history of the phrase ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’

The phrase a sheep in sheep’s clothing is used to characterise a person whose lack of courage and determination is as real as it gives the impression of being.

This phrase is a jocular variant of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, denoting a person that appears friendly or harmless but is really hostile.

It is generally said that Winston Churchill [note 1] used a sheep in sheep’s clothing about Clement Attlee [note 2].

The following, for example, is from the account of a speech given by Donald Du Shane, a professor at Lawrence College, Appleton, published in the Appleton Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin) of Friday 16th November 1945:

Du Shane said that a group of “little men playing domestic politics” were busy in the United States which is headed by a “pretty good county clerk sitting in the White House.” He said that Russia’s great man is going and that Britain’s Churchill was replaced now by Attlee, of whom he quoted Churchill as describing, “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

More recently, in Tossing insults a time-honoured political sport, published in the Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) of Tuesday 15th April 2008, Richard Foot also attributed the phrase to Winston Churchill:

Nobody was better at this than Winston Churchill, who used humour to skewer his opponents and to reply to the insults they hurled his way.
He savaged his Labour rival, Clement Atlee [sic], as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” and “a modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

However, this is what the U.S. author, journalist and columnist William Safire (1929-2009) explained in Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press – 2008):

Winston Churchill is commonly thought to have directed his famous dig “sheep in sheep’s clothing” at Clement Attlee. In a review of the first edition of this dictionary, British historian D. W. Brogan set the record straight: “Sir Winston Churchill never said of Clement Attlee that he was asheep in sheep’s clothing.’ I have this on the excellent authority of Sir Winston himself. The phrase was totally inapplicable to Mr. Attlee. It was applicable, and applied, to J. Ramsay MacDonald [note 3], a very different kind of Labour leader.”

Nevertheless, according to Leonard Lyons in his column The Lyons Den, published in several U.S. newspapers in September 1945, “one Conservative” in the House of Commons, reacting to Clement Attlee’s appointment as Prime Minister, did describe him as a sheep in sheep’s clothing—the following, for example, is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 8th September 1945:

APPEARANCE: The Conservatives in Parliament are still bewildered by the Labor vote which made Clement Attlee instead of Winston Churchill Prime Minister of England. When Attlee entered the House, one Conservative announced: “There goes a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

The following confirms that Clement Attlee was indeed characterised as a sheep in sheep’s clothing. It is from the account of an address made by Major Guy Lloyd to the electors in the East Renfrewshire division, published in the Daily Record (Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Thursday 14th June 1945:

National Socialism in Germany, the U.S.S.R., Fascism in Italy—all totalitarian in outlook—had their origin in Socialist leaders, Socialist theories, and Socialist parties, he contended.
Mr. Attlee might be asheep in sheep’s clothing” — perhaps he was — but it was the question of who and what might succeed him which alarmed so many thinking people to-day.

The description of Clement Attlee as a sheep in sheep’s clothing was even attributed to one “of his nominal supporters” in Premier Sacks the Rebels, published in the Western Mail and South Wales News (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Thursday 19th May 1949:

Mr. Attlee’s suave and benign manner, often suggesting readiness to turn the other cheek when smitten, has caused him to be misjudged by some of his nominal supporters, one of whom described him as a sheep in sheep’s clothing. They have by this time learnt that he is anything but that.

In any case, very soon, a sheep in sheep’s clothing as a description of Clement Attlee was attributed to Winston Churchill. The first instance of this attribution that I have found is from Elsa Maxwell’s column Party Line, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Friday 9th November 1945—the fact that, according to the author’s friend’s account, Winston Churchill came up with three witticisms within a few minutes casts serious doubt on the authenticity of this account:

I gave a little dinner party last week […].
[…]
Three good stories about Winston Churchill were told at my dinner which show that an ex and great prime minister has not lost his power of bon mot. A friend just brought them over from London. It seems that Mr. Churchill was showing a man over the House of Commons. As they passed Prime Minister Attlee, Churchill said, “Behold the new prime minister—a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
Before his friend could even chuckle, Sir Stafford Cripps passed by, Churchill paused, rolling his tongue over the words as he muttered, “There, but for the grace of God—goes God.”
At that moment very tall Herbert Morrison, minister for transportation in Mr. Churchill’s coalition war government, passed by and Churchill muttered “Wuthering Heights”—then added quickly “Mutiny on the Bronte.”

