What Does It Mean to Be Wet Behind the Ears? A Beginner’s Guide

A common phrase used to describe a new or inexperienced person is “wet behind the ears.” This saying has been around for centuries but the origin is still a mystery to most. Whether you’re a young adult starting your career, a recent graduate, or simply unfamiliar with specific terminology, this guide will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be wet behind the ears.

What Does It Mean to Be Wet Behind the Ears?

The phrase ‘wet behind the ears’ is used to describe someone who is inexperienced, has a lack of knowledge or experience in a specific area or is young or naive. In most cases, it is a gentle way of describing someone who has a lot to learn or has not yet experienced life outside of their comfort zone.

Origins of the Phrase

The exact origin of the phrase is uncertain, but it dates back to at least the 17th century. One explanation is that newborn babies were supposedly born with their face and body covered in a white, waxy substance called vernix. If a baby had not been cleaned thoroughly enough at birth, the remainder of the vernix could still be seen behind the ears. This was seen as a sign of the baby’s newness to the world.

Another possible explanation is that a new horse, straight from the stables, would have wet patches behind its ears from sweating through exertion, similar to how a green or inexperienced rider would be inexperienced and sweating with the effort of riding.

The Psychology Behind It

This phrase can sometimes be used to gently poke fun at someone, but is mostly used to show understanding or empathy. Bearing in mind that everyone is new at something at some point in their life, it can be difficult to understand or learn a new skill or way of thinking until it is fully assimilated into one’s knowledge base. By recognizing that someone is ‘wet behind the ears’, we acknowledge that they might not yet possess the required knowledge or experience, but they have the potential to learn.

The Difference Between Wet Behind the Ears and Green

The terms ‘wet behind the ears’ and ‘green’ are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings. While someone who is wet behind the ears might be inexperienced in general, the term green typically implies they are specifically new to a particular job or industry. For example, someone fresh out of college could be wet behind the ears in the workforce but not necessarily green in their field of study.

Situations Where Being Wet Behind the Ears is not an Advantage

  • Starting a job – If you are new to a position, you may take longer to complete tasks efficiently, and might need additional guidance provided by a more experienced worker.
  • Starting a new hobby – With no prior knowledge or experience in a hobby, it may be challenging to gauge the correct techniques or know-how best to get started.
  • Starting a new business – Starting a business requires knowledge in all aspects of running a company, from accounting and finance to marketing and sales. Without prior experience or knowledge, it may be challenging to start and maintain a successful business.

Situations Where Being Wet Behind the Ears can be an Advantage

While most people perceive being wet behind the ears as a disadvantage, there are several scenarios where it can be an advantage.

  • Fresh Perspective – Someone new to a position or industry is typically arriving with a fresh perspective and some fantastic new ideas that the company may not have considered before.
  • Blank Slate – Starting with no preconceptions about how things should be done, a person is free to explore new ways of thinking and approaches that more experienced people may not be willing to try.
  • Enthusiasm – A new team member is likely to have more enthusiasm than someone who has been working in the same position for years. They may be more motivated and invested in the success of the team.

The Takeaway

Being “wet behind the ears” is a phrase that has been around for years and can be used to describe a new, inexperienced, or young person. While it may not always be advantageous, it can also be viewed as an opportunity for growth, fresh perspectives, and unbridled enthusiasm. Recognizing this difference and understanding when being wet behind the ears is an advantage is essential as we all have to start somewhere.


  • What other colloquial phrases are similar to “wet behind the ears?”
    • “Green” or “greenhorn” typically refer to someone new to a job or an industry.
    • “Rookie” is another term used to describe someone new to a job or industry, specifically in sports and the military.
  • How do you stop being wet behind the ears?
    • To stop being considered wet behind the ears, there is no foolproof way. Still, there are many things you can do, such as educating yourself about the industry, gathering information, and finding a mentor who can teach you valuable industry knowledge.
  • Can being wet behind the ears be a bad thing?
    • It all depends on the industry or situation. For instance, being wet behind the ears in a healthcare industry can be dangerous to patients, whereas, being new to a marketing position could be advantageous due to the fresh perspective and new ideas it can bring.


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