Annabelle Weiss of Shaker Heights, Ohio, writes to ask:
Weiss is not the first to wonder about the word “greenhorn,” defined by a young Jewish immigrant to New York, the narrator of Sholom Aleichem’s “Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son,” as “someone just off the boat who doesn’t know which end is up…. It’s a bad name to be called, a lot worse than a thief.” Jewish immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who were not only called “greenhorns” by non-Jews but called each other by the word as well, wondered about the same thing. To quote Motl again:
“What exactly is a greenhorn? I wish you’d asked me something easier…. It’s a word everyone uses, so we do too. Just for fun I took some chalk and drew a picture on the sidewalk of the Jew [just arrived from Europe] who’s buying our corner stand. I put a big green horn on his forehead. You should have heard everyone laugh!”
Actually, “greenhorn” has a well-documented history, going all the way back to medieval England, in which it referred to a young barnyard animal just beginning to grow its horns. It appears for the first time in the text of a 15th-century Christian “mystery play,” in which Jesus’ father Joseph shouts at the ox drawing the holy family’s cart as they escape from the legendary “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem:
Even in its original sense, the word had a metaphorical component, since a young animal’s horns of course are not green — a color associated with youth or tenderness because it is the color of new vegetable growth. And by the 17th century, “greenhorn” had taken on a metaphorical meaning entirely and come to refer to a new military recruit. Its earliest use in this sense is attributed to King Charles of England, who, in the course of the civil war with the forces of Oliver Cromwell, fled in 1646 to Scotland, hastily rallied a body of inexperienced troops whom he called his “Green Hornes,” and watched them — quite literally from a hilltop — go down to defeat. By the 1680s, a contemporary Scotsman tells us, the word designated not only “fresh-water Souldiers or new-levyed [recruits],” but also “it signifieth novices in any profession.” With time, it was more widely used in the latter sense, particularly by sailors and whalers, in whose argot it meant a new deckhand on his first sea voyage.