Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Episode 117: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 117: A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Record Date: July 17, 2021

Air Date: July 21, 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 its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

There are times when an individual’s true nature is not apparent, when they appear to be good and kind but at the core, they have other motives. These individuals are sometimes referred to as a wolf in sheep’s clothes. 


A few variations are commonly used of this phrase, which have the words sheep and lamb both used, as well as trading out skin and clothes. So, you might hear:  

Wolf in sheep’s skin. 

Wolf in sheep’s clothes or clothing. 

Wolf in lamb’s skin. 


The MacMillan Dictionary lists two definitions for a wolf in sheep’s clothing:

  1. someone who seems friendly but is in fact unpleasant or cruel

  2. something that seems good at first but is in fact harmful

This is a pretty useful phrase and the idea itself has been around for a bit. 

Dan, any guesses at the century this originates from? 

There are two major links to the past with this phrase, both are pretty well-known around the world. These two sources are: Aesop’s Fables and The Bible.

Going back to a favorite of mine, I looked at The Library of Congress’ digital, illustrated The Aesop for Children. Today’s tale is 

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

“A certain Wolf could not get enough to eat because of the watchfulness of the Shepherds. But one night he found a sheep skin that had been cast aside and forgotten. The next day, dressed in the skin, the Wolf strolled into the pasture with the Sheep. Soon a little Lamb was following him about and was quickly led away to slaughter.

That evening the Wolf entered the fold with the flock. But it happened that the Shepherd took a fancy for mutton broth that very evening, and, picking up a knife, went to the fold. There the first he laid hands on and killed was the Wolf.”

This series ends each tale with a lesson to be learned - in this case, quote: 

“The evil doer often comes to harm through his own deceit.

Where does this fall on our timeline? 

This story is one of a collection of fables that have been credited to Aesop, who was a slave and a storyteller. It is believed that he lived between 620 and 560 BCE in ancient Greece. 

Aesop’s fables were printed in English for the first time around 1484 CE. The translation was done by William Caxton who coincidentally had introduced the printing press to Britain just eight years prior. 

What about the Bible?

The Bible is also a collection of stories and these were written over a long timeframe with the Old Testament being recorded between about 1200 and 165 BCE. The New Testament was recorded in the first century CE. The reference we are looking at is in the book of Matthew. 

Matthew 7:15 of the King James Version of the Bible reads: 

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

The oldest version of this part of the Bible translated into English was the Wycliffe Bible. These translations were done between about 1382-1395 CE. This version reads, 

“Be ye ware of false prophets, that come to you in clothings of sheep, but withinforth they be wolves of raven”

The Wycliffe Bible is also the oldest text in English that uses today’s phrase. And so the question, which unfortunately we do not have an answer for, remains… which of these works is truly the origin for the phrase, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? 

As for the writing of the biblical story, it is very possible for the original recorder of the book of Matthew to have been aware of Aesop’s fables as the collection of tales would likely have been in circulation in the Middle east during that time. 

In the post, Aesop’s Fables at the Library of Congress, the history of these stories - or at least what we have been able to discover so far - is discussed. We’ll share that link - it is fascinating for some of us nerds in the group.  

With that, we will move on to works that are a little bit easier to pin down in the timeline. 

Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition:

a wolf in a lamb's skin, in sheep's clothing, etc.: a person who conceals malicious intentions under an appearance of gentleness or friendliness (in allusion to Matthew vii. 15).

c1400 Roman Rose

Who-so toke a wethers skin, And wrapped a gredy wolf therin.

c1460 from Wisdom of The Macro Plays   

Ther ys a wolffe in a lombys skyn.

1533 Thomas More’s Debellacyon Salem & Bizance

He wyl play the woulfe in a lambes skynne.

a1616 William Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 1 (i. iv. 54)   

Thou Wolfe in Sheepes array.

1718 John Durant Breval · Play is the plot: a comedy  

Mercy o' me! what have we here then? a Wolf in Sheep's cloathing?

In the November 24, 1800 edition of the Gazette of the United States, & daily advertiser out of Philadelphia, PA, we find a letter to the editor in which political concerns are being brought forth. 

