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shameless pleading


Don’t worry the sheep.

Dear Word Detective:  This past Thanksgiving, I was reminiscing with my siblings (all raised in NW Oregon, all in our 50s) about a dictate our late father used to hand down: “Don’t wool it around.”  Though we couldn’t collectively come up with a specific example, we all agreed that it was an admonishment not to leave things on the floor or let them get dirty or possibly overused.  This seemed to pertain mostly to clothing, though I have a vague memory of Dad using this phrase to describe what our Labrador puppy, Marcy, did when she played with her stuffed toys — she “wooled them around.”  The image of dog slobber and dirt on something made of cloth is integral to my understanding of the meaning of this phrase, but — if Dad didn’t make it up (and I never heard anyone else use it) — how on earth did it come about?  The whole jolly fam would appreciate an unraveling! — Linda T. Campbell.

Well, if you’re looking for an unraveling, you’ve come to the right place.  Things fall apart around here, and the center?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  Incidentally, did you know that “ravel” and “unravel” are synonyms?  They both come from the obsolete Dutch word “ravelen,” meaning “to entangle,” and both of them can mean either “to untangle” (such as a mystery, which is good) or “to undo and thus tangle” something previously well-ordered (such as a sweater, which is bad).

In the case of your father’s use of “wool” as a verb, the best I can hope is that I can untangle it a bit, or at least not leave a pile of tangled logic on the floor where the dog can get it.  I had never heard of anyone using “wool” as your father did, and apparently I am not alone, because no source that I have found acknowledges “wool” as a verb meaning, as your dad used it, “to mistreat, neglect  or manhandle.”  But I think your father was simply being a bit creative in his use of “wool,” pushing the wool envelope, so to speak.

“Wool” as a noun is, of course, simply the hair of a sheep or, by extension, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the short soft under-hair or down forming part of the coat of certain hairy or furry animals.”  Beavers, rabbits, and even camels apparently have this sort of “wool.”  The word “wool” has also been applied to anything even remotely wool-like, e.g., steel wool.  “Wool” is, not surprisingly, a very old word and comes from an ancient Germanic root meaning, um, “wool.”

“Wool” as a verb is not as old as the noun, first appearing in the 17th century meaning “to coat or line with wool.”  (There was a verb back in Old English, “wullian,” meaning “to wipe with wool,” but that doesn’t really count.)  In the 19th century, “to wool” acquired the sense of “to stuff with wool” and was also used as verbal shorthand for “to pull the wool over someone’s eyes,” i.e., to deceive or trick.

None of this gets us anywhere near how your father used “wool,” however, so here’s my theory.  Back when keeping sheep and producing wool was truly a cottage industry, much time was spent “picking” the wool shorn from the sheep, picking out the burrs, dirt, etc., before it could be “carded” (combed), spun and sold.  In the 19th century, to “wool” another person was slang for pulling at their hair in a similar fashion, either as teasing or to express anger.  It’s a bit of a stretch, but your father may have had something similar in mind when he said “don’t wool it around,” perhaps meaning not to “pick at it,” “worry” it, or abuse it.  This would also fit well with your dog “worrying” a stuffed toy and gradually picking it apart.  There may also have been the sense of such abuse making the thing “woolier,” fuzzier and more frazzled, than it already was.

33 comments to Wool

  • john

    My wife also uses the verb “to wool” when I hug her and move her around: “don’t wool me around”.

  • Mary

    My mother, b. 1908, northern Idaho, used the term in the sense of a puppy playing with a stuffed toy, and mouthing the object until worn, wet and tangled. I used the term to my 46 year old son this morning and he produced an “are you crazy look”. Can’t find the term on Google, but was delighted to read Linda’s recounting of her father’s use, exactly the same, and from the same geographic region.

  • jean

    Wooled! My family uses the word in exactly the same way, with the same connotations of dog slobber. We are from southern Appalachia. When I have had a very bad day at work, I will tell my husband, “I feel wooled.” He knows what I mean, but my friends look at me like I’m crazy.

  • Lee

    My family’s used wool as a verb for generations – definitely since the 1800’s – this would be in Missouri. “Don’t wool your grandmother so much.” It meant – don’t wear her out. Don’t wool the dog. Don’t wool the kitten. Be careful how much you wool your sweater, your doll, etc.

  • Don

    Dear Word Detective:

    Thanks for a very good Website. I’m glad to find some folks that are familiar with the expression “to wool [usually a person, object, or thought] around.”

