history of the phrase ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’

MEANING

 

Originally and chiefly American English, the rhetorical question Does a bear shit, or crap, live, etc., in the woods? is used ironically as a response to a question or statement felt to be blatantly obvious—synonym: Is the Pope (a) Catholic?—cf. also ‘Is a bear Catholic?’ | ‘Does the Pope shit in the woods?’.

The following, for example, is from Tales of the City (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), by the U.S. novelist Armistead Maupin (born 1944)—as reprinted by HarperCollins, 2011:

Back at the Fisherman’s Wharf Holiday Inn, she looked up Connie Bradshaw’s phone number.
Connie was a stewardess for United. Mary Ann hadn’t seen her since high school: 1968.
“Fantabulous!” squealed Connie. “How long you here for?”
“For good.”
“Super! Found an apartment yet?”
“No… I … well, I was wondering if I might be able to crash at your place, until I can…”
“Sure. No sweat.”
“Connie … you’re single?”
The stewardess laughed. “A bear shit in the woods?

 

TYPOGRAPHIC AND SEMANTIC SUBSTITUTES FOR THE VERB SHIT

 

The verb shit has sometimes been replaced by a long dash or by the letter s followed by three short dashes.

For example, on Monday 12th April 1982, The Huntsville Times (Huntsville, Alabama) published an article about the Masters golf tournament, which had taken place the previous day—the following is about the U.S. golfer Dan Pohl:

Someone asked, “Were you pleased when you found out you were in a playoff?” Pohl laughed and tossed out the old line, “Does a bear — in the woods?

Another example: In The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 30th October 1987, David Dale quoted Does a bear shit in the woods? and several of its American-English synonyms from Maledicta: The Journal of Verbal Aggression (Waukesha, Wisconsin), a journal dedicated to the study of offensive and negatively valued words and expressions, founded, edited and published by Reinhold Aman (1936-2019):

There’s also a Jewish tradition of using sarcastic questions to show contempt for comments judged to be inappropriate. The most often heard is “What am I, chopped liver?” but the range includes: Does a snake have knees? Does a chicken have lips? Does the Pope know Latin? Is the Pope a Catholic? Is the hole close to a donut? Does a bear s— in the woods? Is a pig’s ass pork? Is a four-pound robin fat?

In The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec) of Tuesday 12th March 1974, Doug Gilbert replaced the verb shit with bleep—in reference to a short high-pitched electronic sound used in broadcasting as a substitute for a censored word or phrase:

Grant McLaren must be the only athlete in the world who could reply to the old ‘does-a-bear-bleep-in-the-woods’ bromide with a 30-minute dissertation.
When not traipsing around the world earning a quiet reputation as Canada’s top track and field star, McLaren has been spending a lot of time in woodsy situations in pursuit of his Ph.D in zoology.

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES

 

Most of the earliest uses of the phrase that I have found occur:
– as Does a bear live in the woods?;
– in sports contexts, particularly baseball.

1959

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from The Bullpen, by Lester Koellina, published in The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Thursday 2nd April 1959:

J. C. Martin, the drawling Virginia boy who plays baseball for keeps, constantly is being needled just to hear him talk and catch his comic phrases. When he was asked whether he would like to play first base for the Indians, he shot back with, “Man, does a bear like the woods? I sho’ would like nuthin’ better. What am I here for?”

1961

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from an article published in many U.S. newspapers on Saturday 9th September 1961, for example in The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina)—the Baltimore Orioles are a baseball team:

Baltimore—(AP)—Lum Harris said Friday he’s having a good time as manager of the Baltimore Orioles […].
[…]
Asked at a meeting of the Baltimore Sports Reporters Association if he would consider continuing as manager next season, Harris answered rhetorically, “Does a bear live in the woods?
“I’ve been picking cotton for 25 years,” he said, indicating he was ready to take on additional responsibilities—and the extra money that goes with it.

1965

The phrase occurs, again as Does a bear live in the woods?, in the column Prairie Trails, by John Warren, published in the Moline Daily Dispatch (Moline, Illinois) of Monday 29th November 1965:

We find there actually exist a few people who lack the knowledge of the value of a tree, who, unbelievably, doubt the wisdom of replacing our lost trees.
The question: “Do we need trees?” ranks with such academic nonsense as: “Does a bear live in the woods?” or, “was Christ a Christian?”