From the November 17, 1824 issue of The Hillsborough recorder out of Hillsborough, NC, there is a piece titled “What I’ve Seen” and it is signed by “Jeremiah See-All”. Here is an excerpt, 


He continues on with the verse and it isn’t the happiest of articles, but a good example of the use of this phrase at the time.  

In The Columbia Democrat May 11, 1839 out of Bloomsburg, Pa, the phrase is used in a news bulletin section.  

Before we move on to our modern uses, we’d like to take a quick moment to say thank you to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Shauna and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

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Modern Uses

The song titled Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (feat. William Beckett) by Set It Off was released in 2014. The lyrics include these, quote:

“Beware, beware, be skeptical

Of their smiles, their smiles of plated gold

Deceit so natural

But a wolf in sheep's clothing is more than a warning

Baa baa, black sheep, have you any soul?

No sir, by the way, what the hell are morals?”

Set It Off is an American punk or alt rock group. I thought it was a pretty entertaining listen!

The book Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (Big Bad Wolf #4) by Charlie Adhara was published in March 2020. Here is the synopsis from Goodreads

Agent Cooper Dayton is almost relieved to get a phone call from his former boss at the Bureau of Special Investigations. It means a temporary reprieve from tensions created by house hunting with Oliver Park, his partner both in work and in life. Living together in a forever home is exactly what Cooper wants. He’s just not keen on working out the details.

With a former alpha werewolf missing, Cooper and Park are loaned to the BSI to conduct the search at a secluded mountain retreat. The agents will travel to the resort undercover…as a couple in need of counseling.

The resort is picturesque, the grounds are stunning and the staff members are all suspicious as hell.

With a long list of suspects and danger lurking around every cabin, Cooper should be focusing on the case. But he’s always been anxious about the power dynamics in his relationship with Park, and participating in the couples’ activities at the retreat brings it all to the surface. A storm is brewing, though, and Cooper and Park must rush to solve the case before the weather turns. Or before any more guests—or the agents themselves—end up dead.

Next up is a post from a current artist on Facebook. The comic displays a sheep sitting at a table with a laptop that has a “WWJD” decal. Standing to the side of this sheelp and with its paws on the sheep’s shoulder is a wolf wearing a covering that looks like a sheep. This wolf is also wearing a thorned circlet and shepherd's crook. 

A speech bubble above shares the wolf’s words, quote:

“That’s right! You can say the most hateful thing in the world but when you add ‘I speak this to you in love’ it makes it all good.” 

-End quote

This piece is by NakedPastor. The artist shares his story on his website, Here is a little bit from the intro, quote:

“Who is nakedpastor?

I'm a former pastor turned cartoonist.

Drawing graffiti on the walls of religion since 2005.”

David Hayward is the NakedPastor. After 30 years in the church, he left the ministry to pursue his passion for art. His work challenges the status quo, deconstructs dogma, and promotes critical thinking.”

-End quote. 

Finally, probably my favorite find came from a post on reddit by u/xVampyreQueenx on the subreddit WholesomeComics. This user shared a comic by mahoukarp on instagram. 

With the caption, “A different twist to a wolf in sheep's clothing”

The comic depicts the cutest cartoon sheep and wolf (I believe babies) and they are smiling at each other. The sheep says, “I made you a new sweater!” and the wolf says, “Thanks I love it!” The wolf is wearing what appears to be a very nice light turquoise sweater. It’s just the cutest! 

Wrap up...

Overall, this is a pretty good phrase, in my opinion. I don’t personally use it often, but it just seems like a solid one. People have been utilizing the concept for centuries to warn of the potential nefarious intentions of others and as a warning or caution against trusting too easily. It’s a good reminder that... as much as I may want it to be true… not all people are good. Watch out for the baddies, because sometimes they wear good guy clothes. And that just sucks. But on a positive note, we can look out for one another and people do! So keep that up, good guys! 



That’s about all the time we have for today. We’re happy you joined us today. If you have a modern example of the phrase that we should have included, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to engage directly with us is to post it on the Patreon page,!


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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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