Monday, November 10, 2008

Sly as a Fox (pt. 1)

Tanya from Albany, New York, asks what sly as a fox means and where the phrase comes from. For some reason, in earlier centuries, people considered the fox to be a crafty, cunning, and tricky creature. It does tend to slink a bit while hunting, but that quality isn’t limited to foxes; sly as a snake would work for me just as well. But a literary tradition pinned the simile on the pup.

Aesop wrote the fable of The Fox and the Crow, in which a wily fox tricks a crow out of a morsel of meat. Much later, in medieval stories, Reynard the Fox became the symbol of a trickster, a character who was always in trouble but always able to talk his way out of it.

The slyness or subtlety of a fox is an image found frequently in Shakespeare.

Cymbeline, III, 3: “We are beastly, subtle as the fox for prey . . . .”

Henry IV, Part 1, V, 2: “For treason is but trusted like the fox,
Who, ne'er so tame, so cherish'd and lock'd up,
Will have a wild trick of his ancestors.”

Henry VIII, I, 1: “This holy fox, Or wolf, or both,—for he is equal ravenous
As he is subtle . . . .”

King Lear, III, 4: “False of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth . . . .”

Measure for Measure, III. 2: “. . .and furred with fox and lamb-skins too, to signify, that craft, being richer than innocency, stands for the facing.”

Venus and Adonis, l. 694: “Uncouple at the timorous flying hare,
Or at the fox which lives by subtlety . . . .”

SIDEBAR: The History of Reynard the Fox

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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