Coach Gets a Lesson in 'Wet'-ymology

By Rob Kyff

February 3, 2021 3 min read

Early in my teaching career, I was coaching a boys' cross-country team at a local park when my runners suddenly grabbed me by the arms and legs and tossed me into a murky, mucky pond.

For the boys, this was good, clean fun. For me, not so much. Suddenly I was "all wet," "mad as a wet hen" and "wet behind the ears." This dunking had even "wet my whistle" — the coach's whistle around my neck.

"Where did THAT come from?" I asked the laughing runners. But, more importantly, where did all these "wet" phrases come from?

Can you select the correct origins of these liquid locutions?

1) wet behind the ears (young, naive): A. Inexperienced people are so nervous about performing new tasks that they perspire behind their ears; B. Freshly picked ears of corn have dewdrops inside their shucks; C. One of the last spots to dry on a newborn calf or foal is the area behind its ears.

2) mad as a wet hen (extremely angry): A. Female chickens hate to get wet; B. A London woman named Henrietta, aka "Hen," became furious when her husband doused her with water; C. Pirates' parrots, which the buccaneers called "hens," became angry whenever sea spray soaked them.

3) wet one's whistle (drink a beverage): A. To get the attention of servers, pub patrons blew a little whistle baked into their ceramic cups; B. When railroad engineers pulled up to a water tank, they blew their engine whistles to signal their locomotives needed water; C. "Whistle" has long been a slang term for the mouth or throat.

4) all wet (completely wrong): A. People often spout nonsense when they drink alcohol; B. People with heretical views were dunked in ponds; C. People who stand out in the rain and get soaked are fools.

Answers:

1) C. This farm-based phrase didn't appear in print until the early 1900s, but it was likely used in spoken English much earlier.

2) A. This Americanism, which first appeared in print in 1823, may have reflected the practice of tossing water at hens to get them to leave their nests so their eggs could be collected.

3) C. Don't believe explanation A, which has been circulating on the internet for years.

4) This Americanism has been around since the 1920s, but its origins are unknown. Some claim it arose from the phrase "being in over your head," i.e., facing a difficulty you're not able to handle. Because the term first surfaced during the 1920s, when anti-prohibitionists were called "wets," I'm partial to explanation A. But anyone who claims to know the true source of this term is all wet.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: ChristopherPluta at Pixabay

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