Green as a gourd

As mentioned earlier on my blog, I’m part of a group of authors who think getting to the truth is worth the effort put in. We realize that we can’t believe everything we read; that the saying ‘If you say it loudly enough it must be true’ is a bunch of hogwash!

For the past seven years I have been involved in researching and debunking much folk etymology. Cute stories that people made up about the origins of the old sayings, proverbs, metaphors and idioms we use everyday without thinking about it. But getting to the truth about anything takes tenacity and sometimes people still want to believe ‘old wives tales’ rather than proven facts. One Amazon customer who did a review of my first volume of Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and  Figurative Expressions didn’t like it because he said, “I have a small book of cute stories how sayings got started and I thought I was getting a big book of them.”  ”Sorry, Charlie, only good tasting tuna…”

I released Volume II last fall, and as soon as it had gone to the editor, before publication, I had begun the third and final volume. It is due out about Spring, 2019. Here is an example of why this takes time. This one took me over three hours, but I arrived at conclusions, entirely my own, never before published as to how this simile came to be used. It will be in Volume III along with at least 1,300 others. I hope you like it. This is advance copyright in this blog post:

Green as a gourd

This simile is most often used for a person who is a novice; new to some particular field of endeavor. It is not a derogatory term, but one of understanding that the person just needs time to mature like a fruit which ripens on the vine. The person is simply not ready for use. Similes are notoriously difficult to trace as to origin. However, the earliest known use of this term, though here seemingly literal, is in Fragments of an Unfinished Drama, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), originally published posthumously in 1824:

“I saw two little dark-green leaves                                                                                      Lifting the light mould at their birth,                                                                                      and then I half-remembered my forgotten dream.                                                              And day by day, green as a gourd in June,                                                                        The plant grew fresh and thick, yet no one knew                                                              What plant it was.”

 The adding of ‘in June’ helps us understand why ‘green’ became associated with gourds, and also with the figurative expression. Later in the year gourds, like other fruit of the vine, change color and harden; many turning yellow, as they become ripe and ready for use as food, tools, like dippers, or even instruments of music in some cultures. In Harper’s Weekly, December 9, 1865, in ‘The Yankee Girl’s Story’ we see another utilization of the phrase, omitting ‘in June,’ but a slight bit more metaphoric:

“She was a nice old critter, but as green as a gourd. She never did come to town but she was cheated and imposed upon by every human bein’ she came in contact with. All the hackmen knew her, and when they saw that old green calash of hers poking out of the railway car at the depot they always looked up…”

Though it is a simile, it seems that it could have been, at least partially, a literal one. A ‘calash’ here, referred to a large hood worn by women in the 18th century. The lines implied an old woman with antiquated customs. Hackmen were drivers of ‘hacks’ or taxis. But ‘green’ may have been referring to the actual color. Nevertheless, it set a pattern, and future use failed to include a reference to June as being the time when gourds were actually green.

In 1879, a book titled The Poetical Works of Percy Basshe Shelly was published in London by E. Moxon Sons, edited by William Michael Rossetti, which brought Shelley’s work once again to heightened public attention. Several printings were released over the next few years.  Immediately after this, ‘green as a gourd’ began to be used as a clearly figurative simile. The earliest printed reference comes in June, 1879, in the monthly paper, Gleanings in Bee Culture, in a letter from N.H. Allen in Kirkwood, MO with the heading, ‘Transferring: The Experience of an A.B.C. Scholar’:

“Next day I began the operation of transferring, green as a gourd except from what GLEANINGS has told me, but with tools and implements sufficient to build, scrub out and furnish an ordinary house, much more, ‘a bee house.’”

Then in testimony given February 8, 1881, in the Contested Election Case of Gustavus Sessinghaus vs. R. Graham Frost, from the 3rd Congressional District of Missouri, in Cross-Examination by Mr. Donovan, counsel for contestee, published in 1882 in Miscellaneous Documents of the House of Representatives, First Session of the Forty-Seventh Congress, 1881-1882, on page 401 we read:

“I was green as a gourd at it, but I could write and read, and I had to do this work.”