I am uncovering new snippets of knowledge whilst researching for these posts. À propos of which, Taffy is a slang word for a Welsh person. I knew that, but I always assumed that it derived from the River Taff. Apparently, as it’s proving with many of my assumptions, that’s not the case. It could have derived from the lazy English way of trying to pronounce the Welsh version of David, Daffyd. Sure, we are lazy, but if we already had David (which would be the lazy way out) why would we want to think of another word for Daffyd? The new derivation of Taffy for me was that it came from an 18th century poem helpfully entitled ‘Taffy was a Welshman’.
As with many nursery rhymes, it’s not pleasant. That’s why kids love them so much. They get to innocently sing about the plague (Ring a Ring o’ Roses), executions conducted by Mary I of England (Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary), executions conducted by Mary I of England (Three Blind Mice) and sexual undertones (Georgie Porgie). Taffy was a Welshman is very direct though. If it hides a hidden meaning, then it’s well hidden.
As adults, we like to change the words to our childhood rhymes or update them to our widened (and more racy) vocabulary or way of thinking. I did as much with my alternative version of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. The original rhyme has a much more pleasing meaning. Even though Mary’s lamb disrupts school, it’s loved. Here’s Thomas Edison’s re-recording of his 1877 smash hit version of the same rhyme:
The sweetness of Mary’s rhyme immediately had the idiom ‘Be a Lamb’ springing in to my head. It will take a little longer than two shakes of a lamb’s tail to get through this one. Are you are sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
“That’s right,” said Tuppy. “Bertie has always been a great cyclist. I remember at Oxford he used to take all his clothes off on bump-supper nights and ride around the quad, singing comic songs. Jolly fast he used to go too.”
“Then he can go jolly fast now,” said Aunt Dahlia with animation. “He can’t go too fast for me. He may also sing comic songs, if he likes. … And if you wish to take your clothes off, Bertie, my lamb, by all means do so. But whether clothed or in the nude, whether singing comic songs or not singing comic songs, get a move on.”
The foregoing was from P.G. Wodehouse’s novel, ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE, was an English author and one of the most widely read humorists of the 20th century. Alas, I am not one of them. I have never read one of his novels. I should as I can download them as ebooks from Project Gutenberg or Standard Books. So no excuse for not reading at least one of them this year.
In passing, before he found success Stateside as Dr. House, Hugh Laurie teamed up with his comedy partner Stephen Fry for a well received TV version of the books. Didn’t watch ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ either. But YouTube to the rescue and you can catch an episode here:
All very drôle. Back to the Wodehouse novel quote. Aunt Dahlia refers to Bertie as a lamb. Upon my travels to uncover more about the term ‘be a lamb’ several observers have stated it is a term of endearment and reference Wodehouse’s novels. Aunt Dahlia finds Bertie lovable, sweet and adorable and calls him a lamb. She is paying him a compliment. Or is she? I’m not convinced. I’m not sure that riding naked on a bicycle inside a university’s courtyard is an adorable activity. I guess it depends on how well chiselled young Bertie is! I’m at a distinct disadvantage here as to Aunt Dahlia’s personality, having not read the books. The small quote leads me to think that she is a far from patient woman. It would take more than a boyish prank to warrant a compliment or adulation in return from her. I tentatively conclude that ‘being a lamb’ is not about being all fluffy, cute and bouncy in Aunt Dahlia’s eyes.
Wodehouse spent many years in self-imposed exile in the States. Perhaps ‘be a Lamb’ has two meanings depending on what side of the Pond you live. Wodehouse wrote ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ in 1934. He did not decamp to America until 1947. The British interpretation of the phrase may well be wrapped up in the cuteness of baby lambs given our long history of raising our ovine friends for food (meat and milk) and wool. However, in the United States their ovine history is much shorter and being asked to ‘be a lamb’ has a slightly more telling meaning.
Sheldon dresses his request for his behind to be inspected for tattoos with ‘be a lamb’. It is not a request for adoration or love. It is a request to inspect a part of Sheldon’s anatomy that a friend would not usually want to do. So Sheldon is very much expecting submissive compliance from Leonard to the task requested. Leonard, albeit being a loyal and typically serving friend for Sheldon and his peculiarities, draws the line at such intimate and subservient inspections.
