Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

Laura Huxley’s essay ‘Love and Work’ (1962), a transcript and description of a guided psychedelic session she undertook with her husband, Aldous (he took psilocybin, she attended), contains an amusing and unusual expression I’ve encountered in an Irish context but have never heard spoken in person.

Towards the end of the session, Huxley is recalling the woodwork activity he practised as a boy. His school had a carpentry room which the children attended for 2–3 hours of official class time a week. They could also spend free time there, making whatever they wanted – a sledge, a bookcase, a box – and indeed were encouraged to do so.

Laura Huxley records Aldous saying the following:

There was this excellent man who did all the odd jobs around the school, but who was an old-time artisan who got through all this himself. But he was a very shrewd man: it was a pleasure to be with him. And he could talk; and he had delightful phrases – like when he sharpened a tool he said, ‘Now it is sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up.’ But all that is gone now. But what shouldn’t have gone is the perfectly sensible thing of providing boys with something to do.

The paradoxical expression used by Huxley’s woodwork teacher – sharp enough to cut off a dead mouse’s whiskers without its waking up – is a more explicit form of one recorded in P.W. Joyce’s Hiberno-English treasury English As We Speak It In Ireland, where a razor is said to be so sharp that it ‘[would] shave a mouse asleep’.

Joyce’s The Wonders of Ireland repeats it:

A very intelligent Limerick man once told me that the best razor hones in the world are procured in the following way:—cut a piece of holly into the shape of a hone and secure it at the bottom of the lake: at the end of seven years you will have, not a piece of holly, but a real hone, so excellent that it will make a razor sharp enough, as he expressed it, to shave a mouse asleep. Geologists tell us, however, that the water of Lough Neagh has no petrifying quality.

I was initially unsure of this expression, wondering if it meant the razor was so fine it would lull the creature to sleep, or if the mouse was already asleep and the blade would not wake it. That is, would it shave a mouse to sleep or one who was asleep? Huxley’s teacher’s line corresponds to the latter, as do other sources I found since. Sometimes, as in Frank Wilstach’s Dictionary of Similes (1916), it takes the unambiguous form shave a sleeping mouse [without waking it].

The expression is used a couple of times in the openings moments of this film on traditional Australian timbercraft, and seems to have minor currency mostly in woodwork contexts:

*

aldous huxley - moksha book coverLaura Huxley’s essay appears in Moksha: Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience 1931–63, edited by Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer. Published as a Flamingo Modern Classic in 1994, the book is a collection of essays, letters and lectures, and is available in full at the Internet Archive.

The unusual word moksha refers primarily to a form of liberation in Hindu philosophy; Huxley repurposed it in his remarkable utopian novel Island – his last major work – where it is the name of a kind of medicine.

6 Responses to Sharp enough to shave a mouse asleep

  1. But isn’t Huxley’s handyman making a joke – sharp enough not to wake a dead mouse, Well, nothing would wake the dead, would it…? So, the phrase could be used to mean something very sharp or with the addition of the word dead, refer to something sharp enough to do the job…

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Thanks for the quaint mouse comment and the wonderful Australian film, Stan!

  3. astraya says:

    Is ‘shave sth to sleep’ English usage anywhere? I’ve never heard it, which doesn’t mean that it’s not usage somewhere.

    (Personal note – currently sitting in a coffee shop in South Korea.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t think so, David. Google returns the phrase “shave a mouse to sleep” only once, except for this post, and I’m inclined to think that example comes from misinterpretation of shave a mouse asleep, by analogy with other constructions along the lines of [verb] X to sleep.

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