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What does It Mean to be "Wet Behind the Ears"?

Being "wet behind the ears" is a charming idiom that suggests inexperience or naivety, much like a newborn, not yet acclimated to the world. It evokes a sense of youth and learning, where life's complexities are just beginning to unfold. Are you curious about its origins or how to navigate beyond this fresh-faced stage? Join us as we explore this further.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

To be wet behind the ears essentially means to be inexperienced, unseasoned or even a bit naïve or immature. In the business world, this phrase is often applied to new employees who are not quite ready to accept the full responsibility of their positions yet. It is also common for older people to express skepticism over a younger person's skills or level of authority by claiming he or she is still "wet behind the ears." At some point, however, a rookie or trainee usually does gain the needed experience or wisdom.

The origin of the phrase appears to be purely American, with some sources tracing it back several hundred years. It is more likely that the description came into popular use around the 19th century, as the lingo of the cowboys became more common. One theory holds that "wet behind the ears" started off as a description of newborn and young calves, which began their lives covered in mucus and other fluids. As these calves matured, the last part of their bodies to become completely dry were patches located behind their ears. In that sense, the phrase was cowboy shorthand for an inexperienced or green ranch hand.

An inexperienced, immature young person is often referred to as being "wet behind the ears.".
An inexperienced, immature young person is often referred to as being "wet behind the ears.".

It is also possible that the phrase "wet behind the ears" started with human babies, who are also born covered in a layer of mucus and tissue. Unlike a calf, however, a human baby is often dried by a nurse or its mother shortly after birth. The analogy could be more metaphorical in nature, however. Until a child reaches a certain level of maturity or gains a certain amount of "street smarts," he or she could still be considered a little wet behind the ears.

Cowboys were probably among the first to call someone "wet behind the ears."
Cowboys were probably among the first to call someone "wet behind the ears."

This is not to say that being considered "wet behind the ears" is necessarily a bad thing. Virtually every occupation or interest has a breaking-in period, and eventually most people achieve a state of competency and maturity as their skills improve. Almost everyone experiences a feeling of being unsure of themselves when confronted with a more advanced set of responsibilities or job requirements. Time and experience are the only things that will help convert a young intern or student into a competent and confident employee.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular LanguageHumanities contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular LanguageHumanities contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

burcinc

It's not as common now but when this phrase was becoming popular in the 1900s, the opposite of the phrase was being used as well. People would say "dry behind the ears" to mean that someone was mature and experienced.

"Wet behind the ears" is still in use but I don't hear people use "dry behind the ears."

ZipLine
@sneakers41-- Do people ever say "green behind the ears?"
donasmrs

What an odd phrase!

I just started interning at an organization and I have a very friendly boss. The other day, he said that I am "wet behind the ears." I just stared at him because I had never heard this phrase before. Then he proceeded to tell me what it was.

In fact, he said that I'm so wet behind the ears that I don't even know what it means! I guess he's right.

anon145198

I think of it as when my babies where infants and I would bottle feed, they would sometimes be so greedily hungry and suckle so hard that there would be a tiny trail of milk that would roll down their cheeks back to their little ears. I literally remember my young babies being wet behind the ears, until they learned to sit up and hold their bottles.

sneakers41

Suntan12- I also want to say that saying that someone is “Green” also denotes the same connotation as “Wet behind the ears.”

Suggesting that someone is “Green” means that they are not mature or inexperienced. This is a direct reference to crops.

For example, a green banana is not ready for consumption because you have to wait for it to darken a bit before you can eat it. When it matures then it will be ripe and ready to eat.

suntan12

I just want to add that the phrase “Wet behind the ears” refers to someone that is inexperienced, and relatively new to a position.

For example, a college graduate that is just entering the business world and beginning an entry-level position is also considered, “Wet behind the ears”.

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    • An inexperienced, immature young person is often referred to as being "wet behind the ears.".
      By: Leah-Anne Thompson
      An inexperienced, immature young person is often referred to as being "wet behind the ears.".
    • Cowboys were probably among the first to call someone "wet behind the ears."
      By: outdoorsman
      Cowboys were probably among the first to call someone "wet behind the ears."