But, in fact, the phrase a sheep in sheep’s clothing was coined on several distinct occasions long before Clement Attlee’s appointment as Prime Minister.

I have found an early occurrence of the image in John Bull (London, England) of Saturday 11th March 1843:

The leading organ of the Anti-Ministerial party is sadly afraid that the Opposition will become a cypher, “dumb dogs, that bark not,” “sheep, dressed as becomes sheep, in sheep’s clothing.”

The earliest occurrence of a sheep in sheep’s clothing that I have found is from one of the unconnected paragraphs on page 3 of the Burlington Clipper (Burlington, Vermont, USA) of Thursday 7th August 1884:

Why do not those howlers in Franklin county who get their letters printed in the side-show sheets sign their names like men? An anonymous letter shows a sheep in sheep’s clothing. We enjoy honorable warfare, but the sow in the corn is not a square enemy.

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from the Asheville Weekly Citizen (Asheville, North Carolina, USA) of Thursday 11th September 1890:

The Western Farmer and Mechanic is a new Republican paper just started in Asheville by Messrs. Stancil and Morris. Such a paper with such a name reads like a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”—Hickory Press and Carolinian. Rather, as a matter of fact, it is a sheep in sheep’s clothing.

The phrase appeared in contrast to a wolf in sheep’s clothing in a letter by the ‘Religious Liberty Com.’, published in The People’s Forum of the Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pennsylvania) of Monday 9th April 1906:

The difference between the Sabbath day and Sunday is, the Sabbath is the seventh day, Sunday is the first day of the week. Sabbath is a holy day, Sunday is a holyday. The holy Sabbath was instituted by God; the holyday, Sunday, was instituted by the Church. The Sabbath is the memorial of God’s creative and sanctifying power. Sunday is the memorial of sun-worship.
The Sabbath is a sheep in sheep’s clothing. Sunday is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The phrase was also used in Britain. The following is from The Bath Chronicle and Herald (Bath, Somerset, England) of Saturday 18th November 1933:

BATH LADY’S ART EXHIBITION
Famous Critic’s Tribute

An exhibition of paintings and woodcuts by a Bath lady, Miss Doris Hatt, who now resides at Clifton, will be opened to-day at the Clifton Arts Club, 17, Charlotte Street, Bristol. […]
[…]
A foreword to the catalogue of this exhibition has been written by Mr. Albert Rutherston, a well-known artist, and the principal of the Ruskin Art School, at Oxford. […]
In his foreword, Mr. Rutherston observes:—
There is little difficulty to-day in assuming the title of “Artist.” A studio in Chelsea, perhaps, a note in the telephone directory and there it is; few would pause to consider the rights of the matter. That this must be a widespread practice, the number of our colour manufacturers—almost a major industry indeed, theirs—would seem to prove.
                                                        “ARTIST OF DISTINCTION.”
And yet how rare it is, comparatively, to look upon a contemporary painting, drawing, carving or other work which bears the hall-mark of being by a true artist. There is much talent, much experiment also, both good and bad, to add to our difficulty in pronouncing judgment; but to some of us at least there appear to be too many sheep, in sheep’s clothing.

 

cf. also—phrases invented or popularised by Winston Churchill:
notes on ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’
How the British phrase ‘one’s finest hour’ arose in 1940.
the long history of the phrase ‘blood, sweat, and tears’

 

This portrait of Winston Churchill is from The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 1st December 1954:

portrait of Winston Churchill - The Sketch (London) - 1 December 1954

Mr. Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, commissioned by past and present members of both Houses of Parliament in honour of Sir Winston’s eightieth birthday yesterday, November 30th. It was arranged that the portrait, which took two months to paint, should be presented by the Right Hon. Mr. Clement Attlee, Leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.

 

NOTES

 

1: Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was a Conservative statesman, Prime Minister from 10th May 1940 to 26th July 1945, and from 26th October 1951 to 5th April 1955.

2: Clement Richard Attlee (1883-1967) was a Labour statesman, Prime Minister from 26th July 1945 to 26th October 1951.

3: James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) was a Labour statesman, Prime Minister from 22nd January 1924 to 4th November 1924, and from 5th June 1929 to 7th June 1935. I have found no evidence of his being described as a sheep in sheep’s clothing.

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