Famous Sayings: #52 — ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’

March 10, 2017

He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

a wolf in sheep's' clothing, Aesop, the Bible, famous sayings
Ridiculous, I know.

I originally had another saying ready to go this week. But as I was catching up with my featured posts, I came across “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” (BTW, please take a look at Famous Sayings: #51 — ‘Those Who Fail to Learn…’ in case you missed it.) I decided to go with “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” because it was another timely saying.

When Did ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ Originate?

It most likely originated from one of Aesop’s fables.

My first stop when doing the research for this idiom was The Phrase Finder. There, Gary Martin said that the Aesop’s fables and Bible contain tales that refer to wolves in sheep’s clothing. The tales are used to warn a person not to trust someone who at first appears to be kind. Martin said that Aesop’s tales are older than the Bible so the saying “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” must have their origin there.

How Did the Fable Go?

In the Aesop fable “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” a hungry wolf finds a sheepskin lying about and disguises himself in order to sneak into a pasture with real sheep. A lamb follows him only to be led to slaughter.

At night, the wolf settles in with the rest of the flock, but the shepherd has a craving for broth. The shepherd goes out to the flock and kills the first creature he lays eyes on, but it turns out that was the wolf.

What Does the Bible Say?

In Matthew 7:15, we find (King James Version):

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Here is the verse in in context (via the King James Bible Online):

12Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. 13Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. 15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

What Does It Mean for Someone to Be a ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’?

I would like to share a few definitions I found before sharing my own interpretation.

From Grammar Monster: The phrase “is used to describe a person who seems outwardly mild but is in fact dangerous or dynamic.”

The meaning of this phrase given by Gary Martin is “Someone who hides malicious intent under the guise of kindliness.”

From the Cambridge English Dictionary:

a wolf in sheep’s clothing

someone or something that seems to be good but is actually not good at all:

My grandfather was a wolf in sheep’s clothing – he looked like a sweet old man, but he was really mean.

Definition From Bloomsbury International:

A dangerous person who is pretending to be harmless; an enemy who is disguised as a friend. This idiom is a warning that you cannot necessarily trust someone simply because they appear to be kind and friendly.

As pointed out at Bloomsbury International, the idiom works because of the characterization of a sheep and a wolf. A wolf is a predator and a “sly, vicious animal. A sheep is seen as “a docile sweet creature.”

This plays out in Aesop’s fable, which originated as far back as the 5th or 6th century B.C. However, in today’s usage, there is no implication that the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” may be so at their own peril (but they will hurt other people).

Now, How Do I Feel About the Idiom?

This phrase reminds me of “the fox guarding the hen house.” (That’s one of my favorite sayings and it’s something I will cover in a future post, now that I think about it.) But there are key differences.

For now, I will say that the phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is generally referring to a one-on-one relationship. When someone meets a new person, this phrase is used to warn the first person not to trust appearances. While someone can appear nice and friendly, they may actually be a cutthroat person.

Other times, this can be used to describe someone whose actions can affect a multitude of people, like a civil servant.

For example, a politician can be part of a specific political party but his goals and priorities might not match up with that party’s goals. More importantly, he will not prioritize his constituents’ best interests. So while he was running for a specific seat in government, he was basically “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The above has happened quite a bit in human history.

Oh, Before I Forget …

This is a reminder that Daylight Saving Time starts on Sunday in the United States.

I have already said how I feel about it. (I can’t stand it. We all lose an hour.)

Works Cited

Martin, Gary. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. Web. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/wolf-in-sheeps-clothing.html>.

Matthew 7:15. King James Bible Online. Web. Retrieved 10 Mar 2017. <https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Matthew-7-15/>.

“The Origin of the Saying A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” Grammar Monster. Web. <http://www.grammar-monster.com/sayings_proverbs/wolf_in_sheeps_clothing.htm>.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Bloomsbury International. Web. <https://www.bloomsbury-international.com/en/student-ezone/idiom-of-the-week/1324-a-wolf-in-sheeps-clothing.html>.

“a wolf in sheep’s clothing Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press 2017. Web. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/a-wolf-in-sheep-s-clothing>.

“The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” Library of Congress Aesop Fables. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. <http://read.gov/aesop/022.html>.


5 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #52 — ‘A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’

  1. My beloved mother loved this saying. She definitely made it “famous” in our house. I may have run into a few people that wore their sheep skin well, but I don’t dwell on those instances. Another famous saying in our house was something about the multitude of “other fish in the sea.”

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