Word Nerd: “Loaded For Bear”

Bear! Agh! Bear!
Bear! Agh! Bear!

Oh, misconceptions. You crazy little guys! I can think of a few:

– when you fall in love, it will be forever
– “He’s got the whole world/in his pants”
– black licorice doesn’t taste good
– the expression “loaded for bear” comes to us from the nautical world

Let’s look at that last one. Last night, I was set straight by a comrade. We were in conversation at an almost handicappingly dim restaurant, nibbling on burrata and tomatoes so fresh they were still mooing.

“Well, there I was, and let me tell you, I was loaded for bear!” my dinnermate said. I stopped him in his tale to ask about the provenance of that expression. It was a nautical term, wasn’t it? I knew what it meant, that a person was ready for a fight, ready for a major event, equipped and prepared to do serious business. But I have operated my entire life (at least since I could read or whatever) that “loaded for bear” referred to the maximum level of cargo or freight a big ship could carry at one time. I was using “bear” as in “bearing weight.” To me, “loaded for bear” meant that a massive ship was packed to the hilt, loaded up “for bear,” perhaps a sailor’s way of saying, “the full weight.” Don’t know where I picked it up, don’t know who might’ve misled me or if I just made it up, but I’ve used the expression properly for a long time and never thought to question it.

“No, no,” said he. “No, it means you’ve loaded your gun for big game. Like a bear.”

I smacked his shoulder. “Get! Out! Really?? A bear?? It means an actual bear??”

“Yes,” he said, and smiled in that way that men smile when a girl in a dress swats them on the shoulder. Happy girl, silly hitting. Lovely hitting.

What a revelation. A bear. I like animals a lot — in the abstract — and when an idiom has been employing one right in front of my face without my knowledge, well, my day is made upon discovery of that.

Loaded for bear! For bear! Of all the things.

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