I’m not really sure that lambs or sheep are indeed so subservient. I find them to be pushy. One summer, many years ago, I remember climbing up the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Wales’ Brecon Beacons. Nothing strange about that except during the picnic we had on the way back down. No sooner than my mother had cracked open the packet of Bourbon cream biscuits than several pushy sheep came to us and were aggressively seeking those biscuits. They were somewhat abated with a couple of offerings, but they hung around, intimidating for more. We were not to be their lambs, though!
Our friends across the water certainly use the expression differently. One example cannot prove this though, however much I would like it to. In searching for more lamb related idioms, I came across several explanations based upon of their meanings based upon Christian teachings from the bible. The initial overseas invaders of the Americas were certainly a religious lot, so this piqued my interest a little more.
In Christian teachings, the Lamb of God is Jesus, his people (or flock) are sheep. Apparently, real sheep are easily overwhelmed by lesser predators (not higher predators armed with Bourbon biscuits, it would seem). When raising sheep in non-fenced environments, a shepherd, with dogs, keeps order so prey cannot remove sheep from the flock. Back to the religious teachings analogy, a shepherd (Jesus) will guide us (sheep) to heaven safely from the evil sins of the world. So being a lamb is very much instructing you to submit and comply to a higher authority’s influence and instruction. A little different from a term of endearment, methinks.
The Old Testament book of the bible, Isaiah, has three quotable references to lambs and sheep:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
As I have previously alluded, I’m not an expert in religious understanding or thought. The three quoted verses will be a struggle to interpret without additional help. Help I got and as best as I can work things out, the messages of the verses are:
Once realised, Jesus’ kingdom shall be a perfect place.
Cruelly treated but kept his mouth shut.
Pushing home the point made in 11:16, there shall be no violence of any kind, done either by man or beast.
There are over 270 verses which contain references to lambs in the bible. These three verses are a mixed bag, two of them preaching a way to harmony, perhaps through domestication of what is wild with a shepherd to ‘guide’ them. The remainder is telling you to keep your mouth shut and submit to the punishment, even if you know better. An element of fluffiness in the two, but a much stronger element of subservience in the remainder. I appreciate the imagery of Jesus being the shepherd, guiding his flock of sheep along a path of safety. Jesus, being a lamb in his God’s eyes, is young and growing in knowledge. Even so, he can teach us plenty. Oozing with imagery.
Other lamb idioms from my memory and travels:
Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb
(if the punishment or outcome identical, might as well do something worse!)
Mutton dressed as lamb
(used unflatteringly at an older woman who unsuccessfully tries to look much younger)
These two convey a rather negative air to them. So again, lambs being used not in their cute, fluffy sense. Rather adds a little more weight to the subservient meaning of being a lamb.
Speaking of intuitiveness, feistiness and a combination of obstinacy and vulnerability, I give you Lamb Chop. I’m sure I sat down on an early Saturday evening to watch some of these shows. I would not have thought too deeply about the puppet’s name but would have erred right on the side of cute (as a lamb) rather than sinister. You see lamb chops on a butcher’s cutting block and not dressed up (as mutton chops) performing for Her Majesty:
Drunk lambs are cute and not subservient. However, a strong Martini is not going to change my mind about what it means to be a lamb. A subservient life of herbivorous eating undone by a fermented apple? A drunk lamb seems to crave a more carnivorous diet and would need the butcher’s shop. Not much meat on Miss Lamb Chop, so I’m confident she’d not come under the revaelc.
A number of trades used slang to ensure that customers would not understand what was being said behind the counter. Butchers use back slang. Each ‘offending’ word is pronounced backwards, and when impossible to pronounce, the name of the letter is used instead of its sound. So for lamb you get bmal - pronounced ‘be-mal’. A cleaver is a revaelc - pronounced ‘revel-see’. It’s not an exact science:
Evig reh emos delo garcs dene
Give her some old scrag end
Scrag end? Yes, that’s another chop cut from lamb. Chump chops, loin chops, Barnsley chops, all from bmals. A butcher with a bit of fatty lamb to sell: that becomes taffy bmal. Not Welsh lamb which would be hslew bmal or ‘aitchslew bemal’.
A lamb’s tail shakes quickly. This post has taken you much longer than the idiom’s two shakes to read. Thank you for getting to the end awake. If you needed sleep…count sheep instead.