Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Adjectival Animals and Related Topics


Another unexpected disparity in English is the difference between the names of animals and the adjectives referring to them, e.g.


Noun Adjective
cat feline
dog canine
cow bovine
sheep ovine
horse equine
crow corvine
bird avian
snake ophidian
thrush turdine


Other languages derive adjectives from the nouns. Here are a few from Russian, a language I happen to know well. Most of the phonological differences between the adjectives and nouns reflect regular derivational changes in Russian.


Noun Adjective Meaning
sobaka sobachij dog
koshka koshachij cat
loshad’ loshadinyj horse
korova korovij cow
ptica pticij bird


So what is going on here? Does English simply have no adjectives corresponding to the nouns in the first table above? Well, no, we do—for most of them at least—as the next table shows.


Noun Adjective
cat catty
dog doggy, doggish
cow cowish
sheep sheepish
horse horsy


In keeping with my last post, they seem to have gone on to serve pejorative or demi-pejorative functions. A catty woman is not a nice person and sheepish grins and horsy smiles are not complimentary. It is as though we had to adapt a new set of French adjectives in order to have a neutral way of referring to the qualities of animals. The result, however, was a set of words that sound too academic or scholarly to use in ordinary conversation.

Despite the fact that Larry Brady’s comment shows that he does not buy into the theory that we use familiar animals as lexical scapegoats for our own foibles, “direct similes” support it. What are “direct similes” other than a phrase I just made up? Let’s call similes without as or like “direct” and see what they show us. Here are a few based on familiar animals.

John is a dog
Mary is a cat
Tom is a (clothes) horse
Lucy is a cow
Phi is a sheep
Lorn is a chicken
Sam is a snake

Not a pretty sight, huh? These examples could also be called “semantic similes” because they compare the subject of the sentence not with the entire animal, but with only one perceived trait of that animal, a trait that is always negative. Even Fido, whose name accents our love for him because he is so faithful, comes out nasty in this test! How do you explain that?

It does leave room to think that “[f]amiliar animals come off as ‘scape goats, beings that can carry our sins away with them, making similes a vehicle of atonement, among its various other functions,” as I concluded in my last blog.


2 Responses to “Adjectival Animals and Related Topics”

  1. allison Says:

    Suggestion: Rather than making up a phrase like “direct simile” you could use a term that already addresses the situation: metaphor.

  2. rbeard Says:

    “Metaphor”, as I have always heard it used, is not a specific but a general term, as the AHD notes, “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in ‘a sea of troubles’ or ‘All the world’s a stage’ (Shakespeare).” Thus a metaphor could be a simile, a hyperbole (as in the first example here), synecdoche (as in the second), or any other form of comparison.

    There probably is a specific rhetorical name for this but it still escapes me.

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