"Bear market" in NY Times

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Feb 23 07:01:43 UTC 2004

Gerald may have covered this in his Forum Anglicum article, but the
fable about the man who sold the bearskin before catching the bear is
originally from Aesop, I think, and occurs in slightly different
bestial dress in Henry V, when the French emissary comes to the king
on the eve of the battle of Agincourt to demand the English
surrender. Not so fast, says Henry; and then reminds the emissary:

The man that once did sell the lion's skin
While the beast lived, was killed with hunting him.

Geoff Nunberg

>    From Sunday's "City" section of the NEW YORK TIMES:
>Q. With all the talk about bears encroaching on the New Jersey and
>northern suburbs, when was the last time a bear roamed in Manhattan?
>A. Not only bears, but wolves, too, roamed Manhattan in the 17th
>century, even after the British took it over from the Netherlands.
>"Memorial History of the City of New York" (1892), edited by James
>Grant Wilson, says of the late 1600's: "A dense forest in which deer
>herded plentifully covered the middle and upper parts of the Island,
>where a few of the Manhattans lived in almost primitive barbarism.
>Wolves roamed at large through this wilderness, and committed
>occasional ravages during the remainder of the century; and bears
>were not infrequent in their visits to the island, and afforded rare
>sport to the settlers, as the annals show.
>"A bear hunt which took place, as late as 1680, in an orchard
>between the present populous Cedar Street and Maiden Lane, is
>chronicled by the Rev. Charles Wooley."
>A different, apocryphal-sounding account, possibly inspired by the
>same shooting, claims that a freshly killed bear that had crossed
>the Hudson was displayed by a butcher on the site of what later
>became the Washington Market in Lower Manhattan. According to this
>account, that was the origin of the term "bear market," meaning a
>fall in stock prices, or speculating in anticipation of a fall.
>Another explanation of the term comes from the Dictionary of Phrase
>and Fable (1898), which cited the proverb of "selling the skin
>before you have caught the bear," and referred to those who entered
>into contracts in the notorious South Sea bubble in the early 18th
>century, to transfer stock at a stated price.
>    The DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE was written by Ebenezer Cobham
>Brewer (1810-1897).  I don't know why the 1898 edition was cited;
>Brewer probably didn't add the entry after his death.
>    OED has 1709 and 1714 citations for "bear."  Both are from
>England.  The New York Stock Exchange did not exist at this time.
>Saying that this "bear" is an "apocryphal-sounding account" doesn't
>help matters.  It's wrong.
>    I give up on the NEW YORK TIMES.

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