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Two polar bear cubs, as yet unlicked into shape.

Just for once, I don’t really care if this expression has traction all over the world or is merely British. I’ve learned a thing today and that thing has delivered a perfect jolt of happiness, and that’s what I want to share. It’s is all about the delightful way logic bends language to its own needs, even faulty logic, and even from a distance of many hundreds of years.

So, you’ve heard the expression licking into shape, right? And you know it means the act of molding something so that it is ready for use. In every film that has a montage sequence in which someone learns how to do something over time, that person is being licked into shape. Most of us, if we’ve thought about the phrase at all, will have probably concluded that it either derives from beating into shape, the way a blacksmith would batter hot metal into a sword, or it has something to do with ice cream.

The truth is a LOT more fun.

Way back at the beginning of writing things down, it was commonly believed that a bear cub was born as a blob of formless nothing, a scoop of jello with eyes, essentially. And it would be up to the mother and father bear to take this wobbly gobbet of un-bear and literally lick the beariness into it. Never mind that other mammals are born blind and hairless, and they grow into their fur and shape, the ancients believed that bears had to be molded into bear shapes by the careful craftsbearship of a parental tongue. A scoop here for the ears, a swish there for the neck, and so on.

The 4th Century Roman writer Donatus made reference to this belief, as did the 11th Century Arab doctor Avicenna, and the phrase first makes an appearance in the English language in 1413, in a translation of de Guilleville’s book The Pilgrimage of Souls: “Bears be brought forth all foul and transformed and after that by licking of the father and the mother they be brought into their kindly shape.”

Note: In this case, kindly means natural.

And so common a belief was this, that it was no jump at all to draw a parallel between the licking bears and anything that requires careful and dedicated attention in order to reach its full potential. And it makes perfect sense as a metaphor anyway. The careful and meticulous sweep of a mother’s tongue, regular and supportive, is a perfect analogy to any form of teaching or intense craftsmanship. To this day army sergeants describe taking their raw recruits and licking them into shape, teachers are the same with a new class, and I’m sure conductors have the same ideas about their orchestras.

The question is; would they be so quick to use the expression if they knew its post-scientific definition would actually be clean this infant and let it grow into the shape that is pre-determined by its DNA? Probably not.

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine