SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
April 25, 1966
Having examined the animal clich�s beloved of writers and found them to be inaccurate or just inadequate, the author herewith offers his own high-fidelity zoological vocabulary
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April 25, 1966

Fast As An Elephant, Strong As An Ant

Having examined the animal clich�s beloved of writers and found them to be inaccurate or just inadequate, the author herewith offers his own high-fidelity zoological vocabulary

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One day recently I was reading a story about the San Diego Chargers when I came across the following sentence describing Mr. Ernie Ladd, a tackle who is said to be 6 feet 9 inches tall and to weigh 300 pounds. Ladd, the report stated, has "a body that a grizzly bear could be proud of." Now, this is an example of the falsely anthropomorphic and the factually inaccurate natural-history metaphor, a literary device widely used by sportswriters and one that I have long thought should be reported to authorities and stamped out.

The description of Ernie Ladd is objectionable on two counts. First, there is no evidence that bears take pride in their personal appearance, physical prowess or muscular development. Among animals, only men seem susceptible to narcissism. And even if grizzlies did have the emotions of a beach boy and sat about the woods admiring their physiques, no bear would be proud of having a body like that of Mr. Ladd.

According to my copy of Mammals of the World (Ernest P. Walker, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1964, page 1173), "Grizzlies 2.5 meters [about 8 feet] in length and 360 kg. [800 pounds] in weight have been recorded...." In brief, Mr. Ladd is simply too puny to impress a grizzly even if grizzlies were impressionable in these matters.

I have never been one to criticize without offering constructive alternatives. Additional reading of Mammals of the World has uncovered some statistics that may prove useful in the future. Should the need arise, one might accurately (though still anthropomorphically) write that Mr. Ernie Ladd has a body that a female gray seal (150 kg., 2 meters) or a pygmy hippopotamus (160 kg. 1.9 meters, counting tail) might be proud of.

It is not my purpose to embarrass or harass the man who wrote the story. Rather, it is to point out that he is the inheritor, the victim, of a bad journalistic tradition. Sportswriters have been comparing such and such an athlete to this or that animal since the dawn of sports. Many of these long-standing figures, metaphors, similes and tropes are even more wildly inaccurate and ridiculous than the comparison of Mr. Ladd to a grizzly bear.

An example that comes quickly to mind is the expression "wild as a hawk," used to describe either erratic performance (a baseball pitcher who cannot throw the ball across the plate) or untamable behavior (a fractious horse). In both senses the phrase is misleading. As far as control goes, the birds of prey are the antithesis of wildness (in the baseball use of the word). A duck hawk, for example, flying a mile high in the sky, can suddenly turn, dive earthward at 175 mph and strike a tiny sandpiper flying just a few feet above the ground. Sandy Koufax should be so accurate. As to being untamable, I, as a falconer, have often captured a feral adult hawk and in a month had the bird flying free, returning to my hand in response to a whistled command.

My own suggestion is that "wild as a heron" would better suggest the kind of behavior that wild as a hawk is supposed to describe. In many situations herons appear uncoordinated, almost spastic. Seeing a long-legged, gangly heron trying to land or take off from the ground is an experience. Furthermore, herons are far wilder (in the ferocious sense) than hawks. The most painful injury I ever received from an animal was given me by an American bittern (a heron type), who gouged a large hole in my wrist as I was attempting to free him from a fish trap.

"Loose as a goose" is an avian simile, supposedly suggesting extreme suppleness. Actually, geese have rigid pinions and are more or less bound like weight lifters by a heavy layer of pectoral muscle. Straight as a goose, stiff as a goose, pompous as a goose would be all right. But loose as a goose? Never. A better expression of the notion would be: "Though Slats Slattern has been a stellar NBA performer for 12 seasons, he remains young in spirit and loose as a mink." The slim-bodied minks, as well as weasels, ferrets and otters, are designed along the lines of a wet noodle. They look, and in fact are, far looser than a goose can possibly be.

Turning to mammals, an agility simile is "quick as a cat," often used in connection with such athletes as shortstops and goalies. It is true that cats are quicker than some things—turtles, mice, goldfish in bowls, for example—but they are much less quick than many other creatures. Any wheezing old dog worth its salt can catch a cat. I once had a crow so quick that it could fly down and deliver three pecks between the eyes of a cat (which the crow despised) before the feline could raise a paw in self-defense. Not long ago I was watching a tame baboon which had the run of a yard in which was caged an ocelot. The baboon, even though working through bars, would reach into the cage and, while the ocelot was trying to get her reflexes in order, grab the cat by both her handsome tail and pointed ears. Baboon-quick is accurate and has a nice exotic ring to it.

Cats may not be the quickest animals, but at least one of the family, the cheetah, is the swiftest mammal as far as straight-ahead sprinting goes. It would seem that "run like a cheetah" would be a natural simile for sportswriters, but what do we have? "Ziggy Zagowski, slashing left half for the Keokuk Kidneys, ran like a rabbit through the defending Sioux City Spleens." Now, for a few jumps a rabbit can move at a rate of 30 or 35 miles an hour, but 20 mph is its pace for a distance as great as 100 yards. This rate is about the same as—or a bit slower than—that of a journeyman human sprinter over the same course. The chances are that if old Zig could not outleg a bunny he would not have even made his high school team. If, however, he could run like a cheetah it would be a different matter, since those cats can do the 440 at 71 mph.

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