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Sheepish Idioms

Sheep lounging in the shade with the matriarch standing guard Image: W.carter Wikimedia Commons

As we move along the paths of technology and human invention, our skill sets and our language change along with our manner of life. But because so much of language, especially idiom, is built upon metaphor, as we lose understanding of past ways of living, those metaphors die, and become complicated literary allusions.

Take, for instance “dyed-on-the-wool,” which Ngaio Marsh used in a punning title of her mystery novel, Died in the Wool. The idiom really is “dyed,” and dyed-in-the-wool means, according to the AHD, “Thoroughgoing; out-and-out: a dyed-in-the-wool populist.” You usually see the idiom used in a political context, as in “Kennedy was a dyed in the wool Democrat.” SyedDin-the-wool can be used for other fields as well; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Macintosh fan. The idiom derives from the practice of dying wool that has been washed, combed or “carded” to remove tangles and bits of trash, but which has not ye been spun into yarn. Wool dyed in after being washed and carded but before it is spun tends to be more thoroughly and permanently colored than wool dyed after it is spun.

In an historical, etymological context, the first recorded use of dyed in the wool as a metaphor (according to the OED) was by Richard Hooker in 1597. In  Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Hooker commented that

Children as it were in the Wooll of their infancie died with hardnesse may neuer afterwards change colour” (V. lxxii. S18).

Dyed in the wool is very much a metaphor in Hooker’s use, a sheepish metaphor to express the idea that if people are raised from childhood accustomed to austerity and temperance, then the virtues of austerity and temperance will be part of them, as if dyed in the wool. Oddly, as the OED notes, dyed-in-the-wool is now much more common in American English than in British English, though the phrase should usually be hyphenated.

The similarly sheepish idiom of a bellwether day in reference to stocks; that’ an idiom derived from the wether, or castrated ram, who leads the flock and wears a bell around his neck. The AHD defines a bellwether as “One that serves as a leader or as a leading indicator of future trends.”This too is an idiom we inherited from Britain, but there, oddly, a “bell weather day” is a bad day; bellwether seems to refer to a negative or downward trend. The OED offers, in addition to the traditional sheep-with-bell definition, the following “a leader; contemptuously: the ring-leader, the worst of the lot.’In standard American use, while bellwether refers to a leader or leading trend, the phrase is neutral. Sheep will follow a bellwether over a cliff, or into a canyon, no matter how foolish the action, so the idiom is not without natural cause. Indeed, we still use the phrase “like lambs to the slaughter, ” to refer to someone who unquestioningly follows others, no matter how life threatening and dangerous their action may be.

There are other sheepish idioms preserved as metaphoric fossils in English. We might also think of the phrase black sheep to refer to  a sheep with black or dark wool, but black sheep also can mean “One who is considered disreputable or disgraceful by his or her relatives or associates.” We count sheep, a thankless, difficult and often boring task when we wish to fall asleep. We refer to someone who is reticent, even shy, as sheepish. We also use sheepish to refer to someone who has been “Embarrassed, as by consciousness of a fault,” often in the phrase “sheepish grin.”

Penguin

Emperor penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica Image credit: Michael Van Woert, 1999, NOAA

There’s universal agreement today that a penguin is:

Any of various stout, flightless aquatic birds of the family Spheniscidae, of the Southern Hemisphere, having flipperlike wings and webbed feet adapted for swimming and diving, short scalelike feathers, and white underparts with a dark back (AHD).

It’s possible that penguin is of Welsh origin; it breaks down very neatly into pen + gwen/gwyn, with pen meaning “head,” and gwen meaning “white,” (and there are species of penguin with white heads).

However, the etymology isn’t at all certain. The OED offers two early quotations in context:

1577 F. FLETCHER Log of ‘Golden Hind’ 24 Aug. in N. M. Penzer World Encompassed (1971) 128 Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.

1589 N. H. in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1589) III. 809 The Port of Desire… In this place we had gulles, puets, penguyns, and seales in aboundance.

