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Figuring Out the Cattle: Exploring Idioms in Chinese and English

Yen-Ling Chu (朱晏伶)


Throughout history, animals have played a significant role in shaping human existence. They have provided humans with clothing and foodstuff and influenced human cultural practices. Consequently, animal imagery has found its way into idiomatic expressions. This study aims to explore the cultural differences in the meanings of animal-related figurative language between Chinese and English. However, it focuses on cattle idioms within these two specific cultural contexts, for cattle hold a symbolic significance across both cultures, with idioms derived from their behavior, characteristics, and ecological traits conveying human behavior and social phenomena.

Using the Chinese data collection from The Multi-function Chinese Character Database issued and edited by The Research Centre for Humanities Computing of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and English figures of speech for cattle-related idioms cited in The Free Dictionary by Farlex, this study compared cattle idioms and investigated why and how idioms feature animals.

The preliminary findings show that the use of cattle elements in idioms presents various characteristics. In Chinese, the phrase dà chuī niú pí 大吹牛皮 describes exaggeration and boasting, while in English, cattle are metaphorically used to describe someone full of big talk and nonsense, such as bullshit. While there are some similarities, there are also differences in idiomatic usage between the Chinese and English cattle. In Chinese culture, niú 牛 is used positively, referring to honest and hard-working human traits. Yet, in English, cow is generally negative, referring to fat ness, clumsiness, and other unpleasant characteristics. Bull is associated with clumsiness, aggressiveness, and recklessness.

International Joint Conference of APLX, ETRA40, and TESPA 2023