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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.

cindy murphy
10/24/2009 5:15:59 PM

Thanks for commenting, Elisse. I thought I was possibly the only person suffering from C.A.D.D, (Chicken Affection Deficit Disorder). It's good to know I may not be alone.

10/23/2009 9:57:20 AM

As someone who had the "pleasure" of working with chickens as a High School Aggie (John Bowne HS in Queens, NY; yes, Virginia, they have Aggies in NYC...), and turkeys on Kibbutz in Israel, I have NEVER understood the sincere and deep longing some folks have to raise them. My grandma, a photographer and theatre actress, for some inexplicable reason also raised chickens in Oklahoma back in the 1930's, and my mother raised me on some "amusing" tales of chickens literally running around without their heads when they weren't, uh, "killed right". Ugh. I recall chickens being, not to put too fine a point on it, Extremely Dirty. They also impressed me as not being the brightest critters in the universe, nor were they particularly good-natured... Dirty, stupid, and mean is a BAD combination... On the other hand, I never got so attached to one that I gave it a name, and thus couldn't eat it... They also, as I recall, had a penchant for canibalistic behavior, which wasn't terribly pleasant to deal with. (I did think the Polish hens that laid colored eggs were really cool...) But shoveling a seemingly endless amount of turkey manure Totally cured me from Ever wanting to raise them! Do NOT feel guilty!

cindy murphy
10/19/2009 11:46:43 AM

Glad you enjoyed the read, Shannon...and that you found it amusing. I used to write humor all the time, but it's been awhile since I've written anything just for the silliness of it. Good to know there's some humor left in me and I can still push out a funny line or two. Thanks for stopping in!

s.m.r. saia
10/19/2009 8:03:58 AM

This was really hilarious. I loved it!

cindy murphy
10/8/2009 9:24:21 AM

Funny comments, Dave - they "cracked" me up, and I see you needed no egging on to make them! I totally understand about eggs just sitting in the refrigerator. They are one of those must-have staples that for whatever reason you just need to have on flour, for example. I don't use much flour either, but it's always there in my cabinet - I think it's been over a year since I used it to make pear bread. Which come to think of it, was probably the last time I used eggs in baking too. Hi, Lori. I gather from your comment that keeping chickens for eggs is kinda like growing zucchini; you always end up with more than you know what to do with, have to find creative ways to use them, and pawn them off on friends, family, and unsuspecting neighbors. The same can be said of phrases referring to chickens - there seem to be more than enough to go around. Horses, cows, and pigs too - which gave me a vague notion to slaughter those animals too - in word only, of course. But alas - like chickens, I don't raise pigs or cattle either, and wouldn't have any photos to accompany the blogs.... Say, you wouldn't just happen to have some hog photos laying around, would you? Just kidding, Lori - thanks again for letting me use the chicken photos!

michelle house
10/5/2009 9:29:43 PM

Cindy, I love a good story, and in most cases, there is some grain of truth deep down in the story. Michelle :)

10/5/2009 1:27:04 PM

Cindy, WOW, keeping chickens must have been common practice for most people, going back through history! How else would we have gotten so many sayings and references to them? I don't think any other animal is referred to or used as much! We use quite a lot of eggs here, but I find that we also use a lot because they are available. We come up with dishes to use the eggs instead of needing an egg to go into whatever food we decided to make! We also supply our family with eggs, so we aren't using them all ourselves. Otherwise I might start to look like an egg head!

nebraska dave
10/5/2009 8:45:42 AM

Cindy, this blog entry was hilarious. I’m like you Cindy. It’s a good thing that eggs are good keepers in the fridge as a dozen eggs will last many weeks. I only use them occasionally in a pancake batter, or fried with potatoes when the old man diet of oatmeal just gets too boring. On occasion eggs will end up in the meatloaf. Other than that they just sit in the refrigerator. Your blog made me realize just how much the common egg phrases are used in language. For me in my younger years I almost turned out to be a bad egg or a rotten egg, but I turned things around and became a good egg. However, at times, I still end up with egg on my face. Many times in my attempt at humor I just lay an egg and have to walk on egg shells the rest of the day. There are many things I’ve tried and ended up with a real goose egg. There’s been numerous times through out life that I’ve ended up with egg in my beer and as I increase in age I realize more and more that I have scrambled eggs for brains. Others have noticed that I can be a bit of a hard boiled egg at times. Of course there are times when there ain’t nobody here but us chickens. My best friend will on occasion tell me to stop my squawking and take her to see the Chick Flick and sometimes I just get my hackles up and fly the coop. When meat doesn’t have a unique description why does it always taste like chicken? I like to go to bed early and get up with the chickens. My friends and I are birds of a feather and flock together. The answer to the age old question about why the chicken crossed the road in my opinion is to prove to the possum it can be done. After retiring I learned how to live on chicken feed. A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even through he knows that you are slightly cracked ~ Bernard Meltzer

cindy murphy
10/4/2009 11:51:25 AM

Hi, Michelle. I liked the cocktail story too. The origins of some words, like the Betsy Flannigan cocktail story, are so interesting, that even if the any fact is buried so far deep in embellishment once it gets passed around so many times, it still makes for a good story. They are a bit like folktales; no one really knows for sure how it all originally went down, and all we are left with is retold tales with the facts that are the basis of the story possibly...and probably changed a bit to make it more interesting. But who doesn't like a good story?

michelle house
10/2/2009 8:16:48 PM

A wonderful story, as always Cindy. We don't use many eggs either. :) I enjoyed the story of cocktails, I gotta remember that one. Michelle

cindy murphy
10/2/2009 5:54:58 PM

Hi, Vickie and Jacqueline. Yep, it's true, Jacqueline - we rarely use eggs. I don't bake much, (trust me when I say my family thanks me for this), and aside from a couple of eggs in meatloaf and my baked macoroni and cheese (which I must say, my family thanks me for, because unlike my baking experiments, this dish actually tastes good), eggs just aren't a part of our diet. Sometimes with a DIY project (and backyard chickens are a sort of do-it-yourself project), the expense and hassle aren't worth it, and the project is better left to the professionals. Good luck on your quest to keep chickens, Vickie; sorry your family doesn't want them. You should talk to my daughter sometime to get some pointers. She can break anyone down; even if they don't think they want something or are vehemently opposed to it, by the time she's done, they'll think it was their own idea to get the thing in the first place. Luckily, she hasn't set her mind to chickens yet.

10/1/2009 10:21:05 PM

Cindy, Unfornately I don't have chickens -but I would love to have them! I'm the only one in the family that wants them though vickie

jacqueline ryckman
10/1/2009 10:02:37 PM

I cannot believe you use such few eggs. It seems like a use a dozen a week because almost everything I back uses eggs. But for a person who uses eggs so rarely then a backyard chicken coop would not make much sense.