Chickens give more than eggs, meat, and feathers—they give language!

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This week, we received an email from Randy in San Diego. Randy writes:

“I recently got myself three hens for the back yard as a hobby that I thought my kids would enjoy. I highly recommend backyard chickens, by the way—they’re better than television. During the months we have had these chickens, around I have had an opportunity to closely observe their behavior. This has me wondering about all the expressions and words we have in the U.S. related to chickens.”

Great question, Randy. For starters, back in the days when most folks raised their own chickens, everybody knew that putting a fake egg in a chicken’s nest would encourage her to lay more eggs. This fake egg was either wooden or ceramic. It was called a nest egg. Over time, this expression acquired the figurative meaning of “a reserve of cash set aside.” Like those fake eggs that help get a chicken in the mood, your own nest egg of cash is supposed to help you acquire more.

Of course, notice I said “supposed to.” By the way, that reminds me of some chicken-based financial advice I once got from a fellow in eastern Kentucky. It went like this: Chicken for lunch, feathers for supper. In other words, be thrifty now, so you’ll have some reserves for later.

Want another example of hens nesting in the English language? In the 1920s, a Norwegian zoologist studying chicken behavior observed that the birds create strict social hierarchies. A bird’s status within it determines such things as whether she can eat before everybody else, or has to wait her turn.

The zoologist published his observations in scholarly article. Writing in German, he noted that hens create and enforce that hierarchy by pecking at each other. Searching for a word to describe this, he combined the German word hacken, which means “to peck,” and ordnung, which means order. Soon after, Hackordnung was translated into English as pecking order. Of course, these days pecking order also applies human hierarchies.

By the way, in case you missed it, you can hear even more about chickens—specifically, the expression “nobody here but us chickens,” which has an interesting backstory, in this episode.

Has a linguistic question ruffled your feathers lately? Email us at words@waywordradio.org.

Listen to the second part of “What the Cluck?”

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