literal) Animal Blends

2 Zonkeys

You may have heard of the pizzly, a cross between polar and grizzly bears. Normally, never the twain shall meet: polar bears are marine mammals, says the Washington Post, while grizzlies are landlubbers. However, the twain are meeting now as sea ice shrinks and the tundra expands.

Pizzlies (or grolars if you prefer) got us thinking about other animal mixes. Check out these 18 linguistic and literal beastly blends.

Tigon, liger

These tiger hybrids are perhaps the most well-known of unusual animal fusions. A tigon is a cross between a male tiger and a female lion while a liger is the product of a male lion and a female tiger. Slate warns that while crossbreeding two big cats may seem like a no-brainer, there are downsides. For instance, ligers can “suffer from unsustainable growth.” Often, as a result, “their hearts give out.”

The word tigon first appeared in English in the late 1920s, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The first tigon may have been shown in a touring British circus in the 19th century while one of the most famous early tigons was presented to the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park in 1924 or 1928. While the first ligers on record may be from 1824, the word didn’t appear in print until about 1938.

Leopon, jagulep

A leopon is the product of a leopard and a lion, and may have first been bred in the early 20th century. A jagulep is what you get when you cross a jaguar and leopard.

The leopard itself was originally thought to be a hybrid, specifically between a lion and a panther, says Online Etymology Dictionary. The word is from the late 13th century and comes from the Late Latin leopardus, literally “lion-panther.” The word jaguar is from about 1600 and is Portuguese in origin, ultimately coming from the Guarani jaguá, yaguar, “dog.”

Coydog, wolf dog, coywolf

While you won’t find any labradoodles or cockapoos here (check out our classic dog words post for those), you will find these coyote, wolf, and dog concoctions. The coydog isn’t a shy Fido but the result of a coyote and feral dog pairing. A wolf dog, while also a dog trained to hunt wolves, is the lovechild of a wolf and a dog. Finally, a coywolf is the output of a coyote-wolf union.


What do you get when you cross a female bottlenose dolphin and a male false killer whale? A wholphin of course.

The word wholphin is a medley of Old English and Greek parts. The word whale is from the ninth century and comes from the Old English hwæl. Dolphin is from the 14th century and ultimately comes from the Greek delphis, which is related to delphys, “womb,” possibly from the idea “of the animal bearing live young, or from its shape.”

Mule, hinny

A mule may not be exotic, but it is indeed an amalgam, in this case of a male donkey and female horse. Meanwhile, a hinny is a mix between a male horse and a female donkey.

While infertile, mules might be considered a result of hybrid vigor, also known as heterosis, in which “increased vigor or other superior qualities [arise] from the crossbreeding of genetically different plants or animals.” Mules are stronger than horses of similar size yet eat less, and have the endurance and independence of donkeys.

The word mule is from the 12th century and is Latin in origin. Hinny is from the 1680s and comes from the Greek innos, which has the same sense but is of unknown origin.

Zonkey, zorse, zebrinny

A zebra hybrid is known as a zebroid, a term attested to 1899, according to the OED: “The zebroid, or hybrid between the horse and the zebra, ‘will be the mule of the 20th century’.” Zebroids include the zonkey, a cross between a zebra and donkey; the zorse, the offspring of a female horse and male zebra; and the zebrinny, that of a male horse and female zebra. The term zebrinny was coined by one Professor E. C. Ewart. Like mules, zebroids are almost always infertile, says Slate, and sometimes experience dwarfism.

Dzo, zobo, yakalo

The dzo, zobo, and yakalo are, you guessed it, yaks crossed with, respectively, a domesticated cow, a zebu, and the American bison or buffalo.

The dzo is the sterile male while the dzomo is the fertile female. Like the mule, they’re a product of hybrid vigor, and are considered larger and stronger than other yak and cattle in the region. The words dzo, dzomo, zobo, and yak are Tibetan in origin. Yak, which comes from gyag, is thought to be imitative.


No, not that not that Jeep. A geep is a sheep-goat hybrid. Such successful matings are rare, says Modern Farmer, and “most resulting pregnancies are never carried to term.” Understandably, some experts are suspicious of those claiming to have a real-life geep on their hands. “There are lots of anecdotes floating around about these hybrids,” says a professor from UC Davis, “but there are very few legitimate documented cases.”


The cama is what you get when you cross two long-necked creatures. Size-wise, the infertile cama is between the camel and the llama, says Slate. It doesn’t have a hump but it does “seem to have a thicker bone structure than” a llama. Its coat is “long-haired and llama-y while the tail is more camelicious—which is also the name of a popular camel milk brand, FYI.”

For even more animal hybrids, check out this list.

The Year of the Rooster words


Get your firecrackers and red envelopes ready, the Lunar New Year is almost here!

As you may know,  the Chinese zodiac rotates on a 12-year cycle, with an animal representing each year. This time around it’s the hardworking and ostentatious rooster, which got us thinking about the origin of rooster words. Here’s a brief history of those terms that go cock-a-doodle-doo.

Cock versus rooster

The word cock, referring to an adult male chicken, is quite old, originating in the late ninth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It comes from the Old English cocc, “male bird,” and is imitative in origin.

