Why is a goose silly? The ancient hieroglyphic for foolish fellow is a goose, so obviously this disparagement of geese goes back to the origins of language. I’ve met a few geese recently, and I have yet to see one do anything silly. They look arrogant (as you can see from the photo I took today). They seem very goal-oriented (when food is in the offing, they hasten to get their share). And they are a bit intolerant of other species of fowl who might also be after that food. But silly? No. In fact, they are very smart and loyal. They fly in a V-formation, which is the most efficient way to travel. The lead geese do the hard work, breaking wind resistance so the geese trailing behind get a bit of rest, and they rotate positions, so none get too tired or too lazy. They also mate for life, which is more than you can say for a lot of humans. So why silly as a goose? Why not silly as a seal? Or silly as a dolphin? Or silly as an otter? All of those creatures are subject to antics, though of course, that might be our human perspective rather than the truth.
Why is an owl wise? Though portraying an owl as wise may be complimentary, it’s every bit as inane as calling a goose silly. What does an owl ever do to make humans perceive it as wise? Perhaps because, except for a few ambiguous hoots, an owl keeps his beak shut. Humans who don’t talk much are often considered wiser than they are, and perhaps they really are wiser than the rest of us. At least they are wise enough to keep their yaps shut so they can’t stick their feet in their mouths. (While we are on the subject — have you ever stuck your foot in your mouth? Perhaps tripped on a faux pas and landed in that awkward position? Not me, but then, I’m not very bendy.)
Why is a dog sick? They aren’t particularly sick now, not when they eat specially formulated foods and are given specially formed treats to keep them satisfied. It used to be that dogs ate what humans didn’t, ate whatever they could scrounge, and such scroungings often made them sick. Hence the expression, which oddly, we still use today though it has no more meaning than silly as a goose or wise as an owl.
Why is a clam happy? Why not? No job. No bills. Sunny days on the beach. What more could a mollusk want? High tide, apparently. Clams can only be dug at low tide, so a clam is especially happy at high tide when they are free of human interference. Happy as a clam is a shortened version of the original simile “happy as a clam at high tide.” Never having seen a clam at either low or high tide, I can’t vouch for its state of mind, can’t even vouch that it has a mind, so I will have to take the clammers word for this.
Why is a berry brown? Chaucer was the first to use this simile, and he used it at least twice: “His palfrey (horse) was as broune as is a bery” and “Brown as a berry, short, and thickly made.” Authors today still use this term, most often to describe suntanned children for some inexplicable reason. Maybe Chaucer’s “bery” was a typo? (Or a quillo if he used a quill pen.) Maybe he meant brown as a bear. Or brown as a wheatberry. There are some brown berries, but were they ever so common as to prompt Chaucer to use the simile multiple times?
The true mystery of all these phrases is not their origin, but the mystery of why we are still mindlessly using these out-dated similes today.