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Lick into shape ... error?

Posted by Gary on December 21, 2003

In Reply to: Lick into shape ... error? posted by Chris Wilson on December 21, 2003

: Nice collection, a comment though if I may...

: Currently ...

: Meaning
: To make something work properly.
: Origin
: From the belief that bear cubs are born shapeless and have to be properly formed by their mother's licking.

: I'm trying to find the cite, however I believe your meaning is only partially correct and that the origin is all wrong.

: Origin ... Naval, the "lick" is a stroke from a "cat of nine tails" used up until the very late 19C to discipline a naval defaulter, and "shape" is a shortened version of "shipshape"

: Thus to "lick into shape" specifically refers to a person and its meaning is to coerce a reluctant or poorly performing person by means of some degree of force into performing to the best of his ability.


: Chris Wilson
: to email me replace "bounce" with "cwilson"

I don't think there is an error. Licking into shape doesn't refer specifically to people and it doesn't have a naval origin.

This phrase has been in the language since at least as early as the 9th century with the meaning and origin listed on //, which pre-dates the naval version.

From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

"To make presentable: to mould into a satisfactory condition. The expression derives from the widespread medieval belief that bear cubs have to be licked into shape by their mothers. The story gained currency apparently from the Arab physician Avicenna (979-1079), who tells it in his encyclopedia.

Enforced, as a bear does her whelps, to bring forth this confused lump. I had not time to lick it into form."

As quoted by Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancoly .