The body of the text provides a consepectus of 325 headwords and 2255 meanings and expressions, arranged according to rigorous lexicographical principles and illustrated by nearly 4,500 citations. It is recorded in the "Book of Genesis" that the Lord God brought to Adam all living things, all the creatures that 'roam the earth and fly through the air,' and invited him to give the name by which they would be known. It is also recorded that the name conferred by Adam on each member of the animal kingdom 'is its name still.' That may well be so, but the implication and associations of those animal names have not remained so stable, and indeed have continued to be enriched and elaborated by the imagination and inventiveness of human beings ever since. There are tomes to be written - perhaps by some scholar of the Annales School of history - on changing relations between humans and animals. Once it was assumed, and Genesis itself was taken to sanction the belief, that animals were the possessions or even playthings of humanity, and that in consequence human beings were free to tame, domesticate, enslave, use and abuse animals as they wished.
Dogs were made, and have remained, man's best friend, horses were weapons of limited destruction or reducers of toil, cows and sheep were sources of food, pigeons were bearers of messages and cats were enigmas. That future tome should be accompanied by a separate volume which would take as its subject the cultural use of animal attributes, and which would look at the variation from one society to another in the characteristics human beings have applied to animals. It was, in a more carefree anthropocentric world, taken as beyond doubt that animals carried some significance, that there was a chain of being established by Nature or Providence, with humanity at the top of its temporal manifestations, and that in that chain, the beasts were the bearers of messages and meanings which could be, at least in principle, deciphered. The meaning may have been moral, philosophical, theological, but in every case it transcended the physical being of the animal in question.
There is no shortage of medieval bestiaries to explain the meanings of individual species of bird, to debate the gradations of significance to be attached to the fox or the wolf, to praise the pelican for its transcendental spirituality or denounce the dove for its vicious, earthy lustfulness. Nowadays animals may have acquired, or be acquiring, rights, but once they had a wealth of meanings, connotations, symbolisms and roles in the cosmos. Perhaps that line of thinking ended with Descartes' definition of an animal as 'pure extension,' with no kind of soul and no possibility of being more than flesh, bone, blood and fur or feather, but any rigorous examination of speculations of this sort will have to await the arrival of the man from Annales. This man, or woman, will find Keith Foley's own Bestiary invaluable not only as source material for language study, but as a spur to cultural thought. Foley has long nurtured his own idiosyncratic interest in the curios of language, specifically in the rich vocabulary used to describe the multiplicity of species that swim the seas or fly in the air.
The present work goes well beyond that, to describe the ways human beings have mentally colonised the animal kingdom, to find there metaphors for noble characteristics they themselves aspire to have, or for degrading aspects the personalities of their fellow men and women demonstrate. This is the sort of book which some cultured human being will pick up on a book barrow a hundred years from now, and will be so pleased at his discovery that he will purr, like a cat. Having read the book, he may also be encouraged to wonder whether cats really purr, and whether they know delight, and why cats should have been chosen to express that level of satisfaction. Cats are assumed to have a patient wisdom beyond the grasp of the human animal. Compton MacKenzie wrote two books on what he had learned from his pet cats. On the other hand, when Walt Disney was creating his cartoon creatures, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto the Dog, he sat down to observe their expressions, and discovered to his dismay that they had none.
His solution was to settle down, brush and paper in hand, in front of a mirror and make a pictorial record of his own expressions which he then applied to the innocent but blank animals he was putting on screen. Maybe that is what, at a higher level, this learned but charming book records. Human beings remake animals in their own image and likeness, and Foley's Bestiary is a chronicle of the ways in which this process has been undertaken in language. It is too rarely remarked that language is as much a museum of dated attitudes as the architecture of medieval churches. Modern architects do not incorporate gargoyles or curlicues into contemporary buildings, but modern writers, and speakers, still adopt fixed images and clichï¿½ï¿½s, which were coined to express a mindset now only accepted by spiritualist freaks. Keith Foley's work on language has many uses and multiple applications, and certainly is based on a wide reading and a rich culture of his own, but before dwelling on his book's utilitarian aspects for teachers, students and scholars, let us first revel in the fact that it acts as a Rosetta Stone, clarifying not only idioms but also cultures.
It is the kind of guidebook, which will appeal to those who are happy to indulge in the curios of culture, who delight in walking along by-ways of human activity. He helps unveil language as a repository of beliefs and habits of mind of other times and a coded reference to a culture, which we assign to the past. In philosophy or culture, little remains of the attitude of the medieval searchers after significance in animals, but their beliefs linger on in language. In turns of phrase produced unthinkingly day after day, the convictions of long forgotten cabalists and mystics are reproduced. In popular music, lovers still coo like doves, in criminal courts scoundrels are still as cunning as foxes, and in military parlance soldiers are still urged to show the qualities of the lion. It is intriguing to see how these characteristics alter from one culture to the next. In English, a burglar might find a 'crowbar' useful for his work, but the same operative in Italian would use a 'pig's foot' for his nefarious purposes, even although neither British crows nor Italian pigs have any known criminal tendencies.
This creative tendency to apply human characteristics to animals does not belong purely to the past. The twin words 'donkey' and 'mule' are singularly intriguing. In every European language, seemingly from the time of the Romans, the donkey has been taken as a by-word for stupidity. When St. Francis of Assisi referred to his body as Brother Ass, it was a sign of humility, although St. Francis also accorded animals the highest respect. In a poem, G. K. Chesterton describes the donkey as 'the devil's parody of all four-footed things,' although that is only, in his case, to emphasise the contrast with its moment of glory, when it carried Christ into Jerusalem. The poem is one of the few instances of an animal being allowed to reply to human degraders of the species. However, no one has spoken up for the mule. Foley lists various uses of the mule as metaphor. Stubborn the mule has always been, overloaded by heavy weights, gifted with a powerful kick with which, deceitfully and slyly, it is liable to strike out from the back to the injury of the more honest human animal.
But more recently, the mule has been found guilty of an involvement in the drugs trade, or a criminal willingness to convey illegal substances from the country of origin to the country of consumption. The word 'cow' is a comparably curious, and delicate, example of the same trend. La vache! I still remember my shock and bewilderment on first coming across the casual French idiomatic use of 'vachement.' Cowly! Je suis vachement irritee, said a young lady in my hearing, and it took me days to realise that she was no more than extremely upset at a shopkeeper who had short-changed her. The word cow has different connotations in English, to the detriment of women, but then Foley points out that women are 'particularly ill-served' in regard to the adoption of demeaning animal attributes. From the "Book of Genesis", it appears that when he did the naming of the animals, 'Adam had no mate of his own kind.' When she was finally created from his spare rib, she was then given a variety of monikers associated with animals. Some were romantic, most were offensive, and all were designed to keep her in her place.
Language was a means of man's control of women, as it was a symptom of human domination of animals. All these usages are clarified and exemplified in Keith Foley's work. At one level, it is an excellent lexicon, with lists of usages, and will be indispensable to anyone who wishes to deepen his knowledge of French. At another, it illustrates how language works, how it enriches itself by observation and adoption, not only from other languages but also from our perception of the world outside. It is a reference work, which is also a splendidly enlightening book for leisure reading, especially by those who aspire to the wisdom and learning of the owl.