April 21, 2017
It’s like a fox guarding a henhouse.
I was introduced to this saying in, appropriately enough, in a political advertisement. The imagery was literal, with clips of chickens being contrasted with the image of a fox looking for its prey.
I forget what was being discussed, but I know it was a proposition in my state. The idea behind the negative ad was to get voters to believe a “YES” vote would allow some people in the government to run ram shod. Essentially, voters would be allowing the fox to guard the henhouse.
When Was the Idiom ‘Fox Guarding the Henhouse’ First Used?
It’s not entirely clear, but the saying might be older than we think it is.
The Phrase Finder
My first stop was The Phrase Finder Forums.
In response to Jay Tischenkel’s November 28, 2000 post in the thread entitled “Phrase Derivation,” ESC quotes a passage from Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (1996).
The author of the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings traced the origin of the phrase back to “Contre-League.”
I later looked up the work on Google Books. From Page 40:
Therefore, when thou sayest that the king will give us the king of Navarre for our governour, thou sayest, he is a wolfe to keep the sheep, and a foxe to looke to the hennes.
The phrase is similar to the Latin phrase “Ovem lupo commitere,” which means “To set a wolf to guard sheep.”
The phrase first appeared in the United States when Poet’s Proverbs1 was published.
The idea is expressed in the old nursery rhyme: ‘Sleep, my little one, sleep. Thy father guards the sheep.’
At Historically Speaking, author Elyse Bruce provides her take on the idiom “Fox guarding the henhouse” and provides more examples of its usage.
At the end, though, she concludes the saying originated in Ancient Rome.
Bruce also mentions the Contre-League work and the poem “Sleep, Baby Sleep.”
Sleep, baby, sleep,
Thy papa guards the sheep;
Thy mama shakes the dreamland tree
And from it fall sweet dreams for thee,
Sleep, baby, sleep.
Bruce disagrees with the notion that the poem was the first instance of the phrase “Fox guarding the henhouse.” (I tend to agree.)
Now, Bruce argues the phrase was used before Contre-League, but in a familiar source: The Bible (Luke 13:31-35). I have the text below.
However, the Latin phrase “Ovem lupo commitere” came before the Bible and may have, in fact come from Ancient Rome. The Latin phrase translates to “mettere un lupo a sorvegliare le pecore”2 which then translates to “to set a wolf to guard sheep.”
The Holy Bible
In Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in Jerusalem healing the sick. He heals a woman who was possessed for eighteen years. He also tells parables about the fruit tree, the mustard seed, the yeast, and the narrow door.
When Jesus was approached by Pharisees who tell them Herod plans to kill him (as Herod does all prophets), Jesus doesn’t flinch. He said he is there to heal the sick and will be finished within three days. Jesus compares Herod to a fox and himself to a hen who is gathering her children.
Here, I have picked out the verses 31-35 from the Gospel of Luke in the King James Version of the Bible. Each verse appears separately on the page but I arranged them in paragraph form, based on the New International Version.
31 The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.
32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. 33 Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! 35 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Connection to the Idiom?
While Jesus compared use imagery of a fox and a hen, I think this is a loose connection at best to the idiom. But considering Herod was a ruler …
What Does the Idiom Mean?
At the beginning of the Random House passage, you will find this:
DON’T LET THE FOX GUARD THE HENHOUSE: Don’t assign a job to someone who will then be in a position to exploit it for his own ends. Said to one who entrusts his money to sharpers.
Bruce said a fox guarding a henhouse means, “Someone has been put in a position where he or she can then exploit the situation to his or her own benefit.” In that case, “it’s more likely than not that the person in charge absolutely will exploit the situation.”
Here’s a definition from The Free Dictionary:
fox guarding the henhouse
A person likely to exploit the information or resources that he or she has been charged to protect or control. (My sister is going to put her ex-convict brother-in-law in charge of her business, and I’m worried he’ll be like a fox guarding the henhouse.)
As I said a few weeks ago, this expression is similar to the expression “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” I think the latter is often applied more to one-on-one situations, but they have fairly similar meanings.
