Cock-a-Doodle Doings

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Cock-a-Doodle Doings

Time was, from the middle ages through the first half of the 20th century in both England and America, that most families kept chickens in their backyards, and often hogs as well. This was done out of necessity to feed their families, providing fresh eggs every morning and fresh chicken for Sunday dinner. During World Wars I and II, the U.S. government encouraged suburban families to keep chickens, plant Victory Gardens, and can their own produce to reduce demand on national supplies needed for the war effort. 

While “backyard chickening” began to fade away after 1945 as changes in food production, lower labor costs, and the rise of supermarkets made store-bought chickens and eggs more widely available (though it is making a comeback as a result of the local food movement), its influence on the English language is still apparent in the many chicken idioms that enliven our speech. Idioms are metaphors (that is, implied comparisons) that tend to reflect the concerns and habitual practices of a culture. Our myriad chicken-related expressions derive from actual experiences that farmers had to deal with, like dropping the egg basket, losing livestock to foxes, or tracking down chicken coop escapees. These situations were once so commonplace that they have become part of the fabric of our language. 

A brood usually consisted of one rooster and a flock of hens, who have thus earned a majority of the idiomatic references. Since roosters like to show off their plumage and crow lustily (crow has come to mean brag all by itself), we now refer to a conceited, bossy, or arrogant person as a cock of the walk. According to the Free Dictionary, “the places in which cocks bred for fighting were kept were known as walks: one cock would be kept in each walk and would tolerate no other birds in its space.” I may be considered no spring chicken—that is, a newly hatched chickbut I don’t usually go to bed with the chickens, i.e., at dusk. But even a younger, inexperienced or naïve person might earn this moniker.

“She’s so busy, she runs around like a chicken with its head cut off” is a case in point. Mac Sandridge, who grew up in Crozet during the ’40s, reported that his family kept a small flock of chickens as well as hogs in their backyard on St. George Ave. “My father would cut off the chicken’s head with an axe, but my aunt could wring their necks and snap that head off with her bare hands,” he reports. “She’d toss the head aside, and the chicken would keep running around for several minutes before it dropped dead. We loved to chase them.” Which may have made his aunt madder than a wet hen. Like cats, hens rebelled at the baths that were often needed before a country fair showing.

I’m puttin’ all my eggs in one basket,” croons Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers in the 1936 film Follow the Fleet…. “I’m betting everything I’ve got on you.” Describing the risky practice of depending on only one resource, this practice is discouraged by financial advisors, who favor a diversified portfolio. They view investing in only one kind of stock, like holding a picnic in a thunderstorm, as a cock-a-mamie idea. And if you spend your paycheck before you actually earn it—or make plans based on a conditional event—you have violated the pragmatic maxim, “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” referring to a farmer’s spending the income from the sale of his chicks when in fact some of the eggs might be empty. Infamous drug lord El Chapo ruled the roost of Mexican cartels until he was caught and put in prison. He flew the coop more than once, but finally his chickens came home to roost—that is, he had to face the consequences of his prior actions. I imagine his handwriting looked like chicken scratch—like the marks made in the dirt by a chicken. 

Chickens are notoriously skittish, and run from loud noises such as a car horn or vacuum cleaner. That’s why someone who is afraid of the dark, of thunderstorms, or other commonplace events might be called a chicken—that is, a coward. When a group plans to go caving, or whitewater rafting, such a person might chicken out of the plans. Like many birds, mother hens are extremely protective of their offspring, so this phrase is often used to describe overly bossy or interfering parents. The somewhat sexist idiom henpecked, referring to a man who is overly controlled or criticized by his wife, derives from hens who peck at other birds in order to dominate them. But I don’t understand why we never talk about women who are “rooster pecked”—which seems to occur just as frequently. That really clucks me up!

In fact, the pecking order observed in every flock of chickens has spilled over to describe all social hierarchies—be they business, political, educational, or nonprofit. Figuring it out can be one of the keys to success. If fluffing their feathers and squawking doesn’t work, the bigger and more aggressive chickens bully their way to the top of the flock by pecking the others into submission with their pointy beaks. But once the pecking order is established, the birds live in relative harmony. Just as the top hens get access to the best food, water, and dust-bathing areas, the bosses at the top of the organization get the best assignments, bonuses, and window offices. But watch out for the fox in the henhouse—a potential traitor whose intentions, like the fox’s plans to prey on the chickens, are to undermine the organization!

And hey, we haven’t even touched on the many egg idioms! We call someone who is honest and helpful a good egg—as opposed to the rotten ones farmers sometimes collected. But I’m not sure why a failed attempt is referred to as laying an egg, since this is a hen’s main purpose in life. This summer, many days have been hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk, and rain has been scarce as hen’s teeth (clue: hens don’t have any!). It’s embarrassing to have egg yolk dripping down your chin, so when you make a faux pas, we say you got egg on your face. If you are tiptoing around a tender subject in conversation to avoid offense, we say you are walking on eggshells—which are very easy to break. But don’t be too careful, because we all know that to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs—that is, to create something new, you might need to destroy what came before. An unsolvable conundrum, in which it is impossible to determine which of two related things caused the other, is often called a chicken and egg question. 

Has any other cultural practice added so many common expressions to our language? Well, next time we might talk about hats…. 

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