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shameless pleading

Wool

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.

18 comments to Wool

  • john

    My wife also uses the verb “to wool” when I hug her and move her around: “don’t wool me around”.

  • Mary

    My mother, b. 1908, northern Idaho, used the term in the sense of a puppy playing with a stuffed toy, and mouthing the object until worn, wet and tangled. I used the term to my 46 year old son this morning and he produced an “are you crazy look”. Can’t find the term on Google, but was delighted to read Linda’s recounting of her father’s use, exactly the same, and from the same geographic region.

  • jean

    Wooled! My family uses the word in exactly the same way, with the same connotations of dog slobber. We are from southern Appalachia. When I have had a very bad day at work, I will tell my husband, “I feel wooled.” He knows what I mean, but my friends look at me like I’m crazy.

  • Lee

    My family’s used wool as a verb for generations – definitely since the 1800′s – this would be in Missouri. “Don’t wool your grandmother so much.” It meant – don’t wear her out. Don’t wool the dog. Don’t wool the kitten. Be careful how much you wool your sweater, your doll, etc.

  • Don

    Dear Word Detective:

    Thanks for a very good Website. I’m glad to find some folks that are familiar with the expression “to wool [usually a person, object, or thought] around.”

    I grew up in Oklahoma and I heard the term used in several different ways. The form that stuck in my young mind was the one that referred to a person, as in: “He tried to wool me around to get me to agree,” or “That lawyer tried to wool me around when I testified.” The phrase could also refer to mulling an idea or matter over, as in, “I need to wool that around in my mind awhile, and then I’ll let you know.”

    It’s interesting to read the January 27, 2012 post by Lee, who said her/his family had roots in Missouri. Both sets of my grandparents came from Missouri and that could explain why I heard the “wool around” and “wooling around” expressions so frequently in rural Oklahoma.

    Don

  • Dorothy

    Our family uses the term to mean manhandle. “Stop wooling the cat!” I think we originally heard it from friends from Arkansas.

    • Meagan

      Just found this topic today while thinking about the phrase. My family is from Arkansas (originally Ireland/England) and we say the exact same thing, usually referring to being too rough when petting or playing with an animal. I was starting to think my parents had made it up.

  • Amy

    YES! my family uses the word wool to be similar to manhandle. Frequently referring to kittens. Don’t wool the kittens.

  • Marla

    I grew up in KY and my family always used this word as a verb. My Grandfather used it….he was originally from Illinois and my Father used it….his family from KY and Illinois. We always smile when we say it…”the big dog wools the new puppy”.

  • Karen

    My mother used “wool” as a verb in the same way others have described. When children wouldn’t leave a pet alone, she would say “You’re woolin’ it to death.” Something just brought this to mind and I tried to look up the use of wool as a verb, so I’m glad I found this site! I am from central Appalachia – the eastern corner of Kentucky.

  • Joy

    I grew up in Indiana, and my parents would warn us kids “don’t wool the plants around” when we picked green beans, so that we wouldn’t break the plants or knock the blossoms off. I agree with the theory that this phrase had its origins in the 19th century use of the word “wool”, as bothering or abusing someone/thing. It makes perfect sense. Since it seemed to be used in different parts of the country, it might not be so much of a regional expression as one connected to a time period. Like many old words and phrases, wool as a verb is falling out of use.

  • Christine

    Yup, yup, yup! 54 years old, grew up in central W.V. as did my parents and three of 4 grandparents. Remember ALL of my grand parents using the “VERB” wool. LOL. Pertaining to puppies and kitties for sure….and babies, but in exclusively. Definately had a connotation of wearing something/someone out!
    “Don’t wool it (me ) around so”. Good to know that there are others! Most folks just think I’m nuts….which is true. ;D

  • Eileen

    This expression has always been in my lexicon. I’m 69–parents born and raised in WY. It is particularly used in reference to a new or young baby who has been cuddled and passed around during the course of a day. “That baby will sleep well tonight, as much as it’s been wooled around today!”

  • Kenneth G Potter

    I come from southern Indiana, with maternal family roots from Kentucky. That side of my family always used the verb “wool.” My mom would say “quit woolin’ that around, you’ll wear it out.” My (New York) wife says that i’m the only person she’s ever heard use that word as a verb. Maybe it’s time to include it as a verb in the dictionary!

  • D.C.

    My family are all Westerners (both sides, though spread throughout the western U.S.), I was born in the late 1960s and I grew up with the phrase “wool it around”. I know it at least comes from my maternal grandmother, who was born in the 1910s in New Mexico. I’m not sure if my other grandparents grew up with the term, but I think it likely my maternal grandfather also did (he grew up in far western Texas and New Mexico).

    I never use the term much (though my mother does sometimes), but I never realized it wasn’t commonly known by U.S. English speakers until a friend who is from Iowa (multi-generational) heard me say it and had never heard the phrase before.

  • kim

    Love this discussion! I studied formal linguistics & my family has “mountain roots” (Appalachia – KY, but also VA&WVA). Mom & Dad (both deceased, I’m 44) ALWAYS used this verb — as in “Stop wooling that kitten while it’s trying to eat,” etc. No connotation of dirt/slobber, just touching/petting/carrying/handling (something/one) a bit too long/insistently/enthusiastically. Man-handle’s a good sense of it, but on a linguistic hunch tend to favor ‘ favor “to wool” as similar to “to worry”/ “to wear (out)”. I also wonder if it’s related to the process of *felting* actual wool (like for hats, coats, etc) since that involves taking a piece of knitted wool fibers and subjecting them to lots of protracted, repeated abrasion (in a washer or by hand) as well as heat &/or moisture (hot water) until the fibers shrink and mesh up together more tightly… hence, “wooling” something with lots of
    handling. Thoughts? :)

  • Nancy Schmidt

    My folks came from East Tennessee, West Virginia…..the southern mountains. To “wool something around” was a common phrase used in the family to indicate the action of rather softly agitating something like a piece of cloth. My guess is the phrase evolved from the wool trade somehow. Processing wool into its various textures requires lots of manipulations, such as “felting”, where the process requires much “wooiling around” of the textile. Is this phrase used in the British Isles?

  • Kandi bigby

    my dad used it the same way. Im from southern west Virginia.

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