"Green behind the ears": the untold story

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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

Intrigued, I reached out to Chris Waigl, keeper of the Eggcorn Database and illuminator of cross-linguistic peculiarities. Chris left a richly detailed comment, which I reproduce in full:

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.]

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35 Comments »

  1. Robert Coren said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    It seems to me that the (US?) English equivalent of the German Grünschnabel [green beak] is "greenhorn"; might this be a reasonable candidate as a contributor to "green behind the ears"? (I, too, was somewhat taken aback by Obama's use of the phrase.)

  2. Blake Stacey said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    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.

    My first instinct was to think of greenhorn, which might be a little old or too far removed from circulation. (I'm the sort of person who mixes up body parts and, not always intentionally, says things like "it's no skin off my teeth", so blending a horn-expression with an ear-expression doesn't sound so strange to me.) As Isaac Asimov wrote in his autobiography, describing his family's experience as first-generation immigrants during the early 1920s:

    In Petrovichi, my father had been a leading citizen, both socially and economically, and so had my mother. In Brooklyn, they were "greenhorns."

    The flavor of the word has been lost now that it has been a long time since the United States has been buried under an annual flood of immigrants. It was a bitter insult, however, directed with contemptuous laughter by those who were not greenhorns — say, those who had been in the country for five years.

    To be a greenhorn is, of course, not just to be unacquainted with the language of the country. It is to be unaware of the subway system details, to be unhelped by guiding signs, to be unable ot ask for advice from anyone who didn't speak Yiddish (or RUssian) and no way of being sure whether some particular person did or did not speak it. It was not knowing any of the simple customs of the country, what you asked for in a store, how you paid, how you ate, what you ate.

    None of the online dictionaries I spot-checked just now list greenhorn as obsolete or archaic. It still appears current in some specializations at least: "On a crab boat, a greenhorn is a newbie who may or may not have previous fishing experience."

    I can hear the conspiracy theorists now: OH NOES! OBAMA IS A SECRET JEW! FROM EASTERN EUROPE!

  3. Blake Stacey said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    Ah, I see you mentioned greenhorn in the Visual Thesaurus post. Very good; carry on, then. Nothing to see here, move along now. . . .

  4. Lee Kinkade said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    I thought the phase well chosen when I heard it. It avoided the word wet, which might evoke the disliked word moist, and instead Associated the word green which has a positive association which is growing stronger-using it was almost a dog whistle saying, John McCain thinks being green is somehow bad. And it also seemed to be playful, in that those who have been paying attention know his wife teases him about his ears.

  5. JimG said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    Deer that shed and regrow their antlers pass through a stage where new antlers are green, soft (and fuzzy?).

    New, unseasoned replacements for the infantry have long been known as "green" troops. Obama probably mixed this usage with "wet behind the ears", which may have human neo-natal origin. The truth depends on whether he was born yesterday, or recently fell off the turnip truck.

  6. Orange said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

    There should be an idiom dictionary in which all the definitions are also steeped in idiom:

    greenhorn, n. 1. One who was born yesterday. 2. One who recently fell off the turnip truck.

    Thanks for digging into the "green behind the ears" roots, Ben. It caught my (dry, non-green) ear during the debate, and my hunch was the same as yours (green + wet behind the ears). I had no idea the Germans had experienced such behind-the-ear woes.

  7. Orbis P. said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    Since we are talking about the possible movement of these "green" idioms from German to English, perhaps some readers will be interested by an earnest (but erroneous) explanation going the other way. Here's Karl May, the prolific and popular author of inauthentic Westerns, explaining the key word "greenhorn" to his German readers in his most famous book, Winnetou:

    http://german.about.com/library/bllesen01.htm

    The "green" part of "greenhorn" is not problematic, the notion of "newness" and "inexperience" being, as this thread points out, the same in German; but for "horn", he suggests "feelers", as in the eye-stalks/tentacles of a snail — instead of the idea of freshly-grown deer horns suggested above.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

    Yet another German-English equivalence: The OED entry for greener, meaning "a 'green' or inexperienced workman" (attested from 1888) notes the corresponding German term ein grüner, "a 'green' one."

  9. Rubrick said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    I find Obama's slip (if it was a slip) amusing, but he should be careful about swapping wet and green. One mention of flooding the economy with wetbacks and he's done for.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    Compare to the moon, conventionally made of "green", or unripe, cheese.