    I grew up in Oklahoma and I heard the term used in several different ways. The form that stuck in my young mind was the one that referred to a person, as in: “He tried to wool me around to get me to agree,” or “That lawyer tried to wool me around when I testified.” The phrase could also refer to mulling an idea or matter over, as in, “I need to wool that around in my mind awhile, and then I’ll let you know.”

    It’s interesting to read the January 27, 2012 post by Lee, who said her/his family had roots in Missouri. Both sets of my grandparents came from Missouri and that could explain why I heard the “wool around” and “wooling around” expressions so frequently in rural Oklahoma.


  • Dorothy

    Our family uses the term to mean manhandle. “Stop wooling the cat!” I think we originally heard it from friends from Arkansas.

    • Meagan

      Just found this topic today while thinking about the phrase. My family is from Arkansas (originally Ireland/England) and we say the exact same thing, usually referring to being too rough when petting or playing with an animal. I was starting to think my parents had made it up.

      • greg

        This is precisely how my father ( southern Appalachia, born 1930, Irish ancestry) used the term. I heard him say “the cat had found a mouse in the yard and wasn’t killing it, just wooling it around a little”.

        • Joan

          I used this term this morning with my dog who was following me around, incessantly. i told him I was going to give him a good “wooling.” I playfully threw him on his back in the floor and tickled him, smacked him with his own paws, etc. after I said it. Then, I realized that I never hear anyone use this word anymore since my father passed away. I found this posting with a google search, and I was interested to see all the other people who are familiar with the term even though it is not in the dictionary. My paternal grandfather was of English descent, and my grandmother was Native American…not sure which tribe. They, and I, were born in Tennessee. It seems that this term was used all over the U.S.

  • Amy

    YES! my family uses the word wool to be similar to manhandle. Frequently referring to kittens. Don’t wool the kittens.

  • Marla

    I grew up in KY and my family always used this word as a verb. My Grandfather used it….he was originally from Illinois and my Father used it….his family from KY and Illinois. We always smile when we say it…”the big dog wools the new puppy”.

  • Karen

    My mother used “wool” as a verb in the same way others have described. When children wouldn’t leave a pet alone, she would say “You’re woolin’ it to death.” Something just brought this to mind and I tried to look up the use of wool as a verb, so I’m glad I found this site! I am from central Appalachia – the eastern corner of Kentucky.

  • Joy

    I grew up in Indiana, and my parents would warn us kids “don’t wool the plants around” when we picked green beans, so that we wouldn’t break the plants or knock the blossoms off. I agree with the theory that this phrase had its origins in the 19th century use of the word “wool”, as bothering or abusing someone/thing. It makes perfect sense. Since it seemed to be used in different parts of the country, it might not be so much of a regional expression as one connected to a time period. Like many old words and phrases, wool as a verb is falling out of use.

  • Christine

    Yup, yup, yup! 54 years old, grew up in central W.V. as did my parents and three of 4 grandparents. Remember ALL of my grand parents using the “VERB” wool. LOL. Pertaining to puppies and kitties for sure….and babies, but in exclusively. Definately had a connotation of wearing something/someone out!
    “Don’t wool it (me ) around so”. Good to know that there are others! Most folks just think I’m nuts….which is true. ;D

  • Eileen

    This expression has always been in my lexicon. I’m 69–parents born and raised in WY. It is particularly used in reference to a new or young baby who has been cuddled and passed around during the course of a day. “That baby will sleep well tonight, as much as it’s been wooled around today!”

  • Kenneth G Potter

    I come from southern Indiana, with maternal family roots from Kentucky. That side of my family always used the verb “wool.” My mom would say “quit woolin’ that around, you’ll wear it out.” My (New York) wife says that i’m the only person she’s ever heard use that word as a verb. Maybe it’s time to include it as a verb in the dictionary!

  • D.C.

    My family are all Westerners (both sides, though spread throughout the western U.S.), I was born in the late 1960s and I grew up with the phrase “wool it around”. I know it at least comes from my maternal grandmother, who was born in the 1910s in New Mexico. I’m not sure if my other grandparents grew up with the term, but I think it likely my maternal grandfather also did (he grew up in far western Texas and New Mexico).

    I never use the term much (though my mother does sometimes), but I never realized it wasn’t commonly known by U.S. English speakers until a friend who is from Iowa (multi-generational) heard me say it and had never heard the phrase before.

