In my Word Routes column over on the Visual Thesaurus website, I recently took a look at a peculiar turn of phrase used by Barack Obama in the Oct. 7 presidential debate: "Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears…" My initial assessment was that Obama had created an idiom blend, combining the more established expression "wet behind the ears" with the metaphorical extension of green implying immaturity. But as it turns out, the story of "green behind the ears" has some unexpected intricacies, including a surprising parallel in German.
First, I'm not entirely sure "idiom blend" is the right term to describe what is happening here. In canonical idiom blends (as described by Cutting & Bock, Mark Liberman, Neal Whitman, and others), two elements from idiomatic phrases are combined in a "one from Column A – one from Column B" style. Thus:
- It's not rocket science + It's not brain surgery = It's not rocket surgery
- He's under the gun + He's behind the eight ball = He's under the eight ball
- That's another kettle of fish + That's another can of worms = That's another kettle of worms
In the case of "green behind the ears," there's no obvious idiomatic phrase involving the word green for "wet behind the ears" to combine with in this fashion. The closest I can think of is "green around the gills," but that relates to a different sense of green: 'queasy-looking' rather than 'immature, inexperienced.' The queasy connotation of "green around the gills" does seem to be a contributing element to an early example I found for "green behind the ears," in the 1911 book The Compleat Oxford Man by A. Hamilton Gibbs:
When these people have the needle what a remarkable change comes over them. Some tremble and look green behind the ears.
But in the other examples of "green behind the ears" I've collected, up to and including Obama's usage, green appears to take the place of wet (or not dry) in the traditional "behind the ears" idiom without involving another competing phrase. Rather, it's simply providing a new metaphorical basis for the expression, moving away from the founding image of "a newly born animal, as a colt or a calf, on which the last spot to become dry after birth is the little depression behind either ear" (as Charles Earle Funk explained the expression in his 1948 book A Hog On Ice).
In my Word Routes column, I suggest that the replacement of wet with green doesn't necessarily imply an accidental mix-up or a humorous play on words. Rather, it could be a serious historical transformation of the idiom, since the original image of wet-eared livestock might not be a familiar one to many in our urbanized world. In this regard it's similar to eggcorn substitutions like free reign, since the equestrian idiom of free rein has become less relevant as the automobile has replaced the horse as our favored mode of transportation.
The plot thickened when an anonymous Visual Thesaurus commenter pointed out that German has the exact same idiomatic variations:
- (noch) nicht trocken hinter den Ohren = not (yet) dry behind the ears
- (noch) feucht hinter den Ohren = (still) wet behind the ears
- (noch) grün hinter den Ohren = (still) green behind the ears
The parallel with German the first anonymous commenter pointed to calls for a bit of Google sociolinguistics.
Indeed, in German there are three idioms available, in order of frequency (web hits): grün [green] / nicht trocken [not dry] / feucht [moist] or nass [formerly spelled naß, wet] hinter den Ohren. German has other expressions based on 'green = new[born], ie lacking experience', in particular the extremely common Grünschnabel [green beak]. Grimms' Wörterbuch (http://tinyurl.com/3lsmet) has a cite from 1726, and like other sources bases the metaphor on "the green or yellow skin seen around the beaks of newly hatched birds". Gelbschnabel [yellow beak] is now rare, but used to be available, too.
For the X hinter den Ohren set of idioms, it looks to me as if the development in German was pretty much parallel to that in English, except that the 'green' variant ended up as a perfectly unremarkable option.
Google Books is quite helpful looking for how far back the variants go, presuming the datings are fine. Most old hits come from dictionaries or collections of sayings and proverbs, interestingly often bi- and multilingual ones.
