Commentary by Ward Degler
As much as I enjoy idioms and goofy sayings, I hate it when no one seems to know where they came from. The other morning my grandson was up early and I said he looked bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
“I’m still asleep, and I don’t have a tail,” he muttered, grabbing a cereal bowl from the cabinet.
A little digging in my dusty dictionary brought up “bright-eyed” as a reference in the mid-1500s to someone who was alert. Bushy-tailed, on the other hand, didn’t appear until 300 years later, and no one seems to know what it meant. The two phrases were first combined in 1912 by one William Lee Jenks when writing about his back yard in St. Clair County, Mich.
“ … to see a wild pigeon, cherwink, fox sparrow, bobolink or bright-eyed bushy-tailed squirrel.”
I’ve never been to that part of Michigan, but apparently local squirrels are known for their bushy tails. The squirrels in my yard tend to keep a low profile since a family of hawks lives in a tree just across the street, and hawks consider squirrel a delicacy, bushy-tailed or otherwise.
A little more digging found an 1894 British reference to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as meaning, “right as rain”. The intent was to belabor the obvious. Apparently, “it’s always raining” in England. If something was right as rain, it was something you could depend on. Brits used the saying to refer to someone who had been ailing but was now back in action, “right as rain.”
What if someone isn’t bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Like my grandson in the morning. The dictionary says he might be dog tired, haggard, dead and buried, completely zonked, at the end of his tether or asleep at the switch. Watching him sluggishly spoon cereal into his mouth assured me he could be all of the above.
Back in the 1800s, the British also used the phrase “right as ninepence.” It had two meanings: One referred to a coin worth, well, nine cents, and the other to a person lacking in intelligence. In other words, someone who wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Or right as rain.