Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Green Behind the Ears?

What will persist in our collective memory from last week's presidential debate, the second of three between John McCain and Barack Obama? The Philadelphia Inquirer suggests that only two remarks will be remembered: McCain referring to Obama as "that one," and Obama's defense against charges of naivete, "that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears." McCain's "that one" has already become an ironic catchphrase, even generating a website selling "That One '08" T-shirts. But what's the deal with "green behind the ears"? Didn't Obama mean "wet behind the ears"?

As you can see from the Visual Thesaurus wordmap, wet behind the ears is an idiom that means "lacking training or experience," synonymous with new and raw. And the wordmap for green shows two relevant senses: "not fully developed or mature" and "naive and easily deceived or tricked." So it looks like Obama uttered what some linguists call an "idiom blend" — combining two idiomatic expressions into a new fused version. Here are some more examples of idiom blends, which are sometimes created accidentally, and sometimes made with tongue firmly in cheek:

  • That's the way the cookie bounces.
    (blending "...cookie crumbles" and "...ball bounces")
  • It's not rocket surgery!
    (blending "rocket science" and "brain surgery")
  • He's really under the eight ball.
    (blending "under the gun" and "behind the eight ball")
  • That book is a real page-burner.
    (blending "page-turner" and "barn-burner")
  • Well, that's all water over the bridge.
    (blending "water under the bridge" and "water over the dam")

Green has long been used as the color of immaturity, playing on the metaphor of unripe fruits or plants. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of green in the sense of "inexperienced" back to the mid-16th century. Shakespeare used it in a memorable play on words in Antony and Cleopatra: "My salad days, when I was green in judgment." A similar term is greenhorn, meaning "an awkward or inexperienced youth." Here the metaphor is from the animal kingdom, presumably from a name for young cattle with "green" or immature horns.

Animal husbandry is also the likely source for the other part of the idiom blend, wet (or not yet dry) behind the ears. Here's how Charles Earle Funk explained it in his 1948 classic A Hog On Ice:

A saying that came directly from the farm, where many others have also arisen, for it alludes to 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. The figurative use seems to be wholly American, too homely to have attained literary pretensions, but undoubtedly in familiar use through the past hundred years or longer.

Though Funk is probably right that the expression is originally an Americanism, the earliest example I've found so far is actually from a British writer, the notorious Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). Lord Lytton is now chiefly remembered for the line, "It was a dark and stormy night," which has become so identified with bad prose that it has inspired the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for "the funniest opening sentences from the worst novels never written." In The Parisians (a novel published in 1873, the year of his death), Lord Lytton puts these words in the mouth of an American character, Colonel Morley: "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."

The "green behind the ears" variation is actually rather old. In the 1911 book The Compleat Oxford Man, A. Hamilton Gibbs writes, "When these people have the needle what a remarkable change comes over them. Some tremble and look green behind the ears." That's not quite the same meaning, it seems to me: it's playing with green in the sense of "looking pale and unhealthy," as in the expression "green around the gills," so it could be a different kind of idiom blend. But this example from 1924 looks like a predecessor of Obama's usage (and in the context of presidential politics, no less):

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

More recently, "green behind the ears" has cropped up in numerous places. (Two British uses: it was the title of a 1984 book by Faith Addis describing her move from London to the countryside, and in 1999 the Scottish rock band Travis released a song by that name.) For some, it may simply be a jocular takeoff of the established idiom "wet behind the ears." Others might treat it more seriously: after all, the literal meaning of "wet behind the ears" only makes sense to those familiar with raising livestock, so why not replace it with "green behind the ears," which has the added advantage of evoking the "immature" associations of green?

You can hear Obama use the phrase at about 30 seconds into this clip. Judge for yourself whether the apparent idiom blend was intentional or accidental — and if it was intentional, whether it was serious or facetious. Perhaps he just wanted us to forget about another much-discussed livestock idiom, "lipstick on a pig"!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 14th 2008, 1:01 AM
Comment by: Kelly-kelly
It isn't only used in English. Strangely enough, "being green behind the ears" (grün hinter den Ohren) is a common German idiom and it refers to someone who is inexperienced, too. When I heard Obama say it, I knew exactly what he meant and it didn't even sound odd to me until a little while later (but then I sometimes mix my idioms, too). A variant "noch feucht hinter den Ohren" means "still wet behind the ears". Or you can refer to someone as "noch nicht trocken hinter den Ohren sein" (not yet dry behind the ears).
Tuesday October 14th 2008, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Interestingly, I've never heard of any of the other idiom blends you bullet-pointed out!
Tuesday October 14th 2008, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
When I heard Obama say it during the debate I immediately thought it was accidental. Purposely blending idioms was probably beyond his intentions on that pressure-filled night. But his meaning was clear, and the informality of the expression was welcome.
Tuesday October 14th 2008, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I have personally heard every one of your "blended idioms" before--perhaps my Mid-Western upbringing was more diverse than that of some living in King of Prussia, PA?
Or perhaps my failed early endeavor to become a professional student and the accompanying 14 years of University before finally settling down for the M.D. degree.
I love your column, Ben.
Tuesday October 14th 2008, 11:10 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As a medical doctor the term "wet behind the ears" was always fully understood even without any firsthand knowledge or experience of farm life.
To me the idiom always referred specifically to the physical condition of the newborn human immediately after birth.
At that stage of life one has utterly no experience in life, thus clueless.
Wednesday October 15th 2008, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Chris Waigl (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
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.
Wednesday October 15th 2008, 3:06 PM
Comment by: Renee W. (Berkeley, CA)
Sometimes a greenhorn is a dark horse and even a nova.
Thursday October 16th 2008, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to the first anonymous commenter and Chris Waigl for the information about the corresponding expressions in German. There has been more discussion about this over on Language Log, and we now have evidence from 1872 (in Maximilian Schele de Vere's Americanisms) that the original expression "not dry behind the ears" was brought over to the United States by German settlers.
Monday February 15th 2010, 10:27 AM
Comment by: kalaiselvi P.
The articles are excellent, but sometimes I read them for the comments.
Monday February 15th 2010, 10:27 AM
Comment by: kalaiselvi P.
The articles are excellent, but sometimes I read them for the comments.

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