keep the wolf from the door
The original saying may have been keep the wolf from the gate, which dates from at least 1470. By the 1500s the saying had become keep the wolf from the door, with the current meaning that it bears: see, for example, the 1645 quotation.
There is a suggestion that the phrase may have originated from French or German phrases. Compare the French manger comme un loup (“eat like a wolf”), and the German Wolfsmagen (literally “wolf’s stomach”) means “a keen appetite”.
keep the wolf from the door (third-person singular simple present keeps the wolf from the door, present participle keeping the wolf from the door, simple past and past participle kept the wolf from the door)
- (idiomatic) To ward off poverty or hunger.
They didn't earn much, but it was enough to keep the wolf from the door.
1645 April 28, James Howell, “[Letter] LX. To Tho. Young, Esquire”, in Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ. Familiar Letters, Domestic and Forren. Divided into Four Books, Partly Historical, Political, Philosophical, upon Emergent Occasions, volume I, 6th edition, London: Printed for Thomas Guy, at the Oxford Arms near Popes-Head-Alley in Lumbard Street, published 1688, OCLC 228724800, section VI, page 284:
- Indeed, 'tis very fitting that Hee or Shee, ſhould have wherewith to ſupport both, according to their Quality, at leaſt to keep the Wolf from the Door, otherwiſe 'twere a meer madneſs to marry: […]
- (idiomatic) To delay sexual ejaculation.
- ^ John Hardyng (January 1543), “The. xcviii. Chapiter. The Lamentacyon of the Maker of this Booke, and His Counsayle to My Lorde of Yorke, for Good Rule in the Realme of Englande”, in The Chronicle of Ihon Hardyng, in Metre, from the First Begynnyng of Englande, vnto the Reigne of Edwarde the Fourth, where He Made an End of His Chronicle. And from that Tyme is Added with a Continuacion of the Storie in Prose to this Our Tyme. Now First Emprinted, Gathered out of Diuerse and Soundrie Autours, of Most Certain Knowelage and Substanciall Credit, that either in Latin, or els in Our Mother Toungue, haue Writen of the Affaires of Englande, London: In officina Richardi Graftoni, OCLC 702183961; republished as John Hardyng; Richard Grafton, The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng. Containing an Account of Public Transactions from the Earliest Period of English History to the Beginning of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth. Together with the Continuation by Richard Grafton, to the Thirty Fourth Year of King Henry the Eighth. The Former Part Collated with Two Manuscripts of the Author's Own Time; the Last, with Grafton's Duplicate Edition. To which are Added a Biographical and Literary Preface, and an Index, by Henry Ellis, London: Printed for F[rancis] C[harles] and J[ohn] Rivington; [et al.], 1812, OCLC 220598405, stanza XII, page 181: “Endowe hym now with noble sapience, / By whiche he maye the wolf werre frome the gate, / For wisedome is more worth in all defence, / Then any gold or riches congregate; […]”.
- ^ Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc., volume 4, issue 84, London: Bell and Daldy, 8 August 1857, OCLC 887525157, page 115.