Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fox In The Henhouse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 6, 2013

If there’s a fox in the henhouse, you’ve got problems brewing. You see, in that one idiom, people are aware that someone has been put in a position where he or she can then exploit the situation to his or her own benefit. And what’s more, it’s not that the opportunity is there, waiting to be acted upon, it’s more likely than not that the person in charge absolutely will exploit the situation.

In other words, having a fox in the henhouse is no different from having a lunatic in charge of the asylum  or asking a thief to guard the bank vault, or expecting the wolf to guard the sheep, or asking a monkey to watch your bananas. They all mean the same thing, and in every instance, the watcher can’t be trusted to do the right job.

Back on December 24, 2002 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted a Letter To The Editor from Don Van Kirk of Franklin Park. He was concerned about the potential for abuse of power from George W. Bush’s new appointee to the SEC. He was so concerned that the author was compelled to comment:

His appointment of William Donaldson as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Donaldson is part of the Wall Street Club; under his leadership nothing of any magnitude will be corrected or changed.

Jumping back one generation to January 11, 1973, a news story published in the Miami News was also concerned about potential problems in government in an article entitled, “Fox In The Henhouse.” The problem this time had to do with the Watergate scandal and ensuing prosecution. It was reported in part:

In the first place, the Justice Department is prosecuting the seven defendants who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters last July. That’s like having the fox watch the henhouse because the Justice Department is controlled by the national administration, which is generally believed to have been behind the spying on the Democrats.

Some say that the expression comes from “The Contre-League and Answere to Certaine Letters Sent to the Maisters of Renes, by One of the League who Termeth Himselfe Lord of the Valley of Mayne, and Gentleman of the Late Duke of Guizes Traine” published in 1589, and that this book gives the saying as the fox guarding the henhouse.

Some will say that the expression is implied in the nursery rhyme (but Idiomation disagrees) entitled, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” where the first verse reads:

Sleep, baby, sleep.
Thy father guards the sheep.
Thy mother shakes the dreamland tree.
Down falls a little dream for thee:
Sleep, baby, sleep.

The fact of the matter is that the expression is first alluded to in the Christian Bible in Luke 13:31-35 where the following is found:

31 The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.

32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.

33 Nevertheless I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!

35 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

And before the Bible, it was a Latin saying: “Ovem lupo commitere.”  The Latin translates into “mettere un lupo a sorvegliare le pecore” which, in turn, translates into “to set a wolf to guard sheep.”   Whether the expression has to do with foxes and hens, or wolves and sheep, the meaning is the same and to this end, this confirms that the saying originated in Ancient Rome.

So what have we learned from today’s idiom? Don’t assign a job to someone who will then be in a position to exploit it for his or her own ends.

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One Response to “Fox In The Henhouse”

  1. […] Bruce, Elyse. “Fox In The Henhouse.” Historically Speaking. 6 Mar 2013. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2017. <https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fox-in-the-henhouse/&gt;. […]

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