According to Oxford Online Dictionary lone wolf means the following:

A person who prefers to act alone: he’s a lone wolf; that’s what made him a successful foreign correspondent.

After the mass shootout (massacre) in San Berdadino in the US, I hear this compound noun very often. I believe the US media and President Obama call them lone wolf actors because they doubt the couple received any order from ISIS for the attack and acted alone.

According to Etymology Online Dictionary, the word wolf had a sexual connotation when it was first used to describe people:

Wolves as a symbol of lust are ancient, such as Roman slang lupa "whore," literally "she-wolf" (preserved in Spanish loba, Italian lupa, French louve). The equation of "wolf" and "prostitute, sexually voracious female" persisted into 12c., but by Elizabethan times wolves had become primarily symbolic of male lust. The specific use of wolf for "sexually aggressive male" first recorded 1847; wolf-whistle attested by 1945, American English, at first associated with sailors. The image of a wolf in sheep's skin is attested from c. 1400. See here for a discussion of "wolf" in Indo-European history. The wolf-spider so called for prowling and leaping on its prey rather than waiting in a web.

  1. What is the etymology of the compound noun lone wolf? It doesn't seem to have started to mean what it means now as it doesn't have any sexual connotation at all. Some change might have happened in the meaning of the noun wolf (I suspect).

  2. Does lone wolf have something to do with the word werewolf which means:

(In folklore) a person who changes for periods of time into a wolf, typically when there is a full moon.

  • 5
    It's not clear what you're asking. Lone wolf is completely transparent to me: wolves normally live and hunt in packs, so a lone wolf is one that is separated from its pack. Just because wolf can have a sexual meaning, doens't mean that it always does in every use. And there's no reason to suppose there is any particular connection between lone wolves and werewolves.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 18:05
  • @ColinFine Lone wolf is transparent to me, too. I am interested in finding out the change in its meaning. When did it start to mean "a person who prefers to act alone"? As you commented, wolves don't prefer to act/hunt/live alone.
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 18:12
  • 1
    OED has the earliest citation from 1909: "Occasionally the police run across Panhandlers known as ‘lone wolves’—that is they do not mix with others of their class." (F. H. Tillotson How to be a Detective)
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 18:19
  • 3
    @ermanen: Earlier: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894) in which Akela is called "the Lone Wolf". Of course in this case Akela is an actual wolf, so the term is literal and not metaphorical, but I wonder if this could be the origin. Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 19:17
  • And of course the famous native American. Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 20:01

1 Answer 1


Lone wolf has a negative connotation. Socially maladjusted. It's being used as a mild insult.

Lone wolf is being used to manage expectations. If they acted alone we don't have to go on a witch hunt to uncover a conspiracy.

While the wolf can represent untamed sexual energy that is not how it's being used here.

The wolf can represent danger. That is how it's being used here. Though conservationists would rush to point out you're more likely to die from a lightning strike. Which is apt, since you're about as likely to be a victim of this kind of violence.

Wolves are pack animals with a social hierarchy. So are humans. A lone wolf is assumed to be an outcast. Calling someone a lone wolf is just a fancy way to call them an anti-social outcast.

Lone wolf has no more to do with werewolf than wolf does.

  • Then why does the first use of this expression cited in the question appear to have a positive connotation?
    – herisson
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 20:02
  • @sumelic The same reason "bad ass" can have a positive connotation. Without the "untamed sexual energy" it's just lame to be a lone wolf. Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 20:07
  • This is overstated. The term "lone wolf" has a long history in fiction (novels, movies, TV) as a character who is self-reliant in working alone, not necessarily an outcast.
    – deadrat
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 5:05
  • @deadrat all true. But just as untamed sexual energy was not meant to be conveyed in this context, neither was self-reliance. It's called spin. Obama's speech writers didn't choose this metaphor for its positive connotations. Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 5:22
  • While it's certainly true that neither sexual connotations nor lupine metamorphosis are apt here, Obama chose this metaphor to say that the killers were not part of a support network but acted on their own. That appears to be true, so I don't know how it's "spin." Not much is known about Malik, but Farook hardly fits the description of an outcast. He was an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health and apparently well regarded by his coworkers.
    – deadrat
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 5:40

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