The former definitely has immediate applications to someone who is seeking power and seeking to abuse that power. There are so many situations you can compare it too, like:
- An arsonist trying to become a firefighter.
- A criminal trying to become a cop.
- “An inmate running the asylum.”
- A thief guarding a bank.
What Do I Think of When I Hear About a Fox Guarding the Henhouse?
I immediately think of government, especially now.
In the middle of December 2016, Kira Bindrim wrote a piece about the irony of Trump’s cabinet picks. As many have said before, most (if not all) of those picks (which have since been confirmed) were openly hostile to the missions of the agencies they would run.
One of the most ironic picks was former Texas Governor Rick Perry being named to head the Department of Energy. When he was running for president in 2011, he stated that he wanted to contract three departments, but could not remember the name of the Energy Department.3
Additionally, two of Trump’s picks — Tom Price and Andrew Puzder — have been described by the idiom I’m analyzing for this post.
From The Washington Post (November 29, 2016):
His selection drew an immediate rebuke from the Senate’s incoming minority leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Congressman Price has proven to be far out of the mainstream of what Americans want when it comes to Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and Planned Parenthood,” Schumer said in a statement. “Thanks to those three programs, millions of American seniors, families, people with disabilities and women have access to quality, affordable health care. Nominating Congressman Price to be the HHS secretary is akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house.”
From the Chicago Tribune (Dec 9, 2016):
On Thursday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Trump’s choice of Puzder at the Labor Department threatened “one of our nation’s most successful federal agencies” that has ensured “every American who works hard and plays by the rules can enjoy dignified work and economic opportunity.”
Citing Puzder’s business practices, DeLauro said that if he is confirmed, “the fox is in the henhouse.”
- The full text for the poem “Sleep Baby Sleep” can be found at Scrapbook.com.
- I looked up the phrase “Mettere un lupo a sorvegliare le pecore.” I suspected it was Italian, and that was confirmed by a 2008 post on WordReference Forums. User Benzene posted the following in response to k_georgiadis’s question:
- Doubly ironic (or is it just curious?) is how Perry did not know that the department he now leads is more about making sure the U.S. nuclear stockpile is secure.
Bindrim, Kira. “Donald Trump is picking people to run agencies they hate.” Quartz. 13 Dec 2016. Web. <https://qz.com/861897/fox-in-the-henhouse-trumps-cabinet-nominees-are-being-chosen-to-run-agencies-they-hate/>.
Bruce, Elyse. “Fox In The Henhouse.” Historically Speaking. 6 Mar 2013. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fox-in-the-henhouse/>.
Contre-League and answere to certain letters sent to the Maisters of Renes, by one of the League who termeth himself Lord of the valley of Mayne, and Gentleman of the late Duke of Guizes traine. Printed by John Wolfe. London; 1589. Print.
ESC. “Fox guarding the henhouse.” The Phrase Finder (Forum Discussion). 30 Nov 2000. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/6/messages/1029.html>.
“fox guarding the henhouse.” Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. 2015. Farlex, Inc. Retrieved 21 Apr. 2017. <http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/fox+guarding+the+henhouse>.
Goldstein, Amy and Rucker, Philip. “Trump names Rep. Tom Price as next HHS secretary.” The Washington Post. 29 Nov 2016. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/11/28/trump-to-name-rep-tom-price-as-next-hhs-secretary>.
Jill. “Sleep Baby Sleep (Nursery Rhyme) Poem.” Scrapbook.com. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/2729.html>.
Luke 13 (New International Version). Bible Gateway. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+13>.
“LUKE CHAPTER 13 KJV.” King James Bible Online. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. Web. <https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Luke-Chapter-13/>.
Titelman, Gregory Y. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. Random House. New York;1996. Print.
Various. “fox in the chicken coop.” WordReference Forums. 17 Mar 2008. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://forum.wordreference.com/threads/fox-in-the-chicken-coop.875289/>.
Wagner, John (from The Washington Post). “Do Trump’s Cabinet picks want to run the government — or dismantle it?” Chicago Tribune. 9 Dec 2016. Web. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-trump-cabinet-picks-20161208-story.html>.