Reader Bill Moore asked me to settle a dispute.
He had chatted "with a bloke who, in referring to certain people's inexperience in their line of work, said that they were 'green behind the ears.' I suggested that inexperienced people were either 'green' or 'wet behind the ears,' but not a portmanteau combination."
The bloke responded with "a somewhat snippy e-mail in support of 'green behind,' citing a reference book whose title wasn't Boys' Big Book of Idioms, and furthermore President Obama himself used 'green behind etc.' Well, I thought, still wrong, but at least wrong in good company. But now I wonder. Was I right or was I being a stuffy old pedant, which tends to be my default?"
Moore is right. "Green behind the ears" makes no sense, unless it's a medical condition in dire need of treatment. The phrase was born of a confusion of the two elements he noted.
Green ( grene in Old English), which comes from the same Germanic roots as grow, entered the language referring both to the colour and to new growth in spring. By the 1500s, the word also meant immature and inexperienced, and by the 1600s, naive and gullible.
Wet behind the ears is more recent. The Oxford English Dictionary finds its first printed mention in a 1931 book of British soldiers' slang, where it is called "a term of reproach imputing ignorance or youth." The reference is to calves and other mammals that, when born, remain wet behind the ears for a short while after other body parts have dried.
Whatever its demerits, "green behind the ears" has been around for at least three decades. In a 1981 New York Times article, Richard A. Fandrich, publisher of The Christian Yellow Pages, conceded he had gone too far in discriminating against people who weren't Christians. "I was green behind the ears," he said.
Oprah Winfrey used it in a Chicago Tribune interview last May about her early days in television. Her Baltimore co-host didn't like her. "First of all, he wanted to be alone from the beginning. And then, if he had to have a co-host, he didn't want a young, green-behind-the-ears one like me."
And yes, Obama used it while campaigning for the U.S. presidency in October of 2008. During a debate with Republican contender John McCain, he said, "Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and, you know, I'm just spouting off, and he's sombre and responsible."
The expression drew fire early on. In a 1988 Los Angeles Times column, Jack Smith included it with several other malapropisms, a term derived from Mrs. Malaprop, who in the 1775 play The Rivals was given to such utterances as, "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." Smith offered a recent example: that Europe in the Middle Ages "was devastated by the platonic plague."
In a Chicago Tribune column in 1985, R.C. Longworth called such phrases "fruitworthy English," because "former mayor Jane Byrne one day said she hoped a certain investigation would 'prove fruitworthy.' It's the sort of English that sounds okay until you stop to think about it, whereupon it falls apart."
Longworth told of an executive "who warns against over-enthusiasm by urging his subordinates, 'Don't bend overboard!" One of his readers "had heard a senior officer at his firm tell about the good old days 'when I was still green behind the ears.'"
Fortunately, the correct expression is in regular rotation. The Winnipeg Sun used it on Jan. 31: "Spencer Machacek isn't your typical wet-behind-the-ears rookie."
Since someone is bound to ask, nobody knows exactly where rookie came from, but one line of speculation is that it derived from rook, the verb meaning to swindle, since new recruits are often gullible – that is, green. Full stop.