  • kim

    Love this discussion! I studied formal linguistics & my family has “mountain roots” (Appalachia – KY, but also VA&WVA). Mom & Dad (both deceased, I’m 44) ALWAYS used this verb — as in “Stop wooling that kitten while it’s trying to eat,” etc. No connotation of dirt/slobber, just touching/petting/carrying/handling (something/one) a bit too long/insistently/enthusiastically. Man-handle’s a good sense of it, but on a linguistic hunch tend to favor ‘ favor “to wool” as similar to “to worry”/ “to wear (out)”. I also wonder if it’s related to the process of *felting* actual wool (like for hats, coats, etc) since that involves taking a piece of knitted wool fibers and subjecting them to lots of protracted, repeated abrasion (in a washer or by hand) as well as heat &/or moisture (hot water) until the fibers shrink and mesh up together more tightly… hence, “wooling” something with lots of
    handling. Thoughts? :)

  • Nancy Schmidt

    My folks came from East Tennessee, West Virginia…..the southern mountains. To “wool something around” was a common phrase used in the family to indicate the action of rather softly agitating something like a piece of cloth. My guess is the phrase evolved from the wool trade somehow. Processing wool into its various textures requires lots of manipulations, such as “felting”, where the process requires much “wooiling around” of the textile. Is this phrase used in the British Isles?

  • Kandi bigby

    my dad used it the same way. Im from southern west Virginia.

  • Marsha Placke

    I live in southern Indiana and all my relatives came from the south. We use the word wool as a verb also. To wool something or to give something a woolin’ was to caress or hold something or someone tightly and lovingly almost to a point of irritation to the one being held.

  • Marsha Rose

    I’m 67 and grew up in north Texas. I always heard the expression, “quit woolin’ that kitten!” Great grandparents, grandparents maternal side, always used this expression. I use it, too. In fact, just last evening at a party, I told one of the guests to “stop wollin” that cat!” We are all in Colorado and none of the folks at the party had ever heard that expression. Maternal side from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. That fits with others who use this term.

  • Yes! My mother would tell us to stop wooling the cat when we were small children. Her face came from southern Illinois and were Scots-Irish in origin.

  • Bruce

    My mom grew up in a coal camp at Fork Ridge, Tennessee in the 1930’s. As a kid I remember her using that term about how my brother and I handled puppies or kittens. Told us to, “…stop wooling that thing around.”

  • I and my family were born and raised in Arkansas. We too used the “verb form” to indicate over-hugging, aggravating, tiring out or generally “wooling” something or someone around. Ha! Have not heard that one in a “coons age” and I’m 73.

    I have bookmarked your site, it’s really fun….

    Thanks for brightening my day.


  • Nancy Phipps

    My daughter ask me why our family used ” don’t wool the cat”. Nobody we know uses it. My family were Scots who then lived in Northern Ireland and then Virginia and Kentucky.

  • JanCJ

    My family in Eastern KY also used this to describe the way little children man-handle little kittens with love. This seems to have a strong attachment to kittens as I cannot recall hearing it applied to any other situation.

  • Janet

    I just saw a headline on CNN that said, “Sheep saved from being wooled to death,” and thought, Wow! That’s an expression I haven’t heard in decades! My dad, born and raised in Iowa in the early part of the last century, used that expression when warning us not to manhandle a puppy, for example. I stumbled upon this conversation when I searched “wool (verb).” So glad to know I’m not alone in remembering this rather obscure use of the word!

  • Lifelong Texas resident, 54 years old. Never heard the verb “wool” used by itself. Often hear “wool around,” though mostly from parents and grandparents. And, yes, oddly enough, mostly about cats or kittens. I just told a friend of mine that I just grabbed my cat and was wooling him around because he was ignoring me. Then I decided I’d see if “wool around” was in the dictionary. It should be. There’s nothing better to describe the playful wrestling around with a cat.

  • Paula

    I was surprised it was so difficult to find this definition in other dictionaries. My grandmother’s family came to America from Scotland in the 16-early 1700’s and she used it often. Her family landed in NH. She would say, “I’m wooling that around in my mind until I find the answer.” She came from Ohio to Montana in 1899. Thank you,for the information

  • Dochandley

    The common thread I see is caressing, tousling, or roughly petting or playing with a pet. Our dogs would often lie on their backs and expect us to rub them somewhat forcefully with our feet. My father in west-central Alabama used a lot of archaic Irish, Scottish and English terms and would always refer to this form of petting as wooling.

  • Nancy

    My mother, from a small town in Indiana and of Scotch Irish descent, uses to admonish me as a child with “Don’t wool the cat,” concerned that I would be scratched in self defense.

  • Elizabeth

    Oklahoma-born, as a small child in the 50’s I often heard my mother admonish my younger sister and me to “stop wooling around”, in reference to our own rough-and-tumble play on the floor. Nope, never used with dogs, cats or kittens–just kids!

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