Mutton dressed as lamb

Example in use: “I’m going to the hairdresser tonight. What do you think of this new style for me? Or do you think it would be like mutton dressed as lamb?”

Meaning: A negative comment describing an older woman, who is dressed or wishes to look like someone much younger

Possible German equivalent: Macht auf jung

Possible origin: The word “dressing” can have the meaning of preparing food for cooking or presenting the finished food in a visually pleasing manner. So when the expression “dressed as lamb” originally appeared in the early 1800s, it seems to have had the meaning that a woman had prepared herself to look good for a romantic encounter.

In the first printed example of the full phrase which can be found in a social gossip journal by Mrs Frances Calvert in 1811, it is not fully clear if the meaning is positive, as above, or negative, as below:

“Some one the other day asked the Prince of Wales at the Ancient Music whether he did not think some girl pretty. 'Girl!' answered he, 'Girls are not to my taste. I don't like lamb; but mutton dressed like lamb!'.”

The phrase “mutton dressed as lamb” (mutton being meat from an older or mature sheep) took on the negative meaning that a woman would dress to appear younger than she really was to deceive men about her age. In those days, it was very important for a woman to marry young enough to be able to have children and even women in their twenties were considered past their best.

These days, it does not really refer to women wanting to look younger than they really are so that they can get married, but rather due to a sense of self-esteem and the wish to not be seen as “old”.

I’ve looked high and low and unfortunately, there does not seem to be an equivalent idiom referring to men!

Lamb / læm


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.