Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Fowl Words: The Nitty Gritty of Fowl Language

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: chickens, language,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgThere are times here that I feel like the black sheep of the GRIT blogging family. The one bad egg in clutch of good eggs. Why? Chickens, of course. I believe I might be the only blogger here that doesn’t keep chickens. I’ve never raised them. Not one itty-bitty chick; not once. Neither have I entertained the idea of keeping them in my backyard, nor do I (gasp!) have a desire to do so. It’s not that I have anything against them; I like a good chicken as much as the next person. I like them grilled, baked, or fricasseed. I don’t dispute the benefits of raising chickens. I know they taste better, are healthier, and there’s a sense of satisfaction in raising something yourself and presenting it to your family. That’s why I vegetable garden. But me raise chickens? No.

Leghorn chicks

The same goes for eggs. I see no need for my family to keep a chicken coop in the backyard to provide us with fresh eggs. A carton of eight eggs can last our family one, two, sometimes three months. We just don’t use that many except for the Easter egg dying tradition, the every-so-often Breakfast for Dinner, and the occasional art project.

I noticed Shelby coming down the stairs the other day headed to the refrigerator with a carton of eggs in her hand. “Uhm, Shelbs ... why did you have eggs up in your bedroom?” Call it Spotlight on Eggs. Her art assignment was to draw a still-life of eggs emphasizing the shadowing techniques they were working on in art class. My following question was how long she’s been working on the project, and more importantly how long have the eggs been up in her room. Three days. Time for them to hit the trash. They expired a month ago anyway.

But I’ll make an attempt to join the flock to put a chicken in every blog, and a coupe in every backyard. Or in the case here, I suppose that should be a “coop” in every backyard.

There I go, mucking up a perfectly good saying again. If I think about it, I may have qualms about killing chickens in my backyard, but I’ve never thought twice about slaughtering English and the idioms and adages that are derived from it. Actually the phrase most everyone knows is “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage”, which has been attributed to our country’s various presidents, most often with the credit going to Herbert Hoover. But it wasn’t Hoover who said it. Without Hoover’s approval, a slogan paid for by the Republican National Committee during the 1928 campaign touted the prosperity gained during the party’s administration, claiming to have “put a chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot.”

While Hoover himself claimed “the slogan of progress is changing from the full dinner pail to the full garage,” he never uttered a thing about chickens or backyards. Henry IV did though, in seventeenth century France. Great guy, that Henry. He reputedly said it was his wish that the each peasant in his kingdom have “a chicken in his pot every Sunday.”

It’d be nice indeed, to have a potful of chicken each Sunday. Oooo, Keith’s homemade chicken soup is to die for. But what about the poor chicken going into the pot? Well, uhm ... she died for it too. A farm animal, such as a hen unable to lay eggs anymore, was considered to have outlived its usefulness, and therefore “went to pot …” and then onto the dinner table. We’ve all seen better days; a chicken in every pot might not be possible in an economy that’s gone to pot (unless you have them handy to pluck from your backyard, of course).

There are many sayings featuring chickens, and a great deal of them are disparaging. With all these negative connotations, it’s a wonder anyone would want to be associated with them, much less keep them in such close proximity as one’s own backyard.

You can “scratch out a living” working for “chicken feed” trying to feather your nest with the end result having built a nice, little nest egg for you and your family.

Delaware hens foraging.

But don’t count your chickens before they hatch, or put all your eggs in one basket, lest you end up with nothing. And that’s no cock and bull story.

You can be called bird-brained, a dumb cluck, and be mad as a wet hen when someone refers to you as no spring chicken. Your writing can be as indecipherable as chicken scratch. Feeling too hen-pecked lately? Just go ahead and fly the coop then.

Chicken Little cried, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” as nobody paid attention, while Henny Penny felt she did all the work. They both ended up running around like chickens with their heads cut off ... eventually ... when they went to pot.

You can be taken under someone’s wing, but be wary that the protectiveness does not become too overbearing or you might feel mother-henned to death.

Hen and baby chicks

You can be chicken-hearted, chicken-livered, and chicken out when the going gets rough. Being called “chicken,” plain and simple, is often accompanied by hand motions and an audio of bird calls as the name caller flaps his arms, and “bawk, bawk, bawks” in a bad imitation that should leave him tarred and feathered.

Shake your tail feathers and you’ll be proudly strutting like a rooster across the dance floor. Unless it’s a wedding reception, and the obligatory Chicken Dance is played. “I don’t want to be a chicken, I don’t want to be a duck, so I shake my butt.” Clap, clap, clap, clap. (Yes, somewhere along the way, the 1950s oompah accordion song was assigned lyrics.) Then you won’t appear to be a cocky rooster, but rather a certain part of the anatomy of another barnyard animal. This may be compounded after having imbibed in too many cocktails.

Strolling Red.

Speaking of which ... it was Betsy (or maybe it was Betty?) Flannigan, who owned an inn in Pennsylvania (sometimes it appeared to move to Virginia) who invented the cocktail, or at least the word “cocktail.” Serving drinks to the soldiers of the American Revolution, she used tail feathers of cocks as swizzle sticks. Or she served a soldier a drink mixed with the different colored liquors like that of a cock’s tail. Maybe she stole a rooster from a British supporter, roasted it, and served it up with accompanying drinks decorated with the rooster’s feathers. The Betsy/Betty from Pennsylvania/Virginia stories are but a few of many surrounding the origins of the word “cocktail,” which first appears in print in 1806. More then forty supposed etymologies existed in 1946 surrounding the drink, many of them still making the “rounds” today. Most are as muddled as one’s thoughts might be after slugging back a few of the drinks.


Ah, but does it matter? After putting eggs in your basket and counting them before they’re hatched, scratching out a living, and getting hen-pecked in the process, you must be tired. Sit and relax a spell. Have one of Betsy/Betty’s cocktails. I promise I won’t tell if you perform the Chicken Dance poorly.

And as I run out of bad chicken sayings and analogies, I vaguely wonder if I’ve laid an egg with this blog. Perhaps ruffled some feathers and will end up with egg on my face for displaying chickens in a negative light. They say curses, like chickens, eventually come home to roost. Some one will cry, “Fowl!” and I’ll be politely asked that I quietly leave without putting up a squawk.

Maybe I’ll join you in that cocktail now. While the eggheads of the world run around scrambling to decide which came first, the chicken or the egg, we’ll talk turkey about life’s more important issue: Why did the chicken really cross the road? Let’s ask Betty; maybe she knows.

If not, we can always try Betsy.

Photos courtesy of my fellow GRIT blogger who does raise chickens, the very generous and talented Lori Dunn.