Hanged for a sheep as a lamb: idioms

My crimes are small. Stealing pens from the office, wishing ill will against my husband, and using a credit card which refuses to close no matter how many times I phone to request this. I must say I am enjoying this free money and the guilt has all but evaporated.

In the abundance of reading I have done since national/international lockdown, I came across a new idiom – to be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

This means that you will suffer as much for the small crime as the larger one. For example, if I am going to be punished for stealing pens, I may as well take the stapler and the punch as well – build myself a nice little stationery collection at home.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

We all know that the sheep is the adult of the lamb. So, I compare this to committing a child-sized crime vs an adult crime – ie the full-blown, whole hog crime. Why hold back? – the idiom suggests.

Phrases.org.uk has some insight as to the origin of the idiom and all sources agree it dates back to a time when stealing sheep would ensure a severe punishment for the deed.

“Until at least 1800 in England, the penalty for stealing sheep, irrespective of the animal’s age or gender, was execution or deportation. Since there is more meat and wool on a fully-grown sheep, why bother putting the same effort into stealing a lamb if the consequence of being caught for either crime was the gallows?

You would use this idiom in a much lighter vein. For example, ‘I’ve broken my diet with a sugar drink, I may as well have the piece of cake too and be hanged for the lamb as for the sheep.

Don’t do things in half-measures

Another view is that the idiom means, there’s no point in doing things in half-measures. I think this is really the same thing with a different emphasis. This interpretation gives a more positive spin but  I am sticking with the interpretation of being punished with the same measures whether the offense be great or small.

Read more animal idioms below.

Waiting for the cows to come home: Origin of idioms

Talking the hind legs off a donkey: How idioms originate

Learn to speak better English

Iza Grek

Iza is an award-winning journalist. She has worked in advertising and communications for more than 20 years. A Word or 2 has been in operation since October 2014 and continues to thrive, serving customers writing and editing services across the board from blogs to speeches and e-books.