This word for a male goose has been around for over 1000 years (but before 1250 it was ‘gandre’) and derives from the Old English ‘gandra.’ Two features attributed to the gander have given rise to verbs using its name. However, there is very little apparent physical difference between a goose and a gander and evidently not much proverbially difference either since according to the saying that appears in John Ray’s collection of proverbs of 1670: WHAT’S SAUCE FOR THE GOOSE IS SAUCE FOR THE GANDER, often also seen as WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE GANDER. Ray termed it ‘a women’s proverb’ – an early assertion of sexual equality, but it has since been used in more general terms to mean ‘what is appropriate for one person is equally appropriate for another person in a similar situation.’
Since the late 1600s the verb TO GANDER has meant ‘to wander aimlessly or with a foolish air, to stroll’ which some think a gander has a tendency to do and hence the nursery rhyme, ‘Goosey, goosey gander, whither shall I wander? Upstairs and downstairs, and into my lady’s chamber.’
The slang expression TAKE A GANDER (1914) meaning look at or glance at comes form the slang verb GANDER (1887) meaning to stretch one’s neck to see, alluding to the resemblance between a goose and an inquisitive person stretching out their neck to look.
Some also think the wandering idea is perhaps related to the obsolete GANDER MONTH, a term for the time of a women’s confinement for childbirth, during which her husband, who was called a GANDERMOONER was apt to wonder about GANDERMOONING much as a gander does while the goose sits on her eggs. Living in a town which is overrun by Canadian geese year round, I can tell you that both geese and ganders are almost indistinguishable, at least to me although probably not to each other, and they do seem to wander about, looking kind of silly, and oblivious to people, bicycles, and cars. Perhaps this seemingly numb wandering about gave rise to the use of the nouns GOOSE (1547) and GANDER (1553) to mean a dull or stupid person, a fool, a simpleton.
<1509 ‘Shyp of Folys’ by Barclay (1570), page 68: “That goose that still about will wander . . . Shall home come agayne as wise as a GANDER.”— ‘Shyp of Folys’ by Barclay (1570), page 68>
<1687 ‘Great French Dictionary’ by Miege, II: “GANDER To go a gandering, whilst his Wife lies in, ‘chercher à se divertir ailleurs’ [etc.].”– ‘Great French Dictionary’ by Miege, II>
<1887 ‘Folk-Speech of South Cheshire’ by T. Darlington, page 206: “GONDER, to stretch the neck like a ‘gander,’ to stand at gaze. ‘What a't gonderin' theer fur?’”— ‘Folk-Speech of South Cheshire’ by T. Darlington, page 206>
<1903 ‘Cincinnati Enquirer’ 9 May 13/1: “GANDER, to stretch or rubber your neck.”— ‘Cincinnati Enquirer’ 9 May 13/1>
<1935 “To wander about looking for someone or something. Modern TO GANDER.”— ‘American Speech’ X page 17/2>
<1973 ‘Scientific American’ Oct. 1971: “Take a GANDER at the see-through door below.”— ‘Scientific American’ Oct. 1971>
<“If smoking is to be banned on the factory floor, then it should also be banned in the boardroom—WHAT’S SAUCE FOR THE GOOSE IS SAUCE FOR THE GANDER.”—‘Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs’>
(Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Picturesque Expressions
by Urdang, Cool Cats, Top Dogs, and Other Beastly Expressions
by Ammer, Oxford English Dictionary
Ken G – March 4, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)