meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to lick into shape’


The phrase to lick someone or something into shape means to act forcefully to bring someone or something into a fitter, more efficient or better-organised state.

This expression originated in the belief that bear cubs are born as formless lumps and need to be licked into their proper shape by their mothers. In his encyclopaedia of the natural and human worlds, Naturalis Historia (The Natural History – 77), the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79) wrote, about newborn bears:

hi sunt candida informisque caro, paulo muribus maior, sine oculis, sine pilo; ungues tantum prominent. hanc lambendo paulatim figurant.
These are shapeless white flesh, a little bigger than mice, with no eyes or hair; their claws alone prominent. They [= the mothers] lick them gradually into shape.

The first mention of this belief in English is in The Pylgremage of the Sowle, a 15th-century rendering of the 14th-century French work Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme by Guillaume de Deguileville (1295-circa 1358). The narrator asks his guardian angel to explain why a lady sitting on a chair is licking a deformed pilgrim. The angel answers that, just like newborn bears who need to be licked into shape by their father and mother, humans are born imperfect, deformed by the original sin, and need to be shaped by the tongue of doctrine and of teaching (“the tonge of Doctryne & of techyng”); the following is the beginning of this answer:

“Hast thou nought herd speke”, quod he, “how beres [= bears] ben brought forthe al fowle and transformyd [= all foul and shapeless]? And after that, by lyckynge of the fader and the moder they ben brought in to theyr kyndely shap [= proper shape].”
     original French text:
“Se ouis, dist il, onques parler
Comment sont ours imparfais nes
Et comment apres sont fourmes
Par la langue de leur pere
Et le lechier de leur mere.” 

The French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553) also mentioned this belief in Le tiers livre des faicts et dicts heroïques du bon Pantagruel (1546):

(1552 edition)
Comment naissent les procés, & comment ilz viennent à perfection.
Vn procés à sa naissance premiere me semble, comme à vous aultres messieurs, informe & imperfaict. Comme vn Ours naissant n’a pieds ne mains, peau, poil, ne teste : ce n’est qu’vne piece de chair rude & informe. L’ourse à force de leicher la mect en perfection des membres.

The English version by the Scottish author and translator Thomas Urquhart (1611-60) is as follows:

(1894 reprint of the 1693 edition)
How suits at law are bred at first, and how they come afterwards to their perfect growth.
A suit in law at its production, birth, and first beginning, seemeth to me, as unto your other worships, shapeless, without form or fashion, incomplete, ugly and imperfect, even as a bear at his first coming into the world hath neither hands, skin, hair, nor head, but is merely an inform, rude, and ill-favoured piece and lump of flesh, and would remain still so, if his dam, out of the abundance of her affection to her hopeful cub, did not with much licking put his members into that figure and shape which nature had provided for those of an arctic and ursinal kind.

In The widdowes teares (1612), by the English playwright George Chapman (1559?-1634), the phrase means to devise a stratagem. Tharsalio has made his brother, Lysander, doubt his wife, Cynthia, who has vowed not to remarry if she is ever widowed. Lycus, Lysander’s confidant, informs Tharsalio that his brother has decided to fake his own death:

– Lycus : Hee is resolu’d to follow your aduise, to die, and make triall of her stablenesse, and you must lend your hand to it.
– Tharsalio: What to cut’s throat?
– Lycus: To forge a rumour of his death, to vphold it by circumstance, maintaine a publike face of mourning, and all thinges appertaining.
– Tharsalio: I, but the meanes man: what time? what probabilitie.
– Lycus : Nay, I thinke he has not lickt his Whelpe into full shape yet, but you shall shortly heare ant.
– Tharsalio: And when shall this strange conception see light?
– Lycus: Forthwith.

In 1620, the English diplomat and writer Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) used the phrase to mean to improve in the conclusion of a letter to “His Majesties Ambassadors at Prague” in which he was making several diplomatic propositions:

Not fixing our conceits [= conceptions] upon this which hath now been represented, but leaving it as a Bears whelp, which may be licked into a better form; and remaining here both willing and desirous to receive either this better polished, or some new conception from your Lordships, that we may drive to the wished end.

Wotton also used the image in a letter to Sir Edmund Bacon written on 6th March 1628:

I have not yet sent those Verses to Mrs. Katharine Stanhope, that she may rather have them in the second Edition: For the Author hath licked them over, and you shall have a new Copy sent you by the next Carrier.

In The Anatomy of Melancholy. What it is, With all the Kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes & severall cures of it (1638 edition), the English writer Robert Burton (1577-1640) addresses the reader in the following manner:

I have no such authoritie, no such benefactors as that noble Ambrosius was to Origen, allowing him six or seven Amanuenses to write out his dictats, I must for that cause do my businesse my self, And was therefore enforced, as a Beare doth her whelps, to bring forth this confused lumpe, I had not time to lick it into forme, as she doth her yong ones, but even so to publish it, as it was first written, quicquid in buccam venit, in an extemporean stile, as I do commonly all other exercises, effudi quicquid dictavit genius meus, out of a confused companie of notes, and writ with as small deliberation as I doe ordinarily speak, without all affectation of big words, fustian phrases, jingling termes, tropes, strong lines, that like Acesta’s arrows caught fire as they flew; straines of wit, brave heats, elogies, hyperbolicall exornations [= embellishments], elegancies, &c. which many so much affect.

In Article XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper of An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1700 edition), the Bishop of Salisbury and historian Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) wrote the following about transubstantiation*:

Amalric in the beginning of the Thirteenth Century denied in express Words the corporal Presence : He was condemned in the Fourth Council of the Lateran as an Heretick, and his Body was ordered to be taken up and burnt : And in opposition to him Transubstantiation was decreed. Yet the Schoolmen continued to offer different Explanations of this for a great while after that : But in conclusion all agreed to explain it as was formerly set forth. It appears by the crude Way in which it was at first explained, that it was a Novelty : And that Men did not know how to mould and frame it ; but at last it was licked into shape ; the whole Philosophy being cast into such a Mould as agreed with it.

(* transubstantiation: the conversion of the substance of the Eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Christ at consecration, only the appearances of bread and wine still remaining)




This is the definition of the French phrase ours mal léché, literally badly-licked bear, in the 1st edition (1694) of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française:

On dit prov. & bass. […] d’Un enfant difforme & mal fait, que C’est un Ours mal leché.
It is proverbially and vulgarly said […] of a deformed and unshapely child, that it is a badly-licked bear.

The current sense of ours mal léché was added to the initial meaning in the 4th edition (1762) of this dictionary:

On dit proverbialement […] d’un enfant difforme & mal-fait, ou d’un homme rustre, brutal, mal élevé, que C’est un ours mal léché.

French “un homme rustre, brutal, mal élevé” translates as “a boorish, brutal, ill-mannered man”. It was only in the 8th edition (1932-5) of this dictionary that this was the unique sense.

It is possible that ours mal léché came to denote a gruff person under the influence of the figurative sense a person who avoids human society, attested in the second half of the 17th century, of the noun ours.

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