Q: These sentences appeared recently in a news roundup in the NY Times: “Red Sox fleece Yankees” and “Phillies lick Mets.” Are these poorly conceived puns by sportswriters?
A: Both “fleece” and “lick” are commonly used in a figurative way to describe getting the better of somebody. These usages are very common and we can’t blame baseball writers for them, since they’ve been in use for many centuries.
In fact, figurative uses of these two verbs probably preceded the literal ones—at least in written English. Here’s the story, beginning with “fleece.”
The verb was derived from the noun “fleece,” the word for an animal’s wooly pelt, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The noun descended from old Germanic terms and was first recorded in Old English sometime before the year 1000.
In its literal sense, of course, to “fleece” a sheep is to strip it of its wool, a meaning first found in writing in the 17th century—but even then it was used metaphorically.
In fact, the OED’s earliest use of “fleece” in its sheep-shearing sense uses the word in a metaphor: “A Clergy, that shall more desire to fleece, Then feed the flock” (from George Wither’s long poem Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628).
And almost a century earlier the verb was used figuratively in the sense of “to obtain by unjust or unfair means” or “to take toll of, take pickings from.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from a letter sent by King Henry VIII on Feb. 25, 1537, in which he chews out his Lord Deputy and Council in Ireland:
“Good counsailors shuld, before their oune private gaynes, have respecte to their princes honor, and to the publique weale of the cuntrey whereof they have charge. A greate sorte of you (We must be plain) desire nothing ells, but to reign in estimacion, and to flece, from tyme to time, all that you may catche from Us.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)
And in the late 1500s, a figurative construction that’s common today showed up in English writing.
The OED defines this use of “fleece” as “to strip (a person, city, country, etc.) of money, property, etc., as a sheep is stripped of its fleece; to make (any one) pay to the uttermost; to exact money from, or make exacting charges upon; to plunder, rob heartlessly; to victimize.”
So the verb was practically made to order for sportswriters looking for more vivid words than “defeat” or “beat” or “rob of a victory.”
Why do figurative uses of the verb “fleece” predate and outnumber the literal senses of the word?
Our guess is that “shear,” a verb that’s been in English writing since the late 800s, has always been the more common literal term for removing a sheep’s wool.
Similarly, the verb “lick,” another word from old Germanic sources, has had both literal and figurative meanings since its first appearances in 10th-century manuscripts
The principal sense of “lick,” to pass one’s tongue over something, was first recorded in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s.
But figurative uses of “lick” are even older.
To “lick the earth (or ground)” was to suffer defeat, a usage first recorded in an illuminated manuscript believed to have been created some time in the early 900s.
Here’s the citation, from the Paris Psalter: “His feondas foldan liccigeað.” (“His enemies licked the ground”).
The usage (similar to “bite the dust,” 1749) also shows up in John Wycliffe’s translations of the Psalms and Micah in the 1380s: “His enemys the erthe shul licken,” and “Thei shuln lick dust as the serpent.”
In other usages, to “lick one’s knife” (circa 1400) was to be parsimonious. To “lick one’s lips (or fingers)” (c 1500) was to display “keen relish or delighted anticipation of some dainty morsel,” the OED says.
And to “lick into shape,” meaning “to mould” or make presentable, alludes “to the alleged practice of bears with their young,” Oxford notes.
This expression could be as old as 1413, but the earliest definitive citation is from George Chapman’s comedy The Widdowes Teares (1612): “He has not lickt his Whelpe into full shape yet.”
Finally, the figurative usage we see in sports headlines, in which “lick” means to beat or punish, appeared in writing in the late 16th century.
The OED’s earliest example for this sense of the word comes from A Caueat for Commen Cursetors (1587), Thomas Harman’s pamphlet about tramps and vagabonds.
In the booklet, Harman defines the word “lycke” as meaning “to beate.”
So “lick,” like “fleece,” was a natural for sportswriters!