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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.

63 comments to Wool

  • Roy Smock

    I’m 74, raised in northern KY and southern IL. My family used ‘woolin’, as in ‘what is needed is a good woolin’. It meant hugging, petting…affectionate, physical actions applied excessively. Usually it was with a pet, but could apply to human loved ones. Never thought of the expression being unusual but apparently it is.

  • Tim Buckalew

    I grew up in Seth,WV. We always had cats and like other commenters, I was cautioned by my grandparents, “don’t wool those kittens”, if we were thought to be playing too rough, or too long. That warning was usually followed by the admonition that mother cat would abandon the litter if we kept her from her kittens.I have always used the term/phrase to mean affectionate, but overzealous, touching. Like rounding a child’s hair or a hug held just a skosh too long. I came to this site because the NYT would not accept the word “wooled” in a puzzle. Ha!

    • admin

      Kathy here (Evan Morris’s wife). Me too! I tried it twice. You should complain to the Spelling Bee guy; he has a twitter. They occasionally add words they wouldn’t accept in the past.

  • Bill Maxwell

    I’m 77 and my mother from Kansas used it in the sense of rolling something around, either physically or metaphorically. “She was wooling that food around her mouth.” “He was wooling that comment around in his mind.”

  • Constance Archer

    I grew up in E. Tenn. hearing my grandma and mother use it to describe over-handling of a small or baby animal possibly causing death. We were told “don’t wool that kitten to death.” Which of course we all thought was impossible as children. My grandma was a teacher originally from Indiana but finally settling in E.Tenn. with my young mother, who also became a teacher.

  • April Canaday

    A few minutes ago, I told my Aussie husband “the doctors really wooled me around today,” and he tossed me a look like I was mad. “What does THAT mean!?” “My folks used to say it..means manhandled or worn out by moving around, etc.” Dad was born in 1909 and grew up in KC, MO. His father came from Illinois. My Aussie fella has his own set of unfamiliar (to me) phrases…we’re an interesting household, etymologically speaking.

  • Dan

    In Thurber and White’s hilarious booklet of 1929, “Is Sex Necessary?” you find this ‘definition’ in the glossary: “POSSESSIVE COMPLEX: Innocent desire to kiss and fondle, sometimes to maul or wool.” (p. 186 of 1950 ed.)

  • Anonymous

    My grandmother lived in the woods and she had a lot of animals and they would have babies. Anytime we would handle one of the babies, she would watch us like a hawk. She wouldn’t let us handle it very long. And sometimes she would say “You’re holding it too tight. You’re going to wool it to death.”

  • Angela Marie Volner

    My grandma lived in the woods and she had lots of animals they were always having babies, anytime she would let us hold them she would tell us not to love them to death and she would watch us like a hawk. Sometimes she would say you’re holding it too tight and you’re moving around too much, you’re going to wool it to death.

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