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The proverbial buffalo

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 17, 2010 at 04:20

In Reply to: The proverbial buffalo posted by john on April 16, 2010 at 18:04:

: : : : : A quick question - I'm translating a contemporary British novel, and ran into this sentence: "He will have to run headlong into it, like the proverbial buffalo into the storm." This seems to refer to some well-known idiom, but I can't think of any that would fit the bill. Any ideas?

: : : : You said the author is British, right? And there aren't any buffaloes native to Great Britain. Well, there are in the U.S. (although not in the northeast, where I live), and I've never heard such an expression. I can imagine buffaloes, like musk oxen, facing a storm, especially when protecting their young, but "run headlong" suggests a situation I'm not familiar with.

: : : : I do have a suggestion. Just translate what the author says, and don't worry about whether it makes sense or not.
: : : : SS

: : : SS is of course right when he says there are no Buffalo in the British Isles, but then there are no lions or elephants either, and the Brits have phrases involving those...

: : : Having said that, I have never heard the phrase either, so if it is a genuine proverb it is presumably a fairly obscure one.

: : : I am led to suspect the original writer was using the word 'proverbial' in a 'loose' (ie 'wrong') sense, rather in the way some people use the word 'literally' when they actually mean nothing of the sort.

: : : DFG

: An odd behavioural trait of the North American Bison (buffalo) is to stand and face into a storm rather than seeking shelter or turning away. With the thickest part of their coat being at the front and their massive head and shoulders to block the wind, this stance helps to protect their core temperature. I have heard the phrase "like a buffalo in a snow storm" to mean facing a challenge head-on rather than shying away or turning your back. This is the connection although it seems a little garbled. I can see no good coming from actually charging headlong into a prairie blizzard, even if I was a buffalo. That conjures up a sense of being foolhardy or fighting a battle that can't be won (farting against thunder?), instead of being steadfast.

I believe John when he says he has heard the phrase, "like a buffalo in a snow storm." The U.S Government (by way of the U.S. Cavalry) spent more than half a century trying to destroy all the buffalo on the continent. I'm surprised that there was enough interest to coin a phrase about buffalo behavior.

As to heading into the wind during a storm, I had the notion that that was a common behavior among bovines generally, even if there was no storm, but just a noticeable breeze. In any case, it's hard to imagine that prairie-swelling buffalo had any shelter to seek.

Not that I wish to flog a dead horse, but David has correctly pointed out that Brits have phrases referring to lions and elephants (although surely not many). There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, including lands where the lion and the elephant roamed. I have never heard, however, that the British flag ever flew over the North American prairie.