For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, “to cry wolf” is generally used to mean “give a false alarm”, or “lie, complain about a situation when there are in fact no problems”.
It is a fairly easy idiom to trace, as it comes from a well-known source; Aesop’s Fables. One of the tales is called, quite simply, The Boy who Cried Wolf, although it is sometimes also known as “The shepherd boy and the wolf”, or “the boy who kept the sheep”. However, for our purposes, the main title immediately makes it clear where our idiom is from!
The fable tells of a boy whose task it was to watch over the sheep. However, he got bored doing this, and to liven things up a bit, he started calling out that there was a wolf attacking, so the villagers all ran to help, only to discover that the boy was playing a trick. This happened a few times before the villagers got fed up with the boy and his tricks, so when the next time a wolf really did attack the sheep and the boy cried out for help, they didn’t go, and some sheep were killed by the wolf.
Obviously, in this tale, it was the fact that the boy cried out “wolf!” several times and was lying that caused all the trouble, and of course, it is this that gave rise to our expression.
Interestingly, although the fable dates back to the 5th century BC in its original Greek, it was not translated into Latin until the 15th century, and does not appear in English until 1484, in a collection published by William Caxton under the title Of the child whiche kepte the sheep.
Unsurprisingly, English is not the only language to use this image in this context – the French equivalent means exactly the same: crier au loup. Norwegian also uses the same phrase with rope ulv, as does Swedish with ropa varg. Again, in Italian, the fable has left its mark with gridare al lupo, just as in Romanian a striga lupul.
In Welsh, you would say gweiddi blaidd, which literally means “shout wolf”. Moving on to Irish Gaelic, we find gáir an mhic tíre a thógáil, meaning the same thing – mac tíre, which means “wolf”, literally translates “son of the land”.
Perhaps it is the structure of the Finnish language that makes it appear more complete: ken sutta huutaa; “he who cries wolf”.
Similarly, in Spanish, some people use the expression (it’s like) Pedrito y el lobo, signifying “Peter and the wolf”. Along the same lines, still from the fable, is the Bulgarian equivalent лъжливото овчарче (lajlivoto ovcharche) which means “the lying shepherd boy”.
German prefers a more literal approach, with falscher/blinder Alarm schlagen, “to sound a false alarm”, although a rarer phrase also exists; Zeter und Mordio schreien – “to scream for Zeter and Mordio (murder)”, it doesn’t necessarily convey the idea of a false alarm. (Further explanation here in German).
Slovenian also uses a plain phrase, akin to the German, with lažni alarm, which simply means “false alarm”.