- nicht trocken has the oldest Google Books hit in a beautiful German-Dutch dictionary by Abrahamus van Moerbeek, Matthias Kramer, Adam Abrahamszoon van Moerbeek, published in Leipzig by Johann Friedrich Junius in 1768 (http://tinyurl.com/4dabmp)
- for naß, we have a non-dictionary cite from a 1765 Samuel Butler translation (Hudibras: Ein sathrisches Gedicht wider die Schwermer und independenten zur Zeit Carls des ersten in neuen Gesängen http://tinyurl.com/4vbpew)
- for feucht, we only go back to the mid-19th century (a 1851 novel, http://tinyurl.com/4byqrg)
- grün, finally, is present in a 1861 collection of popular speech (slang, if you will): So spricht das Volk: Volksthümliche Redensarten und Sprichwörter, by Franz Sandvoss (http://tinyurl.com/4on89h). The entry also mentions Grünschnabel, and the pretty ein grünnäsiger junge [a green-nosed boy].
Obviously, more careful research would certainly find antedatings of all of these.
All in all, I'm not sure if for German an idiom-blend is at at the origin of the green-behind-the-ears idiom: on the one hand, it is likely to be significantly later than the 'not dry/wet behind the ears' version; on the other, it is just one out of a bigger set of idioms combining greenness with various body parts to denote newbiedom.
What's especially surprising about Chris's finds is their antiquity. The earliest English examples I've found so far for "(not yet) dry behind the ears" are from the 1870s:
"Sir, a man may go blind for one gal when he is not yet dry behind the ears, and then, when his eyes are skinned, go in for one better." [said by an American character, Colonel Morley, who "had the habit … of adorning his style of conversation with quaint Americanisms"]
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Parisians (1873), p. 375
The Newcomerstown "Eye," a new paper, has already got into a squabble with an editor named Persinger, at Bloomington, Illinois. The Bloomington man should wait until the Eye gets dry behind the Ears.
— (New Philadelphia) Ohio Democrat, May 2, 1878, p. 4, col. 3
And "wet behind the ears" (along with other variations like "damp" or "moist") doesn't show up in the databases for a few decades after that:
There is not much in the matter so far as the organ is concerned
except it is so new that it is wet behind the ears yet and doesn't
know Prosecuting Attorney Small was put at the court house because
he is fair and square and knows what a law is when he reads it.
— Portsmouth (Ohio) Daily Times, Oct. 9, 1911, p. 2, col. 1
For "green behind the ears," I've got the questionable 1911 cite from The Compleat Oxford Man above, and then this more clear-cut example from 1924:
Of one thing all can be sure: that so long as the law stands as it does today Republican presidents will continue to appoint Republican postmasters and Democratic presidents will appoint Democratic postmasters. He is quite green behind the ears who either expects otherwise or that either party is going to change the law and deprive themselves of the opportunity afforded by it.
— Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail, Sept. 9, 1924, p. 6, col. 2
Since all three of these versions of the idiom are preceded by German attestations, it looks increasingly like a case of loan-translation, with the German expressions brought over by immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century. (It's notable that many of the early American cites that I've found come from midwestern states like Ohio with historically large German immigrant populations.) The record also suggests that the green variation has been kicking around in both German and English for quite some time, though it's unclear whether the German grün expression was directly responsible for the English equivalent, or whether it developed as a kind of independent invention. That independent invention may be continuing today, with speakers like Obama hitting on the phrase anew.
[Final thought: if "green behind the ears" isn't properly considered an idiom blend, maybe we should call it an idiom bend.]
[Update #1: Via Bill Mullins, an antedating for "dry behind the ears":
"Why, you irreclaimable donkey, don't you know the "notice" was an advertisement? When will you get dry behind the ears? — Springfield Rep., (Whig.)
–Daily (Columbus) Ohio Statesman, May 9, 1850, p. 3, col. 4
And for "wet behind the ears":
They are all statesmen in the "sunflower state," from Senators INGALLS and PLUMB down to the new emigrant who is, figuratively speaking, "still wet behind the ears." "
–Kansas City Star, July 25, 1888, p. 2, col. 1
Great finds, though they still occur a century later than the earliest cites for the German equivalents.]
[Update #2: As Doug Wilson points out in the comments, Maximilian Schele de Vere noted the German-to-English transfer as early as 1872 in his book Americanisms (see Google Book Search for pp. 146-7). Schele de Vere says the expression was first brought by German settlers to Pennsylvania and spread from there.]