The wolf appears frequently in language and literature. For example, on July 20, during a Fifth Estate look at the Mike Duffy scandal, a panelist said, “The prime minister reacts by throwing Nigel (Wright) to the wolves.”
This allusion is far from complimentary to the prime minister.
Few wolf idioms are complimentary. Oxford Phrase and Fable explains that figuratively the wolf is usually rapacious “compared with the meek and vulnerable sheep.” Thus, to keep the wolf from the door is to fight off the threat of hunger. In this saying, dated to 1470, the wolf will destroy and devour just as hunger does.
To have a wolf by the ears is to be in such a dire situation that both retreat and safe maintenance are impossible.
To cry wolf (Aesop) is to raise a false alarm. In Aesop, the boy who cried wolf was ignored when he did need help.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing, also from Aesop, refers to one who is not what he seems — who isn’t harmless and friendly though appearing that way.
A lone wolf (1900) has no companion or help. A wolf-whistle (wolf-call), from the 1940s-1950s, is a lustful whistle directed at a passing woman. A wolf (mid-1800s) is a male who pursues women for sex.
Here are some wolfish superstitions:
• A horse that steps in a wolf track will be crippled.
• Wrapping an epileptic in wolf skin prevents seizures.
• Those who eat wolf meat don’t see ghosts.
• Eating wolf intestines cures indigestion.
• If you eat the meat of a lamb killed by wolves, you’ll become a vampire.
• Wolf dung cures both colic and cataracts.
• Mistletoe keeps wolves away.
When Shakespeare wrote, “The wolf behowls the moon” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), he was repeating an almost universal belief. But he was wrong. Wolves don’t howl at the moon. Neither does the full moon draw wolves from their dens.
They are nocturnal so they howl at night whether or not there’s a moon. They howl to communicate with one another. They howl to locate others of their pack. They join in group howling when they sense another pack nearby, so they’ll seem more numerous than they actually are. Sometimes, like barking dogs, wolves howl simply because another wolf is howling.
Just as howling at the moon is a false idea, so too is the modern notion that the word “loop-hole” (loophole) comes from “loup-hole” meaning “wolf-hole.” The journal, Ancient Worlds, defines a loup-hole as, “A spy hole in shelters through which travelers could scan the area for wolves.”
There’s absolutely no linguistic evidence to support this idea. According to the OED, loop-hole dates to 1591 and arises from the Middle Dutch, luipen (to peer) and the Old English, hol (a hollow place). Always spelled loop, a loophole was “a widening inward cut in a wall for shooting through.” Oxford makes no mention of wolves in connection with loophole.
Much literature, besides the fairy tales and fables, features wolves — White Fang and Call of the Wild, by Jack London; The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling; Lobo the Wolf, by Ernest Thompson Seton; Dracula, by Bram Stoker; Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowatt, and Metamorphoses, by Ovid, to name a few examples.
Would you like to go howling with wolves?
You can join public wolf howls in the U.K., in the U.S., and, here in Canada, at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario.