Tag Archives: QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins

Which came first: the chicken or the idiom?

Written by Katie May

Talking on the phone with a friend, I mentioned that I was about to make myself some lunch. “First, though, I need to go let my chickens out,” I said. “They have been cooped up all day.”

As soon as I said it, the word “Literally!” popped into my head. My chickens had been cooped up, in their coop, all day long. Time to let them fly the coop!

Since I brought home my first chickens nearly eight years ago, I have been amused to discover how many common phrases have flock origins. Some of my favorites:

  • Pecking order. If you really want to see the feathers fly—another chicken idiom—drop an unfamiliar hen into an established flock. The newest member of my nine-bird flock, Ms. Black, is a hen we rescued from a neighbor’s overzealous rooster, who was killing her with his attentions. Nearly three years later, my flock’s dominant hens continually remind her of her lowly newcomer status. Talk about ruffled feathers!
  • Madder than a wet hen. A broody chicken wants nothing more than to sit on a clutch of eggs until they hatch. In fact, nesting is the one and only thing she wants to do. One way to “break” a broody hen: Pick her up off the nest and dunk her belly into a barrel of cold water. That cools the skin underneath her downy feathers, and the resulting drop in body temperature—over time—signals her body to stop brooding.
  • Counting chickens before they hatch. To my sorrow, I have firsthand experience of this unfortunate phrase. My favorite hen, Buffy, went broody two springs ago, and try as I might I just could not snap her out of it. Because she refused to leave the nest, my favorite bird was wasting away before my eyes. She didn’t know it, but her maternal hopes were futile, because we have no rooster to make eggs fertile. Happily, my neighbor provided a fertile egg and I slipped it under Buffy. All was going well; the egg was about to hatch when I broke it while pulling the nonfertile eggs from underneath Buffy. We’ll never do that again.

  • All your eggs in one basket. Another sad, sad phrase, although not as vivid as the less-well-known but more poignant “pocket omelet.” I’m sure you can imagine what happens when you go out to the coop in your bathrobe and stick a few fresh, still-warm eggs into your pocket and then forget about them! Broken eggs would be much better in a basket, and I am determined to avoid pocket omelets from now on.
  • Chicken feed. At one time it may have made sense to refer to paltry pay as “chicken feed.” These days, it often seems cheaper to buy golden eggs than to keep the hen that lays them supplied with grain and cracked corn.

With the rise of the local food movement and the resurgence of backyard flocks, I suspect we will see even more agrarian-based phrases returning to popular use. It will be interesting to see how many people use them—including chicken idioms like the ones above—without considering or understanding their origins.

If you are the type of person who likes understanding the words you use, I suggest you locate an unusual reference book. Every nitpicker should have a word origin and usage dictionary. Mine is the QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1998), by Robert Hendrickson, and you can find new and used copies through online bookseller Amazon.com. This is by no means the only one available, but I can personally attest that it’s an entertaining and educational resource.

You can find some excellent resources online too. My favorite online dictionary, The Free Dictionary by Farlex, offers many definitions as well as links to other online resources. Another great website: The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, which offers free online definitions as well as the option to buy the print edition.

Either of those resources—or a quick online search of your own—will yield enough information to keep you entertained until the chickens come home to roost.

Do you have a favorite idiom—or one whose misuse drives you bananas? Comment on this blog post to tell me all about it. Thanks for joining in the conversation here in Nitpicker’s Nook.