  11. George said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    I've heard the phrase every now and then. It always reminds me of the Indigo Girls' song "Hammer and a Nail" which includes the lyrics:

    I look behind my ears for the green
    And even my sweat smells clean
    Glare off the white hurts my eyes

  12. dr pepper said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    I always thought that "greenhorn" was a reference to cattle. Why would cowboy slang reference deer?

  13. Beth said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    The German analogue is interesting. I'm reminded of another midwesternism: "Do you want to come with?" rather than saying "Do you want to come with me?" A friend commented that in German, "with" and "along" are the same word, so maybe this expression was originally a translation from German (since German speakers settled much of that part of the country).

    I have no idea how plausible that speculation is.

  14. Karen said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

    If it comes from German, then Obama – bred in Chicago politics – may have picked it up rather than coined it.

  15. Orbis P. said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

    dr pepper: I almost wrote "ungulates" instead of "deer", but only deer were referenced previously and I don't really know enough about livestock and fresh horns to hazard a guess about their colour across species. If you say young cows grow 'em green too, I believe it; certainly not snails.

  16. Christine said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    On reading the expression, it felt familiar. I grew up in Kansas. Barak spent sometime on rural Kansas with his maternal Grandparents. Kansas was home to a lot of German immigrants in the late 1800s. So I wonder if it was just part of common speech in this area.

  17. dr pepper said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

    @orbis p:

    No, not the color green. Young cattle are called "greenhorns" because their horns are undeveloped.

  18. Joe said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

    "Green as grass" is the missing metaphor. Inexperienced, untested, green as grass.

  19. Michael Roberts said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

    "Greenhorn" in Hungarian is "zöldfülü" (green-eared (person)). Just thought I'd throw that in for triangulation's sake.

  20. D. Wilson said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 12:48 am

    As for "wet/dry behind the ears", M. Schele de Vere asserted as early as 1872 that this was a loan-translation from German (search, e.g., the phrase "not dry yet behind" at Google Books).

    As for the 'blend', offhand I think "green" alone + "wet behind the ears" is an adequate supposition. Likely another loan-translation, although the blend could also have occurred independently in English.

  21. Sili said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 9:48 am

    Not that it matters, but the corresponding Danish word is "grønskolling"m meaning "green-skulled" in reference to newly hatched birds, too (not that I knew that etymology till I checked just now).

  22. Debbie said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    Discussing "idiom blends" reminds me of a former boss who was fond of saying (when things weren't going well): "We'll be dead meat in the water." Yuck.

  23. Thierry Fontenelle said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 11:20 am

    Interestingly, Dutch also uses the same idiom, which you will find in any Dutch dictionary: "(nog) groen achter de oren." (lit. still green behind the ears). Given the influence Dutch has had upon American English (see words like Brooklyn, Harlem, Wall Street, Santa Claus, etc), this is another avenue that is worth exploring….

    Thierry

  24. kuri said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    Also somewhat tangential to the post, a common metaphor for inexperience in Japan is "oshiri/ketsu ga aoi," "his butt/ass is blue." This is a reference to the Mongolian spot.

  25. JimG said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    My apology to all: Deer don't re-grow their antlers. Rather, they add new growth to their earlier years' antlers, and the new growth is covered by hairy skin, referred to as velvet, which hardens prior to the breeding season.

    Except in tinhorn dictionaries, greenhorn isn't associated with cattle, which don't have green horns at any stage of development; It was associated with newcomers to the west, which at an early stage meant west of the Appalachians. By the time the term (and significant population) reached cowboy country, it was commonplace American slang.

  26. Enosson said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    JimG

    Of course deer shed their antlers.

  27. Matt Mulholland said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

    Watching Sportscenter today on ESPN, I read a statement made by Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals football team on his sub-par performance so far this current season and how it relates to the trade drama he created in the offseason. I don't have the statement word-for-word, but I can remember the last part of it and it struck me as interesting after I read this post.

    He says: "I made my bed and now I have to live in it."

    Of course, the phrase usually is: "I made my bed and now I have to lie in it." Johnson's use of "live" instead of "lie" is interesting because it seems that the meaning of the phrase "live with it/something" has been carried over, meaning "I made my bed and now I have to live with the situation being this way." Would this be a good example of an idiom blend?

  28. ajay said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    1) "My apology to all: Deer don't re-grow their antlers. Rather, they add new growth to their earlier years' antlers, and the new growth is covered by hairy skin, referred to as velvet, which hardens prior to the breeding season."

    Nonsense. Deer shed their antlers and grow new ones. And the velvet doesn't harden, it gets rubbed off.