The more salacious meaning of cock arose (ahem) around 1618. Rooster, perhaps a euphemistic shortening of the older roost-cock, is from the 1770s. The OED describes the term as chiefly used in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, while the Online Etymology Dictionary says rooster became “favored in the U.S. originally as a puritan alternative to cock (n.) after it had acquired the secondary sense ‘penis.’”


Another name for a rooster, chanticleer is a 14th-century term that started as proper name and comes from animal fables. Other such animal names include bruin for bear, grimalkin for cat, and Reynard for fox. Chanticleer comes from the French chanter, “to sing.”


A cockatrice is mythic serpent that hatches from a cock’s egg, has “the power to kill by its glance,” and has characteristics of both a snake and a rooster. However, the word doesn’t come from the Old English cocc but the Latin calcāre, “to track.”


This onomatopoetic word for a rooster cry is attested to 1573, says the OED. Other languages have their own versions. In French it’s cocorico; in German, kikeriki; and in Russian, kikareku. Check out this post for a list of cock-a-doodle-doos from around the world.

Cock-and-bull story

This useful phrase referring to “an absurd or highly improbable tale passed off as being true” might be allusion to Aesop’s fables, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and their “incredible talking animals.”

Want more fowl words? Check out this list. Happy Year of the Rooster!

Shark Week: Sharkings and Loan

Loan Shark

The 25th anniversary of Shark Week starts this Sunday, and we’re taking a bite out of some sharky words. Last year we explored shark types (our favorite is the wobbegong), terms (mermaid’s-purse anyone?), and idioms (careful of that voodoo shark!). This year we’re diving into the predatory human side of the cartilaginous carnivore.

The origin of the word shark, as applied to the animal, is uncertain. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the 1560s “the word and the first specimen were brought to London by Capt. John Hawkins’s second expedition.” From a handbill advertising the exhibition: “There is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a ‘sharke.'” A possible relation is the German schirk, “sturgeon.”

Shark referring to “a sharper; a cheat; a greedy, dishonest fellow who eagerly preys upon others; a rapacious swindler,” seems to have come about slightly later, around 1599. The origin is also unknown. It may come from the German Schurke, “scoundrel, villain,” or, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French cherquier or chercher, “to seek,” as in the phrase chercher le broust, “to hunt after feasts, to play the parasite or smell-feast.”

A variation of shark is sharp, as in cardsharp, also known as card shark, “a professional card player who makes a living by cheating at card games.” If you lose all your money to a card shark, you may need a loan shark, “one who lends money at exorbitant interest rates, especially one financed and supported by an organized crime network.” The term is attested to 1900. An older word is usurer, which originated in the late 13th century, while a synonym is shylock, “a ruthless moneylender,” which attests to 1786 and is named for a character in Shakepeare’s The Merchant of Venice. How ruthless? Shylock demanded as payment a pound of flesh, which now refers to any “debt harshly insisted upon.”

A juice collector works for a loan shark, collecting the money, or juice, owed. Juice is slang for “funds; money.” Around the 16th century, says Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, juice‘s meaning of “the profits of a profession or office” came about, while in the late 17th century and the 1920s, juice referred especially to money from bribery, corruption, or loan-sharking. These meanings may be due to “money’s ‘lubricant’ properties.” A juice loan is “a loan at usurious interest rates, normally made by organised criminals,” while vigorish, or vig, is “a charge taken on bets, as by a bookie or gambling establishment,” or “interest, especially excessive interest, paid to a moneylender.” Vigorish is Yiddish slang and comes from the Russian vyigrysh, “winnings.”

If you’re a sailor, watch out for land-sharks  those who subsist “by cheating or robbing sailors on shore.” The land-shark is also known as a land-pirate, or “a land-grabber; one who seizes upon land by force or chicanery.” The term seems to have originated in the 19th century. Meanwhile, a sea lawyer, a species of shark, is also “a querulous or captious sailor, disposed to criticize orders rather than to obey them; one who is always arguing about his work, and making trouble.” As says a 1908 piece in The New York Times:

Sea lawyer and pest are synonomous term with every Captain. The sea lawyer is the man with little education and a meddlesome disposition. His mate on land is the fellow who shows up after every accident and advises: “Sue the company.”

Be careful also of shirkers, those who “avoid or get off from unfairly or meanly; slink away from,” or “practise mean or artful tricks; live by one’s wits.” Shirk, like shark, comes from the German Schurke, “scoundrel,” which is related to the Old High German fiurscurgo, “demon,” where fiur means “fire” and scurigen, “to stir up.” Those with shark’s manners are rapacious, “greedy; ravenous,” or “subsisting on live prey,” and may engage in feeding frenzies, periods of “intense or excited feeding, as by sharks,” or figuratively, “excited activity by a group, especially around a focal point.”

The literal meaning feeding frenzy has been in use since the 1950s, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, while the metaphorical meaning came about around 1989. However, we found a couple of earlier citations. The following comparison is from a July 7, 1976 column by Pat Buchanan: “The national press would become as sharks in a feeding frenzy.” The below is from Jim Bishop on August 23, 1978:

Immediately after Watergate there was a silence, as though a bleeding man had slipped into a shark pool. After that, it was a feeding frenzy. The press corps shredded the president and all his men.

What are some of your favorite shark words?

[Photo via Flickr: “Fishes-22-090 – Thrasher, Basking Shark, Brown Shark, Rough Hound,” CC BY 2.0 by]