Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Episode 99 - Poke The Bear Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 99: Poke the Bear

Record Date: February 7, 2021

Air Date: February 10, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week, we are poking the bear.



So how do we get this phrase? Dan, thoughts? 

Yes, so aside from black bears… bears are generally mild. Unless you bother their babies - think Mama Bears - or they are hungry and you’re between them and their food… they are fairly gentle. Unless you poke them, of course. 

Before we get too far, we actually need to take a look at another phrase 

to take a bear by the tooth: to put oneself in danger; to act in a foolhardy manner. Chiefly in comparisons to express how objectionable or unwise a proposal is. Obsolete.

1601 Arthur Dent · The plaine mans path-way to heauen wherein euery man may clearly see, whether he shall be saued or damned · 1st edition, 

If any man notwithstanding all this, will venture vpon it [sc. Adultery], hee may be saide to be a most desperate monster: for what doth hee else but as it were..take the Beare by the tooth.

1603 Arthur Dent · Ruine of Rome 

If they continue bold and busie this way, they may hap at last take a beare by the tooth, and peraduenture pull an olde house vpon their heads.

1638 Richard Younge · The drunkard's character, or, A true drunkard with such sinnes as raigne in him … set forth in their colours. Together with Compleat armour against evill society. By R. Iunius 

For whether he laughs, or chafes, he is a like apt to quarrell; or let but a friend admonish him, hee were as good take a Beare by the tooth.

Here is a book from 1658 - A Commentary Upon the Epistle of Saint Paul Written to Titus. By that Famous and most Elaborate DIVINE Doctor Thomas Taylor, Sometimes of Aldermanbury, London. Together with an exact and full Relation of the Life and Death of that incomparable Divine, whose own words to be prefixed on this book were [greek text that I cannot read well enough to translate] Make God the beginning, and the end of all things. With three short Tables in the end, for the easier finding of Doctrines, observations, and questions, contained in the same.

1779 Considerations upon the French & American War: In a Letter to a Member of Parliament by Englishman

We shall as soon take a bear by the tooth as infringe an iota of that treaty.

Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - Giving the Derivation, Source, Or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell · by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer · 1898

Back to poke a bear. Dan, do you have any guesses as to when this may have appeared in print in English? 

According to Oxford English Dictionary

to poke the bear and variants: to deliberately provoke or antagonize a person or group, esp. one that is dangerous or powerful. rare before late 20th cent.

24 February 1840 edition of The Morning Post out of London, England

Boswell, by way of ‘poking the bear’ perhaps, asked whether the poetry of Gray (a man of that time) did not ‘tower above the common mark?’

From The Evening Telegraph out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the October 02, 1869 edition, there was a series of phrases and terms that seemed to be a sort of current events social commentary. These included: 

Chicago eagle out of Chicago, Illinois. In the April 08, 1893 edition, there is a short little story about a man who had a rather unpleasant experience. I am going to re-phrase the first sentence of this story and then I’ll quote the rest. 

A citizen of San Francisco was severely injured after a blow to the head from a bear’s paw. 

The reason I felt it important to include this excerpt is that this was that sort of turn around of the phrase. We see this sometimes with idioms. A phrase will be used literally, then figuratively. And then at some point, someone gets to use the phrase literally… and newspapers rarely pass up that chance! 

From the same decade out of Greenville, Mississippi, we see the phrase again. This usage might be the best representation of how I think of this phrase: 

In the January 12, 1895 edition of The Greenville Times, we find a very clinical look at an incredibly important topic of the day. 


According to the encyclopedia Britannica (

Fin de si├Ęcle, (French: “end of the century”) of, relating to, characteristic of, or resembling the late 19th-century literary and artistic climate of sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness, and fashionable despair.

It is also oftentimes used to refer to the challenges or duality of representing the grandeur and magnificence of the end of the century while balancing it with the innovation of the future. These days in English, we use the term turn of the century in a similar way. 

Now that we’ve had a little side-lesson on a completely different phrase, let’s go back to the one that brought us here today. From the article on dresses, we find this excerpt: 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

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Pop Culture and Modern Examples

From the Sports section of the 14 Aug 1998 St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press

Deputy commissioner Russ Granik greeted the news with basically a ‘Ha ha! We win that one!’ Which violates rule No. 1 of labor negotiations: Never poke the bear with a stick.

Dan, I believe you’re familiar with this next reference: 

That '70s Show is a comedy television series. In the 2002 episode titled Prank Day, the friends try to get revenge on Kelso, but end up accidentally dumping a bucket of oatmeal on Red - who is the dad. Kitty, the mom, hears yelling so comes down the stairs. Once she realizes the situation she says, quote: 

“Eric, how many times have I told you don’t poke the bear? DON’T POKE THE BEAR!”

End quote.

Don’t Poke the Bear is a children’s book by Dominic Robert Villari published in 2018. A description on Barnes and Noble begins, quote: 

"Watch out, Hare. It looks like Bear is sleeping there." Don't Poke the Bear is a fun and easy to read book about the importance of keeping your hands to yourself and not touching.

End quote. 

Poke The Bear is a metal band from Alberta. 

On their Facebook page, they describe themselves as “a 4 piece Death Thrash outfit from Medicine Hat. We write songs about stuff we like and make cool shirts. If you like songs about The Ninja Turtles, Larry Bird, Blackbeard, and The Dragon Zord, Then we're the band for you. Groovy and technical riffage is our goal when it comes to songwriting, all at a fast pace. We've been told that we're not very nice people.”

Next, we find ourselves in Wisconsin:  

Welcome to Poke the Bear, a bold, flavorful restaurant highlighting Green Bays’ sports heritage. Located in the heart of the Entertainment District you will experience locally sourced cuisine. Inside the Historic Hotel Northland in Downtown and just a short drive to Lambeau Field, this fan-focused restaurant combines a warm, welcoming atmosphere with fresh, full-flavored food in a sports history environment. Whether you’re a Hotel Northland guest, a football fan, or a food-lover looking for a new favorite spot to dine, Poke the Bear offers everything friends and family need for a great, casual dining experience.

Back to Canada, the last item I want to share is D'Ont Poke The Bear Wines & Craft Cider: Locally Sourced Grapes & Apples That Roar from the Bottle. ( I love their logo. It is a sketch of a grizzly wearing a red eye patch. 

D'Ont Poke the Bear is the passionate result of two people, Andrew and Allan, who produce great VQA Ontario wines and craft cider.

Andrew and Allan were both bullied as children and have now created D'Ont Poke the Bear to celebrate those that fight back and put their friends first...Oh, and put the apostrophe wherever they want!

By donating $0.25 per bottle of wine and $0.05 per can of craft cider, they will set out to make this happen. 

Polite until provoked...don't poke the bear.

Share your stories about putting #friendsfirst and support one another -- #dontpokebears

What’s the impact? Well, as of June 2020, they’d raised over $110,000.00 for the organization Friends First in support of bullying prevention in Canada. 

Wrap up...




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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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