1966

On Saturday 18th June 1966, The Daily Times-News (Burlington, North Carolina) quoted Jim Foster, the coach of Snow Camp baseball team, as using Does a bear sleep in the woods? after a victory over Yanceyville:

“Am I pleased?” laughed Foster after the game. “Does a bear sleep in the woods? I couldn’t be happier […].”

In his column Big Sports, published in the Kokomo Morning Times (Kokomo, Indiana) of Sunday 4th December 1966, Wayne Cody used Does a bear live in the woods? when writing about the forthcoming Rose Bowl Game, an annual football bowl game played at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California.

The phrase occurs as Does a bear crap in the woods? in It’s Cold out There (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1966), a novel by the U.S. author Malcolm Braly (1925-1980):

“What you doing in this flea bag?” he asked.
“I live quiet.” Seldom Seen gravely closed one eye. “[…] Me, I live quiet.”
JD nodded uneasily. “You telling me you’re rooting?”
Does a bear crap in the woods?

1967

Yet another variant occurs in the following paragraph, published in many U.S. newspapers in April, May and July 1967—for example in The Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin) of Monday 10th April:

Does a bear like to eat in the woods?
—Reply of Cleveland Indian manager Joe Adcock to whether he had considered switching slugging outfielder Rocky Colavito to first base.

Don Shula, then coach of the Colts, a football team based in Baltimore, was quoted as using Does a bear live in the woods? in The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Wednesday 27th December 1967.

1968

The following is from a portrait of Roscoe Pondexter, who played in the San Joaquin Memorial High School basketball team, in Fresno, published in The Fresno Bee (Fresno, California) of Thursday 19th December 1968:

A lot of other coaches would like to have the big sophomore.
Does a bear go to the woods,” sighed Sierra mentor Merritt Gilbert when asked if he could find a spot for Pondexter on his squad.

1969

The variant Does a bear sleep in the woods? occurs again at the beginning of Windy Weather Hampers Fishermen, by Jeff Klinkenberg, published in The Miami News (Miami, Florida) of Thursday 20th March 1969:

Are fresh water fish biting?
“What?” asked Carl Williams. “Does a cow moo? Does a bear sleep in the woods?
Yes, largemouth bass are hitting in the Everglades, according to Loxahatchee Recreation Center’s Williams, despite occasional high winds and showers.

Buddy Perry used Does a bear live in the woods? in his sports column, Perry’s Particulars, published in the combined edition of the Beckley Post-Herald and The Raleigh Register (Beckley, West Virginia) of Sunday 1st June 1969.

Errol Mann, whose football team, the Detroit Lions, had beaten the Minnesota Vikings, was quoted as using an extended form of the phrase in The Holland Evening Sentinel (Holland, Michigan) of Monday 24th November 1969:

“Am I happy beating them?” Mann queried. “Does a bear go into the woods to hunt berries?” he answered his own question.

1971

Jeff Smith used the following variant in The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona) of Sunday 21st March 1971, about the Trans-Am cars that the tyre manufacturer Goodrich commissioned in order to advertise the Radial T-A tyres they raced on:

If you’ve never seen a Trans-Am car, you’re in for a shock. Outwardly they look a good deal like the street machines upon which they’re based, but $15,000 to $30,000 does a lot to change them. The finished product is all beefed suspension, blueprinted engine, gutted interior, stripped body and roll cage. They’re straight race car—all mean.
So can you imagine my surprise when Dick Nonn, the regional Goodrich sales rep called and askde [sic] if I’d like to drive it. Does a big bear reside in the woods?

The phrase occurs, again as Does a bear live in the woods?, in Lew Krausse all smiles, by Bob Franklin, published in the Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania) of Tuesday 12th October 1971:

Is Lew Krausse happy over his being traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Boston Red Sox?
Does a bear live in the woods? . . . is a pig’s leg pork? . . . is a blue bird blue?
Heck, yes, Lew Krausse is happy.

Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) of Wednesday 13th October 1971, the following is from a description of the baseball player Elrod ‘Ellie’ Hendricks (1940-2005) on television:

Ever smile, Ellie?
Does a wild bear walk in the woods?” The grin was broad, sending the sad face off in another direction.

