Don’t worry the sheep.

Dear Word Detective:  This past Thanksgiving, I was reminiscing with my siblings (all raised in NW Oregon, all in our 50s) about a dictate our late father used to hand down: “Don’t wool it around.”  Though we couldn’t collectively come up with a specific example, we all agreed that it was an admonishment not to leave things on the floor or let them get dirty or possibly overused.  This seemed to pertain mostly to clothing, though I have a vague memory of Dad using this phrase to describe what our Labrador puppy, Marcy, did when she played with her stuffed toys — she “wooled them around.”  The image of dog slobber and dirt on something made of cloth is integral to my understanding of the meaning of this phrase, but — if Dad didn’t make it up (and I never heard anyone else use it) — how on earth did it come about?  The whole jolly fam would appreciate an unraveling! — Linda T. Campbell.

Well, if you’re looking for an unraveling, you’ve come to the right place.  Things fall apart around here, and the center?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  Incidentally, did you know that “ravel” and “unravel” are synonyms?  They both come from the obsolete Dutch word “ravelen,” meaning “to entangle,” and both of them can mean either “to untangle” (such as a mystery, which is good) or “to undo and thus tangle” something previously well-ordered (such as a sweater, which is bad).

In the case of your father’s use of “wool” as a verb, the best I can hope is that I can untangle it a bit, or at least not leave a pile of tangled logic on the floor where the dog can get it.  I had never heard of anyone using “wool” as your father did, and apparently I am not alone, because no source that I have found acknowledges “wool” as a verb meaning, as your dad used it, “to mistreat, neglect  or manhandle.”  But I think your father was simply being a bit creative in his use of “wool,” pushing the wool envelope, so to speak.

“Wool” as a noun is, of course, simply the hair of a sheep or, by extension, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the short soft under-hair or down forming part of the coat of certain hairy or furry animals.”  Beavers, rabbits, and even camels apparently have this sort of “wool.”  The word “wool” has also been applied to anything even remotely wool-like, e.g., steel wool.  “Wool” is, not surprisingly, a very old word and comes from an ancient Germanic root meaning, um, “wool.”

“Wool” as a verb is not as old as the noun, first appearing in the 17th century meaning “to coat or line with wool.”  (There was a verb back in Old English, “wullian,” meaning “to wipe with wool,” but that doesn’t really count.)  In the 19th century, “to wool” acquired the sense of “to stuff with wool” and was also used as verbal shorthand for “to pull the wool over someone’s eyes,” i.e., to deceive or trick.

None of this gets us anywhere near how your father used “wool,” however, so here’s my theory.  Back when keeping sheep and producing wool was truly a cottage industry, much time was spent “picking” the wool shorn from the sheep, picking out the burrs, dirt, etc., before it could be “carded” (combed), spun and sold.  In the 19th century, to “wool” another person was slang for pulling at their hair in a similar fashion, either as teasing or to express anger.  It’s a bit of a stretch, but your father may have had something similar in mind when he said “don’t wool it around,” perhaps meaning not to “pick at it,” “worry” it, or abuse it.  This would also fit well with your dog “worrying” a stuffed toy and gradually picking it apart.  There may also have been the sense of such abuse making the thing “woolier,” fuzzier and more frazzled, than it already was.

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