Word Wonders: Idioms from animals Part 1

Category: Education/Family


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. guinea pig / ˈgɪn i pɪg / (n.) – a tiny animal with fur, short ears, and no tail that people can keep as pets

    Angela wants a guinea pig for a pet.

  2. test subject / tɛst ˈsʌb dʒɪkt / (n.) – someone or something that’s being observed during an experiment or study

    The company is looking for people who can be test subjects for the new vaccine.

  3. controversial / ˌkɒn trəˈvɜr ʃəl / (adj.) – describing someone or something that’s causing a lot of discussion or disagreement among the public

    He’s a very controversial politician who’s been involved in several scandals.

  4. wriggle away / ˈrɪg əl əˈweɪ / (phrasal v.) – to move away from something by twisting and turning the body or a part of it side to side

    We caught the snake in a trap, but it wriggled away.

  5. audit / ˈɔ dɪt / (n.) – the process of checking business and financial records to confirm if they’re correct and exact

    The audit showed that the company didn’t pay its taxes.


Read the text below.

In this month’s column we look again at common idioms from the animal kingdom.

Guinea pigs are very cute pets, and have also often been used in laboratory tests and experiments. Someone may also be called a “guinea pig” if they are a test subject for something new. “We have a new English examination, and this year’s students will be the guinea pigs.” The expression can be used when someone is trying a new experience. “I’ve got a new recipe I’d like to try making before I serve it for a party. Will you come over for dinner and be my guinea pig?”

Elephants are rather large creatures that would stand out if they were ever in someone’s living room. If you hear the idiom “elephant in the room,” the speaker is referring to a controversial topic that everyone can see but no one wants to talk about. It is a useful expression when people at an event avoid discussing an obvious issue because it’s uncomfortable to speak about. “We enjoyed John’s birthday, but the elephant in the room was that we all knew he and his wife are getting a divorce.”

In the United States, people used to buy cans of worms to use as bait when they went fishing. When the cans were opened the worms would try to wriggle away. From this comes the expression “to open up a can of worms.” You try to solve a problem, but instead you discover other hidden problems. “An audit of the company finances opened up a can of worms and now the chief executive is under investigation.” People often use this phrase in the negative if they are afraid of causing extra trouble and inconvenience. “I’m not going to complain about my boss’s behavior because I don’t want to open up a can of worms.” (Rob Horn)

To be continued…

This article was provided by The Japan Times Alpha.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

  • Some idioms use animals to talk about certain ideas. Have you heard of similar idioms in your native language? What are the most common expressions you often hear? Why? Discuss.
  • The expression “guinea pig” can be used when someone is trying a new experience. What’s something you’re willing to be a guinea pig for (ex. a friend/family’s cooking, a new product)? Why? Discuss.

Discussion B

  • “Elephant in the room” refers to a controversial topic that everyone can see but no one wants to talk about. What are some controversial topics that people usually avoid talking about (ex. politics, religion)? How do you feel about discussing these topics (ex. uncomfortable, uninterested)? Why? Discuss.
  • “To open up a can of worms” means to try to solve a problem but discover other hidden problems instead. Do you think people should still try to solve a problem even if doing so might open a can of worms, or do you think it’s best to leave it alone? Why? Discuss.