    2) Have you thought about the use of the word "green" to mean "fresh" – which probably comes from contrasting freshly cut wood, which actually is slightly greenish, to seasoned timber? This is certainly the sense in which it is used in "greenhorn" – because deer antlers are never coloured green at any stage!
    It's also what people mean in the metaphor "the wound is still green" – because fresh wounds aren't, of course, coloured green either.

  29. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 17, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    Orbis P. wrote,
    The "green" part of "greenhorn" is not problematic, the notion of "newness" and "inexperience" being, as this thread points out, the same in German; but for "horn", he suggests "feelers", as in the eye-stalks/tentacles of a snail — instead of the idea of freshly-grown deer horns suggested above.

    In As You Like It, Rosalind compares the snail's tentacles to the cuckold's horns:

    ROSALIND: Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight: I
    had as lief be wooed of a snail.
    ORLANDO: Of a snail?
    ROSALIND: Ay, of a snail; for though he comes slowly, he
    carries his house on his head; a better jointure,
    I think, than you make a woman: besides he brings
    his destiny with him.
    ORLANDO: What's that?
    ROSALIND: Why, horns, which such as you are fain to be
    beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in
    his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife

  30. Kevin Iga said,

    October 18, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    A friend of mine pointed out a use in a Somerset Maugham story of the idiom, "in my salad days", apparently referring to days of one's youth and/or inexperience. I hadn't heard the phrase before, but checking online, it seems to have the same connotation, by way of "green".

    Wikipedia cites Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" with this:
    "…My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…"

  31. Brian said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 1:28 am

    I don't know if it's relevant, but when building a campfire, "green wood" is usually to be avoided since it's not completely dead yet and still has some moisture, and won't burn well. The wood fiber retains a green tinge when you look at it, and it doesn't snap in two cleanly for breaking up into fire-size chunks. You want to wait until the wood dries out, and ages, before it's good for burning. Thus, green wood is wood that's too new off the tree to be good firewood.

    It seems like many, many things are green-tinged when they're too new to be of use.

  32. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    Yes, "green" means "inexperienced". This is one of the first definitions in the dictionary (after "green in color", of course). There's no need to go chasing German idioms, or deer antlers, or anything of that nature. "Green" means "inexperienced". "Wet behind the ears" means "inexperienced". "Green behind the ears" is a malapropism which clearly also means "inexperienced". Perhaps Obama used the malapropism intentionally (to inject a bit of down-home humor, or in veiled reference to an earlier malapropism by someone else), or perhaps it was unintentional; you'd have to actually watch the clip to find out.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/green

  33. Theresa Flynn said,

    August 10, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    I'd always heard from my father, who was in the Naval Reserve, that the term "green behind the ears" was an old Navy term. Something about the cheap metal on the hat bands making a green mark on the skin behind the ears. Now, my father has been known to make up stories (he's of Irish ancestory, by the way, not Dutch or German); however, I found this on the USMilitary.com website on the submarine basic course: "Many of the new sailors are just out of boot camp and pretty green behind the ears."

  34. Ron Graves said,

    March 2, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    I am in my late 50's and have always heard the simile or idiom, "As green as a gourd" meaning not yet dried or cured. Gourds were commonly used in the South as dippers for drinking water long before indoor plumbing. Gourds were grown, harvested, and dried. "Green as a gourd" was a phrase meaning not yet ready for use. I heard a minister use "Green behind the ears" just yesterday and instantly thought of "mixed metaphors" or in your terms "idiom blend" or "malapropism". I must admit that I thought of the minister's words as the slip of an educated man. After learning of POTUS' use of the phrase, I'm now not sure.

  35. Tomas Gradin said,

    November 17, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    This thing that you call an "idiom-blend" has a proper term: contamination.

    A malapropism is something else, viz. incorrectly substituting a word that is similar in sound but completely nonsensical in meaning in that context (alligator – allegory for example).

    The expression "green behind the ears" is indeed a contamination of these two German phrases:

    A. noch feucht hinter den Ohren sein (to still be wet behind the ears)
    B. noch grün sein (to still be green)

    Both having the meaning "to be young/inexperienced/etc."

    The contamination results in:

    C. noch grün hinter den Ohren sein (to still be green behind the ears)

    Reference: "Figurative language: cross-cultural and cross-linguistic perspectives", Dmitriĭ Olegovich Dobrovolʹskiĭ and Elisabeth Piirainen, 2005.

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