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How did the phrase "bury one's head in the sand" meaning "to ignore a bad situation hoping it will disappear" (coming from the misbelief that ostriches do this to hide from predators) end up being part of English?

At what time did the idiom and perhaps stereotype enter general knowledge among English speakers? Was it a translation of an influencing language's idiom? Or originally coined by English based on the misconception, that may have been imported into common (mis)knowledge from ancient Rome (apparently).

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  • According to the fourth definition here, it was the early 17th century. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 7:33
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    This comes from ostriches. They do that.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 21:32

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Kate Bunting contributed the Free Dictionary entry, which cites The Dictionary of Cliches (Christine Ammer, 2013) which claims the concept emerges in the early 17th century in English.

However, the concept becomes an idiom later, possibly as late as the mid 19th century though plausibly in oral circulation earlier. In this answer I'll trace and give examples of the concept in the 17th century and then trace an early instance of its use as an idiom in text.

Believing that Ostriches Bury Their Head in the Sand

Certainly the ostrich is described that way by the late 17th century. In Matthew Poole's Annotations Upon the Holy Bible (written before his death in 1679 [Wikipedia], first published 1683 in Early English Books Online, 1696 in Google Books), Job 39:17 ("Because God hath deprived her [an Ostrich] of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding") is glossed by an explanation of the ostrich's foolishness:

z. Because God hath not implanted in her that natural instinct and providence and affection which he hath put into other Birds and Beasts towards their young. [...] The great folly of this Bird is noted by Arabick Writers who best know her, and that not onely for this property of forsaking her own Eggs, but also for other things, as that she eats any thing which is offered to her, as Iron, Stones, Glass, hot Coals, &c. Whereas other Birds and Beasts have so much sagacity as to reject improper and unwholsome things; that being pursued by the hunter she thinks her self safe and unseen by hiding her head in the Sand: For which and other such qualities it is a Proverb among the Arabians, More foolish than an Ostrich.

The myth derives itself comes from Roman author Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, a text well-known in early modern Europe, where he describes the stupidity of the bird that hides its head in the bush (Book X, chapter 1, translated by John Bostock, via Perseus Tufts):

They have the marvellous property of being able to digest6 every substance without distinction, but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for although the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of the body is concealed.

By the early 17th century, several authors have adapted the ostrich story from Pliny to their own uses:

hey thinke themselues safe, like the foolish bird cal∣led the Ostrich, which putteth her head into a bush, and then thinketh that no body seeth her, though all her body be out of the bush. (William Burton, Ten Sermons, 1602).

[...]so foolish as the witlesse Ostrich, which as Iob reports in Cap 39. of his booke, leaueth his egges in the earth▪ and makes them h[...] in the dust, and forgetteth that the foe might scarter them, or that the wild beast might breake the [illegible]; and as Plinie further addeth, hee thrusteth his necke into the stumpe of a hollow tree (John Boys, Remaines of that reverend and famous postiller ..., 1631)

They perswade themselves that God and men are blinde. As the Ostrich hides his head, and then thinks all the body safe. (Francis Taylor, An exposition with practical observations upon the three first chapters of the proverbs, 1655)

Each of these quotes develops the concept we see in full in 1681, changing the location of where the ostrich hides its body until Poole hits on sand.

From Moral Dictum to Idiom

These quotes are still descriptions, not strictly an idiom. What I'm looking for is the first instance where the phrase works independently of mentioning an ostrich, that is, without someone having to explain the zoological myth.

One intermediary point is Instructions to a Statesman (1784, via ECCO; note paywall), where the concept is used directly to advise a young statesman (George Earl Temple, probably 1st Marquess of Buckingham) to not follow the ostrich's example:

When pursued by the hunters, he is said to bury his head in the sand, and having done this, to imagine that he cannot be discovered by the keenest search. Do not you, my lord, imitate the manners of the ostrich. Believe me, they are ungraceful; and, if maturely considered, will perhaps appear to be a little silly.

Then in Will Whimsical's Miscellany (1799; EEBO) the ostrich is again used as a brief moral example, used to describe how atheists approach evil:

[...] or as the ostrich, which hides its head in the sand, and because it no longer sees its pursuers, foolishly thinks it shall escape them.

These examples describe what becomes increasingly common in corpus results in the 19th century. Over time the references to the ostrich sometimes appear more abbreviated, as if this quality of the ostrich is more common-knowledge. Indeed, an article in Connecticut Courant ("Shipping News," 28 January 1843, via America's Historical Newspapers in Readex) features a quote from the London Globe where the phrase is glossed in a single word, ostrich-like:

"It is truly astonishing to us that the official organ of the federal government should, ostrich-like, thrust its head in the sand, and think to conceal its body."

The first idiomatic usage (no ostrich in sight) I can find appears in The Comic History of Rome (1852), chapter 30, where Crassus's manner against the Parthians is described as cowardly:

Crassus himself hid his head in the sand, and would see nobody; but ultimately he was induced to enter into a negotiation with the Parthian general.

By this point it is likely an idiom, recognizable without having to refer to an ostrich.

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