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Did Obama Mix Metaphors?
I immediately thought that he was mixing “wet behind the ears” with “green” — two different metaphors that mean someone is naïve, young, or inexperienced.
The most common explanation for why “wet behind the ears” means young is that new babies are born covered in fluid, so they're wet, and behind the ears is one of the last places that dries if they aren't wiped off (1, 2).
There are a few reasons “green” can mean young and inexperienced – branches are green before they harden into brown wood, and apparently horns can also be green in young animals, thus the word “greenhorn (3, 4).”
Obama certainly wasn't the first person to utter “green behind the ears.” I found multiple examples of previous use in publications including The New York Times (5, 6), The Economist (7), and the Financial Times (8), but just because other people said it first doesn't mean it isn't a mixed metaphor.
Commentators on Ben Zimmer's column about Obama's mixed metaphor pointed out that the German equivalent of “green behind the ears” — “grün hinter den Ohren” — is common in Germany (9), and a Google search does show that it comes up more frequently than “green behind the ears,” so I tend to believe the commentators although I have no first-hand knowledge of the saying in German*.
Finally, I surveyed my Twitter friends, and a couple of people said that “green behind the ears” is a common metaphor used by corn farmers and refers to young ears of corn. I was unable to verify this, but Obama is from Illinois — a corn growing region — so the explanation seems plausible. Obama may have heard this expression around his home state, although I still suspect that if farmers are using “green behind the ears” it's still just a widely adopted mix of “wet behind the ears” and “green” because the imagery of “green behind the ears” doesn't make sense to me. But I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about corn farming, so if someone out there wants to leave a comment and set me straight, I welcome the information.
So I don't feel as if I can give you a definitive answer to the question of whether Obama used a mixed metaphor, the best I can do is to say “Probably,” but I do hope I've given you a better idea of what mixed metaphors are and why it's usually best to avoid them.
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* Although there are only about 12,000 more entries for “grün hinter den Ohren” than “green behind the ears” I tend to think the difference is significant because I believe a much higher proportion of Web pages are in English than German.
1. "Wet Behind the Ears," The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/404400.html (accessed December 5, 2008).
2. "Wet Behind the Ears," The Idiom Site. http://www.idiomsite.com/wetbehindthe.htm (accessed December 5, 2008).
3. greenhorn. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/greenhorn (accessed: December 05, 2008).
4. green. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/green (accessed: December 05, 2008).
5. Bell, E. "Long Island Opinion; Out of the Bag and on with the New," The New York Times. April 13, 1986. http://tinyurl.com/64qw3g (accessed December 5, 2008).
6. Nocera, J. "Wall Street Research: A New Low," The New York Times. August 28, 2008. http://executivesuite.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/28/wall-street-research-a-new-low/ (accessed December 5, 2008).
7. "France: Voting Green," The Economist. January 23, 1993. Vol. 326, Iss. 7795, p. 47-48.
8. Woodsworth, N. "My very own French connection Nicholas Woodsworth has seen the film and bought the T-shirt. But he still loves Marseilles for its physical and sensual nature, even when more genteel resorts beckon; [London edition]" Financial Times. February 9, 2002, p. 18.
9. Zimmer, B. "Green Behind the Ears?" Visual Thesaurus. October 14, 2008. http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/1572/ (accessed December 5, 2008).
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