Licking one’s wounds

Q: I’m curious about the expression “lick one’s wounds.” Does it come from animals’ licking their wounds? Or did people once lick their wounds for medical reasons?

A: People have believed in the healing powers of human saliva—and the benefits of licking their wounds—since ancient times.

In “Notes on the Healing Properties of Saliva,” a 1975 study in the journal Folklore, G. Chowdharay-Best writes that this belief was well-known among ancient Greeks and Romans.

“Pliny, for example, in his Natural History, collected together a number of examples of its use,” the author writes.

The article also cites examples from the Roman physician Galen, the Greek philosopher Celsus, the Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina, and other ancient writers.

In fact, human saliva does indeed contain chemicals that aid in healing.

A Dutch study published in 2008, for example, reports that histatins, proteins in human saliva, stimulate the healing of wounds.

You can read a summary of the study at the website of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

But back to your question. Does the phrase “lick one’s wounds” come from animal behavior, or from the ancient belief that human saliva was good for wounds?

We can’t answer this definitively, but our  hunch is that it comes from the old medical belief about human saliva.

We don’t know when the verbal phrase “lick one’s wounds” was first used. The Oxford English Dictionary has no explanation for the phrase and has no citations for it earlier than the 19th century.

We do know, though, that it’s at least as old as the 17th century, since it appears in John Dryden’s play All for Love (1677).

In Dryden’s usage, the animal imagery is obvious:

“We have dislodged their troops; / They look on us at distance, and, like curs / ’Scaped from the lion’s paws, they bay far off, / And lick their wounds, and faintly threaten war.”

However, the OED has earlier citations that refer to the licking of human wounds without using that exact phrase.

For example, the OED includes this quotation from God’s Three Arrows: Plague, Famine, Sword (1631), three Puritan treatises by William Gouge:

“By the daily licking of his rankling wounds with the tongue of lady Elenor his wife, he is said to be cured.”

In Gouge’s example, the licking was clearly intended as a healing remedy. (And how’s that for wifely devotion?)

The OED also notes that an obsolete phrase, “to lick whole,” once meant “to heal of wounds or sores by licking.”

An early meaning of “whole,” the OED says, was “uninjured, unwounded, unhurt” or “recovered from injury or a wound.”

In other words, to make a wound “whole” was to heal it.

Here are several passages in which “lick whole” appears (most of the time it’s used in a figurative way): 

circa 1550, from the Discourse of the Common Weal of This Realm of England: “If anie men haue licked theim selues whole youe be the same.”

1581, from James Bell’s translation of Walter Haddon Against Osorius: “Wee shoulde lycke our selues hoale againe in short space.”

1596, from a German sermon translated by Bishop William Barlow: “Who vnder a shew of licking them whole, suck out euen their hart blood.”

1607, from Samuel Heiron’s Works: “It is not a limme of Satan which is wounded; he might then licke himselfe whole.”

1712, from John Arbuthnot’s John Bull pamphlets: “He would quickly lick him-self whole again, by his vails.” (“Vails” were profits or perks.)

As you can see, none of those “lick whole” examples seem to have any connection to the habits of wounded animals.

They call up images of someone cleaning or nursing a sore by sucking on it. This is something people (as well as animals) do instinctively in an attempt to comfort a hurt. 

Again, our hunch is that the expression “lick one’s wounds” ultimately comes from the ancient belief in the healing properties of human saliva.

But sometimes the answer to a language question is elusive, and we can only offer our  best guess.

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