Idioms from the Forest: The Meaning of to Weasel, to Ferret, and to Badger
The weasel, ferret, and badger—each animal's distinct traits contributed to the making of the idioms to weasel out of a commitment, to ferret out the truth, and to badger someone for answers.
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Have you seen any mustelids lately?
You know, mustelids—the family of small carnivores that look like weasels. The family includes ferrets, otters, marten, fisher, sable, mink, and wolverines. Most have slender, tubelike bodies with short legs and long tails. The smallest of the mustelid, the least weasel, weighs less than an ounce—about the same as a slice of bread. The largest, the sea otter, can weigh up to 100 pounds.
Wait a minute … why are we talking about mustelids in the Grammar Girl podcast? It’s because their unique habits have crept into our speech in the form of colorful idioms.
Let’s take a look.
Weaseling out of a Commitment
Say a friend agrees drive you to the airport, but now claims he has to babysit his little brother. You might think he’s trying to weasel out of his commitment.
To weasel out means to avoid an obligation, especially in a sneaky or dishonorable way. The expression was first seen in the early 1900s, and it alludes to the stealthy way a weasel pursues its prey. Their narrow bodies and high metabolism allow them to chase mice (and other small creatures) “through holes and crevices, under dense herbage, up trees, or into water.”
If you were trying to catch a weasel, therefore, its agility would undoubtedly allow it to weasel out of the way.
Ferreting out the Truth
OK. Remember that weak excuse your friend gave for not taking you to the airport? Let’s say you’re not satisfied with it and decide to ferret out the truth.
To ferret out means to search for the truth and bring it to light. This expression dates back to the 1500s, when ferrets were commonly used to hunt rabbits. (In fact, they still are today.) The expression refers to a ferret’s ability to wiggle through underground burrows, find rabbits, and chase them out into the sunlight.
Just like you chased down the truth.