Why Do We Call People a “Silly Goose”? | Other Goose Idioms

You’ve probably done something stupid but not dangerous as a kid and had an adult call you a “silly goose.” Which doesn’t sound very goose-like, since geese mostly just kind of hiss, scream, and get into fights with Canadians. Goose attacks aren’t going to kill you, but they can certainly ring your bell, which is definitely not of the same severity as “rubbed paint in your hair.” So what’s up with calling someone a “silly goose?”

Well, They’re Silly

There’s a pretty pervasive myth that geese are dumb, particularly when hunted. Allegedly, this idea emerged from a ban on snow goose-hunting that lasted 44 years, beginning in the 1930s. There were a lot of geese hanging around North America, and hunters figured they’d be easy marks—within four years of the ban’s repealing the goal was to reduce the snow goose population by about 10%. That did not happen, and the geese actually resisted pressure from hunting so well the hunting season was extended and the daily limit for snow geese bags was increased. 

So silly or not, they’re pretty good at not-dying as a whole.

The 1900s seems a little recent for goose-silliness, and if you got that feeling your goose-senses were tingling correctly. References to “silly goose” appear in The Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576) in the following line: “she crafty Foxe, the seely Goose beguiles.” At least as far back as  the 1570s, then, English speakers had a concept of geese being silly or foolish. Colloquially, “goose” was used alone (without “silly”) to mean someone was foolish as well. 

This carries even in the etymology of the word “goose,” with early definitions being “a large waterfowl proverbially noted, I know not why, for foolishness,” and the word “goose” may have originated as an onomatopoeia for goose-honking. 

While we couldn’t find any historical instances of someone going “the goose is going to be our symbol of foolishness,” the fact that geese at least look silly is pretty self-evident. They don’t walk on land with much grace and they spit and hiss all the time.

Other Goose Idioms

You’ve also probably heard the phrases “to take a gander” or “goose-egg” before. The former refers to taking a look at something and the latter refers to a bump you might get on your head if you run into a door. By being a silly goose, perhaps. 

“Gander” from its origins has always referred to a male goose, though it may have also referred to storks and other water-fowl. The word didn’t take its meaning of “long look” until 1912. In literal terms, then, to “take a gander” is to “take a male goose,” which doesn’t sound much like taking a look at something. It’s thought that the phrase comes from thieves’ cant, beginning in the US. The idiom itself references the long necks of geese, and their propensity to stick their heads everywhere to take a peek. Or a gander. “Gander” has also been used in the past to mean “wander foolishly,” which is kind of what geese do at the local park—not that there’s a concrete connection it’s just kind of funny.  

The origin of “goose egg” is pretty straightforward, as it points to the egg-like shape of your head swelling when you take a hit to the head. This was first used in writing at least as far back as 1852. It’s also another version of the idiom “duck egg” as a sports term. It’s just slang for “zero,” again owing to the egg-like. In this context, “goose egg” seems to date back somewhere between 1350 and 1400.

See if you know your goose nursery rhymes from your Dr. Seuss titles here.