In one of our last blogs, I mentioned our students’ genuine interest in idiomatic expressions and similes. What I find really intriguing though, is that the very same students don’t really use many idioms when speaking their first language. I guess that in many cases it’s the image of the expression that we make in our minds that we may find truly fascinating, and not the fact that we could actually one day use the expression. A bear with a sore head might look something like this:
But the history behind many an expression is not as funny as its visualisation may be.
In Collins’s ” Dictionary of Curious Phrases” I found the following entry for Like a Bear with a Sore Head:
Groses’s Classical Dictionary of Vulgar tongue, which appeared in 1785, illustrates the word ‘grumble’ with the sentence:’ He grumbled like a bear with a sore ear.’ Bears with sore ears would certainly have been found in bear gardens, where bear-baiting took place. This was a popular spectator sport in England between the 14th and 17th centuries. A bear was chained to a stake and had to defend itself against the dogs who were set on it.
The riotous atmosphere at such events led to ‘bear garden’ becoming a term to describe a place where confusion reigns….Eating People is wrong, by Malcolm Bradbury, has:
‘”It’s a mad,crazy world we live in.” Jenkins nodded sagely.”It’s a bear-garden”.’
Frederick Marryat seems to have been the first writer to amend Grose’s ‘bear with a sore ear.’ In The King’s Own he uses the expression ‘ as savage as a bear with a sore head.’ Ten years later, in a work called Poor Jack, Marryat changed the simile to ‘ as sulky as a bear with a sore head’. Marryat’s stories were immensely popular in the 19th century, and his words would have been widely noted. He was probably responsible for making most of us think automatically, when someone is behaving with a mixture of savagery and sulkiness, of bears with sore heads.
So, next time when you find a certain simile or expression interesting, look it up and find out where it comes from, and how and where it was used first. You might be (un)pleasantly surprised!