The OED also expounds in a lengthy etymology note after first observing that penguin was first applied to the Great Auk, and that penguins resemble the Great Auk as a large flightless waterfowl, with black-and-white  as primary colorations:

The attribution of the name penguin to ‘the Welsh men’ . . . and its explanation as Welsh pen gwyn white head, appears also in Ingram’s Narrative, and later in Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels (in the edition of 1634 as a surmise, and in the edition of 1638 as an accepted fact). Since the bird was known in the far north of Europe under a different name (see GARE-FOWL n.), it is likely that the term penguin originated in North America. However, the Great Auk did not have a white head (though it had large white spots in front of the eyes).

The OED notes in closing that

An alternative derivation of the name < classical Latin pinguis fat (see pinguid adj.) or an early association with this word is therefore possible and may be supported by the relative frequency of forms in pin– in most languages from an early date. Compare German Fettgans fat goose, also penguin (18th cent.).

Nonetheless, a Welsh influence, if not a derivation, does seem to be a reasonable explanation for penguin.

Dray

A dray or drey is a squirrel’s nest. Dray is also sometimes applied to a nest of squirrels, or a litter of squirrels.

The OED s.v. dray offers “A squirrel’s nest” with the following in context citations:

1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 497   They..make their nestes, like the draies of squirrels.
1627   M. Drayton Quest of Cynthia in Battaile Agincourt 141   The nimble Squirrell..Her mossy Dray that makes.

The etymology of dray isn’t clear; it’s generally associated with the dray that means a sled or cart that lacks wheels, and is thus dragged. That dray derives from Old English dragan to draw; the OED suggests “compare Old English dræge drag-net, also Swedish drög sledge, dray, (Old Norse draga, plural drögur timber trailed along the ground)” (s.v.dray).

I suspect, though I can’t prove it, that dray for a squirrel’s nest also derives from OE dragan meaning to draw or drag, and refers to the way squirrels create the dray, by dragging leaves and brush into a nest in the fork of a tree.  This is typically the way the North American Eastern Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) builds its nests.

Dormouse

Credit: John Tenniel National Library of Scotland

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. “Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,” thought Alice; ”only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.” —Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Chapter VII. A Mad Tea-Party.

 

Image: Danielle Schwarz Wikimedia commons

Technically, the dormouse is a small omnivorous rodent, a native of Eurasia and Africa, of the family the family Gliridae. The dormouse featured in Lewis Caroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland is almost certainly meant to be the British Hazel dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius. Dormice that live in temperate regions like Britain hibernate, sometimes for as much as half the year, depending on local conditions. They may occasionally wake just long enough to snack on edibles they’ve hidden near their burrow, but then it’s back to sleep again.

The etymology isn’t exactly clear. The AHD offers:

Middle English, perhaps alteration (influenced by mous, mouse) of Anglo-Norman *dormeus, inclined to sleep, hibernating, from Old French dormir, to sleep; see DORMANT.

First, the easy part; the Middle English forms of dormouse dormoise (Middle English Dictionary Entry ) and dormowse, dormows (OED) are ostensibly derived from Anglo-Norman *dormeus, itself deriving from Old French dormir “To Sleep.”

While this is a perfectly reasonable etymology for a creature known for its sleeping patterns, it’s a problem because the supposed Anglo-Norman form *dormeus doesn’t appear to actually exist; it’s a hypothetical form. As the OED points out,

The French dormeuse, feminine of dormeur “sleeper,” sometimes suggested as the etymon, is not known before 17th cent. (s.v. dormouse).

What does seem clear is that the –mos ending of the Middle English forms, and likely, the Anglo-Norman and Old French forms, sounded to English ears  like mouse, and thus a perfect name for a mouse-like creature.

The dormouse (dormice in plural) is currently endangered in Britain (including Wales), in part because of climate change; as the temperatures during the dormouse’s usual hibernation time rise, the dormouse fails to hibernate, and consequently uses up its stored fat before spring arrives and provides new food.

You can learn more about dormouse at dormice.org.