What Does It Mean to "Cry Wolf"?

Bethney Foster

The English idiom “cry wolf” means to sound a false alarm or to ask for assistance when no assistance is there. To say that someone cried wolf also carries the implication that no one will respond to the person’s pleas for help should the person should ever really need assistance because of the false reporting in the past.

The phrase "cry wolf" originates in a story about a boy becoming bored while guarding sheep.
The phrase "cry wolf" originates in a story about a boy becoming bored while guarding sheep.

The origins of the phrase cry wolf are in one of Aesop’s Fables, titled The Boy Who Cried Wolf or The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf. The fables, collected by Aesop in 5th-century Greece, told stories that taught moral lessons by showing the outcomes of their characters' bad behavior. At the end of his fables, Aesop told exactly what the moral meaning of his tale was. The moral is explained as meaning that liars aren’t believed even when they tell the truth.

The simple stories and morals in Aesop's Fables are aimed mostly at children.
The simple stories and morals in Aesop's Fables are aimed mostly at children.

In the story, a boy is sent to guard sheep but becomes bored. He entertains himself by crying out for help, saying a wolf is among the sheep. The people of the village respond each time the boy cries wolf, only to realize the boy is again making up the report of danger and laughing at them for responding to his false cries of danger.

Children who cry wolf might act like a situation is worse than it is in order to gain attention.
Children who cry wolf might act like a situation is worse than it is in order to gain attention.

Eventually a wolf really does get among the sheep, and the boy does cry wolf. By this point, however, the villagers ignore the boy’s cries for help, believing he is again making up the story out of boredom. The boy and the sheep are attacked by the wolf and killed, because no one responds to help the boy because of his false reporting in the past.

Someone may "cry wolf" if they call for a medic when there isn't a serious health issue.
Someone may "cry wolf" if they call for a medic when there isn't a serious health issue.

It was not until 1692 that the fable was first told in English in Roger L’Estrange’s translation. As the fable’s popularity grew and more and more people learned the story of the little boy who cried wolf, most would have come to understand the phrase as a warning not to sound false alarms or would understand that to cry wolf meant someone had given a false report. The idiom likely entered into popular language in the 19th century.

Both the fable and the phrase are still used in contemporary culture. The fable is read and told to children to teach them about the consequences of telling untruths. The phrase has also lent itself to titles and references in literature and music.

Someone may be "crying wolf" when they fake an injury for attention.
Someone may be "crying wolf" when they fake an injury for attention.

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Discussion Comments

Logicfest

@Markerrag -- A lot of idioms came from really horrible stories that we have forgotten -- probably on purpose -- through the years. Back in olden times, kids were always messing up and getting killed or maimed for their mistakes.

A lot of expressions that are in common use came from those stories, although the stories themselves haven't exactly survived. Probably considered too harsh. We have taken the wisdom, but have pretty well rejected the underlying stories.

Markerrag

Something noteworthy is that the idiom survived, but how many people actually know the underlying story? It is really quite grim when you think about it. A boy makes a mistake and gets killed for it. Probably wouldn't play too well to a modern audience.

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