Friday, June 09, 2006

Takes a Licking, Keeps on Ticking

Q. My question involves a saying that my grandfather was fond of: a lick and a promise. What I think it refers to is a smack upside the head followed by a promise: “you do that again and you’ll really feel pain!”

A. And they said that family abuse was on the decline. No, even though to take a licking can involve violence, the origin of a lick and a promise is far more benign. The licking involved here is the rapid lapping of the tongue. Picture a cat cleaning its fur and you’ve captured the image. The idea behind a lick and a promise is that something was done in a hasty manner--a superficial and perfunctory washing, for example--but with the promise of a more thorough job later. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as the first citation: 1860 W. WHITE All round the Wrekin, xx. 207. “We only gives the cheap ones a lick and a promise.”

An allied phrase is to lick something into shape, and it has a most curious origin. Again, rather than speaking of fisticuffs, it refers to a parent animal licking its offspring. For centuries, the myth persisted that bears are born in a shapeless clump, and it is up to Mama and Papa Bear to lick them into their proper shape. It is apparent that someone with a vivid imagination saw a mother bear removing the amniotic sac from its cub and then cleaning up the amniotic fluid by licking and grooming. The image was appealing, and authors frequently called it into service.

In The Pylgremage of the Sowle [1413], Guillaume De Guileville wrote: "Beres ben brought forthe al fowle and transformyd and after that by lyckyng of the fader and the moder they ben brought in to theyr kyndely shap." [Bears are brought forth all foul and transformed, and after that, by the licking of the father and the mother, they are brought into their appropriate/ customary shape.]

Shakespeare’s King Henry VI Part 3 [Act III, Scene ii] alludes to the legend when Gloucester muses,

Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.

John Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses puts it this way:

The cubs of bears a living lump appear
When whelp’d, and no determined figure wear.
The mother licks them into shape and gives
As much of form as she herself receives.

Alexander Pope, in the Dunciad, has these lines:

"So watchful Bruin forms, with plastic care,
Each growing lump, and brings it to a bear . . . .

Samuel Butler’s Hudibras includes this:

A bear’s a savage beast, of all
Most ugly and unnatural;
Whelp’d without form, until the dam
Has lick’d it into shape and frame.

An essay by Montaigne contributes this: “Will you know what I think of it? I think they are nothing but shadows of some imperfect images and conceptions that they know not what to make of within, nor consequently bring out; they do not yet themselves understand what they would be at, and if you but observe how they haggle and stammer upon the point of parturition, you will soon conclude, that their labour is not to delivery, but about conception, and that they are but licking their formless embryo.”

Thus, it was a potent and enduring image that lasted until 19th century naturalists debunked it. The next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that maggots don’t develop from garbage. Abiogenesis rules!

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