Man or beast? Some animal analogies


An old proverb warns that it is not wise to "sell the bearskin before catching the bear." In 18th-century slang, "bearskins" were stock certificates. Some stock dealers would sell a borrowed stock, expecting it to decline in value, then buy it back at a profit. They were dubbed "bearskin jobbers" or just "bears," alluding to the proverb. (Investors today still "sell short" in anticipation of a stock's losing value.)

The stock-market bull appeared in the language shortly after. Bulls bought stocks, expecting them to rise in value. Why a bull? Word experts offer no explanation, except for the fact that there's alliteration at work here - bears and bulls - and the possible allusion to an entertainment that was popular at the time: bull- and bear-baiting.


The tiniest of all mammals, the mouselike shrew is common to England's forests. In medieval folklore, the abundant and pugnacious pest was portrayed as bad tempered and scolding. Shakespeare gave female shrews widespread attention by endowing his "shrew," Kate, with those nagging qualities in "The Taming of the Shrew."

Before the Bard, however, a "shrew" was also an evil man. Shrews were thought to cause cattle and horses to go lame by running over their feet. In fact, the related adjective, "shrewd," originally implied something evil, mean, and dangerous. But since the 1500s it has softened to mean "clever and sharp."


This reference to a strutting, unskilled actor made its first appearance in print in 1882. Sources claim it derived from the minstrel shows of the time, where second-rate actors commonly used inexpensive ham fat to remove heavy theatrical makeup. One such fumbler was immortalized in a popular ballad titled 'The Ham-Fat Man." Eventually, the pejorative was shortened to "ham," and soon any incompetent actor, athlete, or graceless entertainer was eligible for the title.

SOURCES: 'Animalogies,' by Michael Macrone; A Browser's Dictionary, by John Ciardi; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ivor Evans; Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson; 'Word Mysteries and Histories,' by Robert Claiborne; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb Garrison; Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by Robert Barnhart; 'Western Words,' by Ramon Adams; Morris Dictionary, by William and Mary Morris; 'Wicked Words,' by Hugh Rawson; 'Have a Nice Day - No Problem,' by Christine Ammer; 'Heavens to Betsy' and 'Horsefeathers,' by Charles Earle Funk; Webster's Word Histories; 'Loose Cannons & Red Herrings,' by Robert Claiborne.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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