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Lick into shape

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Brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) running. From...

Image via Wikipedia

Being  ‘licked into shape’  means to be made fitter, more efficient or better organised, says the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE).

So far, so mundane. But the ODE doesn’t explain the origin of the expression, which is far more interesting than its meaning: it’s all to do with bears and bestiaries.

The word ‘bestiary’  usually refers to a medieval book that describes and illustrates a variety of animals, often with moralising overtones. A detailed explanation of bestiaries can be found on The Medieval Bestiary website.

The Medieval Bestiary site devotes a page to bears, and reveals the derivation of the expression ‘being licked into shape’:

Bears give birth in the winter. The bear cub is born as a shapeless and eyeless lump of flesh, which the mother bear shapes into its proper form by licking it (the origin of the expression “to lick into shape”).

It then quotes from, among others, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, who wrote in the 13th century:

…the bear bringeth forth a piece of flesh imperfect and evil shapen, and the mother licketh the lump, and shapeth the members with licking…. For the whelp is a piece of flesh little more than a mouse, having neither eyes nor ears, and having claws some-deal bourgeoning, and so this lump she licketh, and shapeth a whelp with licking….

The derivation is also explained on The Phrase Finder.

Eyes like a hawk


Written by Wordwatch

21/10/2010 at 4:13 am

9 Responses

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  1. Bartholomaeus Anglicus: a man mucheth inclined to expatiateth.

    Michael Farrell

    21/10/2010 at 6:15 am

  2. Verily. His prose is some-deal bourgeoning and needeth lickething into shape.


    21/10/2010 at 7:43 am

  3. Ah – if only it were true. It may be the origin of the phrase, but it’s a slur on the biology of bears. Or just biology in general. And bestiaries are not wildly reliable sources of information – they probably tell you that swallows sleep away the winter in the mud of ponds, too, as well as listing entirely fictional animals (I’m sure our ancestors saw the world differently to the way we see it, as well).

    New-born bears are bear-shaped, just as new-born people are people-shaped (though the mother licking clean a new-born cub probably gave rise to this mis-perception).

    Unlike bears, though, many people actually mature into shapelessness! 😉


    21/10/2010 at 7:51 am

    • Hi, Ron — yes, you’re right — I watched a programme about medieval life a while back, presented by some prof or other, and he was explaining how people saw the world completely differently at that time. Quite difficult to get a handle on from our modern perspective. Your final comment made me laugh!


      21/10/2010 at 7:58 am

      • You know, it’s just registered – my pickiness gene was a bit slow kicking in – but as bears give birth during hibernation, and video-cameras with remote, fibre-optic, lenses were a long way in the future, how could anyone know about new-born cubs and the sow’s behaviour?

        More mediaeval fiction?

        Just a thought…


        23/10/2010 at 1:13 am

        • David Attenborough’s old enough to have been there, though…


          23/10/2010 at 8:55 am

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pat English, Clare Gibson. Clare Gibson said: RT @Squirrelbasket Why we say "lick into shape"… http://bit.ly/9lbexR – from @Wordwatch […]

  5. Ron’s comment made me laugh, too. Although, I must say that there is something very poignant, even if not true, in the image of a mother bear almost breathing life into her offspring, by licking it. It is so primal and so lovely; I can understand how myths like these were born.(‘xcuse the pun!)


    23/10/2010 at 12:52 am

    • Hi, Jo — yes, it is a lovely image. I’m sure there are many more such snippets in the old bestiaries. Finding the time to research that stuff is another matter!


      23/10/2010 at 8:51 am

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