I love a good farm memoir. I also love Catherine Friend. Her book, The Compassionate Carnivore, is one of those books that actually changed my life. Her memoirs Hit by a Farm and Sheepish are informative and funny. Here is a bit of Sheepish.
Most of us use the word “sheepish” to mean embarressed, ashamed, or chagrined. Sheep, however, are never embarrassed, ashamed, or chagrined. Not ever. So this definition makes absolutely no sense.
Instead of interpreting the “-ish” suffix to mean “like,” as in “like a sheep,” another possibility is “of or belonging to,” Think: Spanish- of or belonging to Spain. Danish-of or belonging to fruit-filled pastries.
Sheepish-of or belonging to sheep.
Sheep have been around since before literature, so they’ve been written about since the beginning- Roman writing, nursery rhymes, bad poetry. Sheep are the stars of the Bible, showing up more than 500 times, and they’re the first animal named in Genesis. David likened fleece to snow, and Solomon describes his mistress’s teeth as “resembling a flock of sheep just come up from the washing.” How many pick up lines do you know of that involve sheep? (Appropriate pick-up lines, please.)
Sheep show up everywhere in our language: lost sheep, black sheep, good shepherd, fleeced, pull the wool over someone’s eyes, led like a sheep to slaughter, spinning a yarn, flocking together, gentle as a lamb, wolf in sheep’s clothing, two shakes of a lamb’s tail, dyed in the wool, golden fleece, muttonchops, and leg-o’mutton sail are just a few examples.
Wool gathering is another one. It isn’t used much anymore, but it means to daydream. Yet the word initially meant exactly what it says” to gather wool. In medieval Europe, the wealthy land barons owned both the land and the sheep, but the lower classes were allowed to pick up bits of wool that had snagged on bushes, and spin them into clothing for their families. Women walked the paths sheep traditionally took, gathering up the tufts. Wild Fibers magazine reported that wool gathering was very social, and the women would “frequently stop at farms along the way and preform odd jobs in exchange for food and shelter.” Up to four pounds of wool could be gathered from the hedgerow in a single day, and that day began at 4:00 AM. It’s hard to understand how a word for lazy daydreaming came from such hard work, but that’s the English language for you.”