Dick Martin, the Washington University football coach, was quoted as using Does a bear live in the woods? in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) of Friday 22nd October 1971.

Published in The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona) of Thursday 2nd December 1971, the following is about Emmett Ashford (1914-1980), the first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball:

“Do I miss umpiring after 20 years?” the 57-year-old Emmett repeats a question asked of him. “Does a bear sleep in the woods?

Dave Klein used Does a bear live in the woods? in The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey) of Tuesday 14th December 1971—NFC is the abbreviation of National Football Conference:

Should Dallas beat St. Louis Saturday (does a bear live in the woods?), the Giants could escape a cellar finish in the NFC’s Eastern Division with a victory over Philadelphia. In the unlikely event that the Cards win, the Giants are cemented in the basement, irretrievably.

1973

Dave Klein used Does a bear camp in the woods? in The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey) of Tuesday 8th May 1973:

Bill Sharman is the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers […]. […]
[…] Sunday afternoon […] he tried as long as possible to answer some of the more inane questions concerning Jerry West and his pulled hamstring muscles before flipping out.
Would the Lakers miss Jerry? (Does a bear camp in the wood?) Would the loss of this super guard hurt the team’s chances against the Knicks? (Would the loss of her figure hurt Raquel Welsh’s acting career?).

The following is from Canadian fishing trip outdoor treat, by Bill Bennett, published in the St. Joseph Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri) of Friday 10th August 1973:

We had drooled with envy listening to Dr. Lawrence Pifer, our family doctor, tell about fishing in Canada. Then wife Charlie came home one happy day from nurse duties at Methodist Hospital and said the good doctor wanted to know if we’d like to sample Great Slave Lake.
“Does McDonald’s have arches? Do fishermen fib? Does a bear growl in the woods?” we replied as we hugged our tackle box and grinned big.

Will Harbaum quoted one Woody Curlew as using Does a bear hide in the woods? in his column Naturequest, published in The Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio) of Sunday 30th September 1973 and Sunday 4th November 1973.

In The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Thursday 15th November 1973, an editor of the column Action Line—which aimed at solving the readers’ problems—used Does a wild bear eat in the woods?.

1974

David Poling used the rhetorical question Does a bear like honey? in Catholic reading for Protestants, published in The Noblesville Daily Ledger (Noblesville, Indiana) of Saturday 2nd February 1974:

This is that time of year when most of the country is ready to give up. The Christmas bills look awful, the ice storm has returned, and now the energy crunch keeps pushing us around. In the middle of this heartache, the car battery and the right front tire look mighty sick. The January-February blues are depression indeed. But hope is coming. In fact, if you can read U.S. Catholic, the January issue has already arrived.
Can a Protestant or Jewish reader find happiness in a Catholic publication? Does a bear like honey? One of the real pluses of Vatican II was the increased awareness of religious publications other than one’s own special brand. Writers, authors, theologians began appearing in all sorts of magazines and journals, never mind their denomination or brand of worship. U.S. Catholic offers a staggering amount of stimulating material that touches almost every aspect of church life in North America. Ideas on religious education, family life, ecumenical happenings, book reviews—all and more keep coming out of that Claretian headquarters in Chicago.

In The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Tuesday 9th April 1974, the journalist Owen Canfield quoted a bellboy as using Does a wild bear live in the woods?.

In his column Naturequest, published in The Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio) of Sunday 12th May 1974, Will Harbaum quoted Woody Curlew as saying:

Does a skunk suck eggs? Does a bear hide in the woods?

Bill Lyon wrote the following in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 18th May 1974—known professionally as Kate Smith, Kathryn Elizabeth Smith (1907-1986) was a U.S. singer, well known for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America:

Is lacrosse tough?
Does a bear go naked in the woods?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Does Kate Smith know the lyrics to “God Bless America”?

1975

This advertisement was published in The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont) of Monday 24th March 1975:

Firestone
Will you find great tire
and service buys at our
Annual Spring Celebration?

Does a bear sleep in the woods?

Annual Spring Celebration
Thursday, Friday, Saturday — March 27th, 28th, 29th.
Goss Tire & Service Center
688 Pine Street, Burlington, Vermont
237 North Avenue, Burlington, Vermont

'does a bear sleep in the woods' - The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont) - 24 March 1975