John in Frisco, Texas, is puzzled by his dad’s phrase tougher than a boiled owl. Although it sounds unappetizing, the phrase has a fascinating backstory. In the 18th century, owls were associated with drunkenness, and often invoked in the phrase drunk as an owl. Among the many synonyms for “intoxicated” is the adjective stewed, which eventually was conflated with boiled. So a boiled owl is simply a “drunk owl.” The connection between owls and drunkenness may have to do with their glassy-eyed stare, the way they regurgitate undigested food, and the clumsy way they fly when startled.

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