Q: On enquiring whether Husband was ready to set out on a shopping trip, I was informed that yes, he was "loaded for bear". I was reassured (it is as well to be prepared for any eventuality these days although encountering bear in Staples, our destination, would be fairly unusual) but also puzzled as I have never heard this expression before. Is this because I don't mix much with hunters?
A1: It's in a Shorter Oxford dictionary, but it's tagged "US colloq." Has your husband been hanging out with Americans lately, or should the Shorter Oxford change the tag to "formerly US colloq"?
I've heard the expression a lot and used it some, but I don't agree with the point of view that it implies prepared excessively. To me it simply means impressively and thoroughly prepared.
A2: That's what it means to me.
Sure. And sometimes, being impressively and thoroughly prepared can turn out to mean "prepared excessively."
But then "loaded for bear" would not be an apt descriptor. Something like "loaded for buffalo", "loaded for elephant", or "hyperloaded" would seem closer to the intended meaning.
A3: If you consider that the phrase originated in America, it makes perfect sense. Elephants are not found there and buffaloes were neither dangerous nor difficult to hit with a rifle, but bears are both difficult to kill and dangerous. Don't forget that "loaded for bear" implies that one is being handed a challenge, not a walk in the park.
If a preparer were clearly loaded excessively, then their preparation would no longer be impressive. And, to me, "thoroughly" and "excessively" are close to mutually exclusive.