mare's nest

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mare's nest

Post by Archived Topic » Tue Aug 24, 2004 7:56 am

Does anyone know the origin of the term "a mare's nest"

Mel Goodman
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mare's nest

Post by Archived Reply » Tue Aug 24, 2004 8:10 am

Mel, “A mare’s nest” has several meanings. Mares don’t make nests and never have (as far as I know), and thus its original (and, I believe, still primary) meaning, as first recorded in 1576 (see below) was 'an illusory and worthless discovery.' That is, a discovery that one thinks to be one thing, but which turns out to be not that at all – thus the expression ‘to find a mare’s nest,’ which, in addition, means to delude oneself. “A mare’s nest” later took on the further meaning of possibly being a fraudulent or intentionally misleading discovery – ‘a hoax.’ It also came to mean a condition of confusion and bewilderment and generally jumbled or chaotic state of affairs that might accompany the discovery of such “a mare’s nest.”
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The first appearance in print of “a mare’s nest” was in ‘The Galateo’ by Giovanni della Casa (1558), which was translated into English by Robert Peterson in 1576:

“Nor stare in a man’s face, as if he had / spied a mare’s nest.”
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A great synonym and very good example of ‘finding a mare’s nest’ is the similar 17th century expression ‘find an elephant in the moon,’ which derives from the poem of the same name written by Samuel Butler (1612-1680) about the pompous Sir Paul Neal of the Royal Society, who he satirizes as thinking that a mouse in his telescope, as he looked through it, was an elephant on the moon.

(http://home.europa.com/~telscope/s_butler.txt, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang)
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Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable [1999]

FIND A MARE’S NEST: To make what at first seems a great discovery but that proves to be nothing at all.
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Macguarie Concise Dictionary [of Australian English]

MARE’S NEST noun: something imagined to be an extraordinary discovery but proving to be a delusion or hoax.
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Other sources included ‘A Dictionary of Slang’ by Partridge and Beale,’ ‘Cambridge History,’ and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable [1898]
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Incidentally, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang gives the following definition only:

MARE’S NEST [1950s-1970s] (New Zealand): A bar set aside for women and their escorts (cf. ‘cat’s bar’)

[Mel, is this the one you were asking about? You weren’t thinking of taking up a sideline, were you?] (<:)
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Ken G – March 14, 2003
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Re: mare's nest

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Aug 11, 2012 5:46 am

aaa
Heavens! In the above posting I only provided one quote. However, I just found another one in the historical novel I’m reading. And the reason I pursued it was that I thought it might be an anachronism:
< 2006 “‘I pray this may all be a mare’s nest and old Oldroyd’s word meant something different.”—Soverign by C. J. Sansom, page 300>
This mare’s nest clearly refers to the meaning, “make what at first seems a great discovery but that proves to be nothing at all.” An example of this, first appeared in Italian in a work from 1558 which was translated into English in1576. The above conversation takes place in 1540. Well, allowing for some slop, I won’t call it an anachromism:

Here’s what the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY had to say on this definition along with a few quotes (in addition to the 1576 on in my above posting):

1) Originally in to have found also (spied) a mare's nest: To imagine that one has discovered something wonderful, which in fact does not exist. Hence: an illusory discovery, especially one that is much vaunted and betrays foolish credulity.
<1877 “The Hornet's Nest is in reality a mare's nest. It makes you search a good while, without finding anything.”—Spirit of the Times, 24 November, page 453/3>

<1892 “Colonel S.'s discovery is a mere mare's nest.”—The Times (London), Weekly edition, 21 October, page 18/2>

<1930 “I do not think any literary pastime leaves one with so dry and discouraging a sensation as the examination of mares'-nests.”—New Statesman (London), 27 December, page 351/2>

<1957 “Can you imagine what your position would be . . . if you were responsible for public alarm over what turned out to be a mere mare's nest.”—The Black Cloud (1960) by F. Hoyle, page 76>

