Origin of ‘Loose as a Goose’

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

When I was writing about loose or lose, I used the phrase loose as a goose in a memory trick, and started wondering about the origin. 

Loose as a Goose: A North Carolina Folk Saying?

The oldest example I could find was in a book of North Carolina folk sayings from 1930. (Actually it was a book from 1952 called The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Games and rhymes. Beliefs and customs. Riddles. Proverbs. Speech. Tales and legends that referenced another book from 1930 that used the “loose as a goose” saying.) But still, 1930. That book didn’t explain the origin and I started thinking it might be related to the phrase loosey-goosey, which also means “relaxed” or maybe “disorganized or chaotic.”

Remember Goosey Loosey from Chicken Little?

The oldest reference to loosey-goosey I could find was from 1943, but then I discovered that Goose Loose and Goosey Loosey go back much, much farther.

Goose Loose was a character in the story of Chicken Little of “the sky is falling” fame. Most of the characters in that folk tale had names that rhymed. There was Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Foxy Loxey, and so on, and in some accounts, Chicken Little was even called Chicken Licken. In one of the earliest English tellings, The Remarkable Story of Chicken Little by John Greene Chandler in 1840, the character was Goose-Loose, and then later they all got their -ey endings, and Goose-Loose became Goosey-Loosey, but in some cases Goosey-Poosey, hinting that the rhyming was more important than the meaning.

Goosey Loosey Is Also Connected to  Goldilocks—Loosely

Around the same time, in the book The Doctor, Etc. which is a prose collection by the English poet Robert Southey. also from the early 1800s, there’s a character called Goosey-Loosey. I can’t tell if this was published a few years before or a few years after the Chicken Little story because the book was originally published in volumes between 1834 and 1847 the Goosey-Loosey character shows up about halfway throughout the book. Southey didn’t tell the Chicken Little story itself. Instead, he used the Chicken Little characters in a humorous piece about whether Aristotle’s assertion that animals benefit from their connection with man is true.

Since Southey lived in Britain and John Greene Chandler lived in America, it seems unlikely that they would have been aware of each other’s work published so close to the same time. Chandler was clearly translating an earlier folk tale published in Danish, and perhaps Southey knew of the Danish source too. Or maybe he did see Chandler’s translation of Chicken Little. I just can’t tell. If you’re a folklore scholar who does know, please let me know because I’m really curious.

Regardless, Goosey Loosey was getting around.

The biggest reason I’m telling you about Southey is that while reading about The Doctor, Etc. I discovered that it also contains the original printing of the Goldilocks story, which was titled ‘The Story of Three Bears,’ which was also an adaptation of an older oral legend. And I thought it was pretty fun to find a connection between loose as a goose, Chicken Little, and Goldilocks.

As for the actual origin of the phrase loose as a goose, The Dictionary of American Slang is the only credible source I could find, and it says (and I quote) “It’s probably from the rhyme and the perception that a goose has loose bowels.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.