Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Episode 106: Wet Behind the Ears Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 106: Wet Behind The Ears

Record Date: March 28, 2021

Air Date: March 31, 2021



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

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

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

Earlier this week I was having a conversation with a friend and we were talking about his need to hire two people into leadership positions. He mentioned since he had two leadership positions open, he’d need to find at least one person with experience because he didn’t think he could hire two people that were wet behind the ears. 

And of course that got me thinking… where the heck did we get wet behind the ears? And was there ever a similar phrase of dry behind the ears?


wet behind the ears: naive, inexperienced, immature. (From the OED)

With apologies to German speakers everywhere

Knoch nass hinter den Och-wren

This comes to us from a German phrase (noch) nass hinter den Ohren (The OED places this German phrase as 1642 or earlier). This translates to “still wet behind the ears”. 

apparently “...with allusion to the idea that the area behind the ears is the last part of a newborn's body to become dry after birth.”

The first attestation in English, according to the OED, was in a book that was translated from German and published, in parts, in the Boston Daily Atlas. In the March 25, 1851

Such a louse student, who is still wet behind his ears, thinks because he is received in the castle, he is some great person! Let me alone, I will give him a box on the ear that will make him remember who is Michael.”

But remember I wondered if there was an opposite phrase. And the Germans win again on this one!

Knoch Nicht talkin’ hinter den Och-wren

(noch nicht) trocken hinter den Ohren, which is attested in 1712, which translates to “not yet dry behind the ears”

dry behind the ears: adult, experienced, mature

1802   Port Folio 21 Aug. 257/3   The French call such inexperienced uneducated boys, green creoles, (des créoles verts), as in German we usually say of such a person, ‘he is not yet dry behind the ears’.

But it still seems odd for a newborn baby to not get cleaned up all the way. But what if they aren’t talking about newborn humans?

Maximilian Schele de Vere, in his 1872 work Americanisms: The English of the New World, writes: While the French and English draw their terms of contempt or pity for youthful inexperience from unfledged birds with green or yellow bills, etc, the German fancifully notices that newly-born animals are apt to be licked dry promptly everywhere except behind the ears, and hence their colloquial phrase: ‘The youngster is not dry yet behind his ears.’ 

So there are examples of English translations being used in the 1800s, with the German original versions in uses in the mid 1600s. 

Let’s explore a few more examples of the uses in English. 

1939   John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath ix. 109   When you bastards get dry behin' the ears, you'll maybe learn to let an ol' fella sleep.

July 3, 1954 edition of The Nation

The ranch family consists of three brothers - one strong byt mean, one strong but spiritual, one strong but we behind the ears

Our next example comes from 1980, but before we get there we have a few people to thank. 

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

1980 Album

The band Wet Behind the Ears published a self-titled vinyl in 1980 with 10 songs in a Country Rock style. 

1991  Brain Child by George Turner - A science fiction book set in 2047 Australia.

“My head rattled with apprehension of some criminal gan using my office and my Card as adjuncts to their plans and because I was, in spite of attainments and degrees, still wet behind the ears in my knowledge of depravity, I made some stumbling declaration of my honesty, my civil obligations, my duty to report him and his confessed forgery” 

2001 Book

Wet Behind the Ears: Adventures of a Runaway Sailor by Peter Taylor

Many adolescent boys dream of running away to sea, but Peter Taylor is one of the few who actually did it. With some fast-talking and fictitious references, sixteen-year old Peter found a position crewing on a British tramp steamer from sleepy Wellington to post-war England, via Australia and apartheid South Africa. So began a series of journeys throughout Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe. Peter crewed with many sailors-rough or cultured, reclusive or outgoing, all with different reasons for choosing a sailor's life, and experienced both comradeship and hardships on the sea. Gun-toting soldiers, terrifying hurricanes, Equatorial initiation ceremonies and the sailor's catch cry of 'a girl in every port' all feature in this true action packed story, told with intelligence and humour.

2007 SONG

Wet Behind The Ears by Bigg Mann off the album Shyne Tyme

It’s a hip hop song with a catchy beat and storytelling that involves more curse words than I might use in a month. So I can’t really read you the lyrics. But if you are interested in hearing it, you can catch it on Spotify or Youtube music. We’ll link to the youtube on our Patreon.

2013 Movie

Wet Behind the Ears directed by Sloan Copeland 

Life is underwhelming for Samantha Phelps when she graduates college and finds the real world isn't awaiting her arrival with open arms.

Despite that lackluster synopsis from IMBD, this movie scores a 100% audience rating on - though it does have less than 50 reviews…

2013 song Wet Behind the Ears by Jim Lauderdale of the album Blue Moon Junction

Look down, look down

For pennies in the street

Look up, look up

See what your dark eyes meet

Look out, look out

The subject of your fears

Reflected from the mirror at you

Still wet behind the ears

Wrap up...

I love phrases that come to us from other languages. It makes me wish I were able to speak other languages than English. Which I probably could learn if I made more of an effort. So maybe that needs to be one of my goals for 2021. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a program or a process that you found helpful in learning another language, let us know. We are bunnytrailspod on all of our social media accounts.


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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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