<1981 “Clearly it was going to be a long evening. No doubt the whole thing would turn out to be a mare's nest.”—A Death in the Faculty (1988) by A. Cross, iv. page 38>
However, using this definition, I could not find any recent quotes that applied. And, in fact, I would conclude that the following ‘newer’ definition, mentioned in my above posting, has largely taken over:

2) An untidy or confused mess [[tangle, hodgepodge, jumble, rat’s nest]]; a muddle; a misconception

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1837 “The mares'-nests of its discovery were amply suited by the flea-bittenness of its style.”—Fraser’s Magazine, Vol. 16, page 532>

<1948 “Two ladies who were lodged (so they bitterly reminded one another) in an outrageous and expensive mare's-nest at a hotel on Madison.”—TheNew Yorker, 21 February, page 23>

<1981 “The kitchen fireplace was a mare's nest of andirons, spits, spiders . . . , trammels, tongs, kettles, . . . and ladles.”—Cook’s Magazine, January-February, page 18/2>

<1985 “It's cleared. . .Your desk. . . It's usually a mare's nest.”—Artifact by G. Benford, v. iii. page 208>

<2002 “The job of the writer here is to create a mares' nest and then slowly unpick it.”—The Independent (London), 17 April>

<2000 “This is Mr. Flynn's third trip through the left's mares-nest of dysfunctional ideas.”—Washington Times (D.C.), 18 May>

<2006 “. . . making Java open has been something of a mare's nest of legal investigations and research, . . .”—The Register (London), 16 August>

<2012 “. . . a man who has been out of politics for six years and left a mare's nest of a political legacy when he departed.”—The Australian (Surry Hills, New South Wales), 3 March>
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Ken – August 10, 2012
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Re: mare's nest

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat Aug 11, 2012 9:46 am

Ken Greenwald wrote:aaa
Heavens! In the above posting I only provided one quote.
We did wonder if it was someone else posing as you, Ken - there's a lot of this false-identity stuff going on on the web. It had the hallmark of quality, though - the true signature on a work of art is not the scrawl at the bottom (it's the one on the cheque they buy it with) (Professor Jeffrey Geoffrey Huddleston-Wagstaff).

Sadly, you've debunked the established theory I was about to invent that a mare's nest was a larger version of a crow's nest, used of course in the days when the ubiquitous Horse Marines had to be constantly vigilant and ready for action.

_ Lieutenant - fetch Major Raffles off his mare's nest!

_ Sir!

(2h, 21mmin later:)

_ Where the Davy Jones have you been, Lieutenant!!??

_ Shorry, Sir - thought you shaid, "Offishers' Mess."

(There are articles - all very funny but some claiming to be genuinely historical rather than music-hall - on The Horse Marines!)
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Re: mare's nest

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Aug 11, 2012 5:10 pm

Edwin, This brings to mind those redoubtable elephant aviators of WWI. I'll forgo the quotes. (<:)
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Ken – August 11, 2012
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Re: mare's nest

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Aug 12, 2012 5:25 am

.. Ken in your quote from Aus >> <2012 “. . . a man who has been out of politics for six years and left a mare's nest of a political legacy when he departed.”—The Australian (Surry Hills, New South Wales), 3 March> >> it crossed my mind that in Aus it should be called a brumbie's nest ..

WoZ riding the high plain
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: mare's nest

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Apr 25, 2013 2:28 am

.. Ken on re-reading the quote >> <2012 “. . . a man who has been out of politics for six years and left a mare's nest of a political legacy when he departed.”—The Australian (Surry Hills, New South Wales), 3 March .. I do believe that this could be an example of the original meaning .. not the ignorant meaning .. in essence the unnamed politician left a legacy that appeared to be of quality but when closely examined proved to have no substance ..

WoZ in Surrey Hills

PS .. to save time and an extra posting .. the reason I call the "new" meaning an ignorant meaning derives from the idea that this meaning developed from somebody believing they knew what it meant, without bothering to look, and ignorant of the true meaning used the idiom incorrectly ..thus starting a landslide ..

Woz
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Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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