Chicken Phrases in Our Speech

Chicken behavior permeates what we say and when we say it. I didn’t fully appreciate how much chicken culture has influenced human culture until we began to raise hens this year. I found myself describing the behavior of the chickens by using literal phrases that I’d only used figuratively before.

Jo is our smallest hen. She was a straight-run chick so we had to wait until she began maturing before finding out whether she was a rooster or hen. A beautiful, multi-color, Easter-Egger, she began laying small white eggs and our questions ceased. After only a month of laying she suddenly stopped. That change coincided with the loss of some of her long, black tail feathers in a round patch on her back; it revealed bare skin and an apparent increase in her stress level.

Jo's feathers are beginning to grow back

Jo’s feathers are beginning to grow back

I guessed that she got too close to the fence and a fox nipped her. That was until I saw Lucy, the big Rhode Island Red hen, pecking at the bare spot. It was instantly obvious that Jo was “henpecked”.

I knew chickens establish a hierarchy of dominance, but wasn’t aware of how it was functioning in our coop. Obviously, big, red Lucy “ruled the roost”.

Lucy is the boss

Lucy is the boss

This was confirmed later when I put some yellow squash from my garden into their chicken run. They all ran to the delicious vegetable, but only Lucy began pecking at it. When the other hens stuck their beaks in, Lucy pushed them away. There was a definite “pecking order” and Lucy was number one.

As the other chickens backed away quickly, frustrated and flustered, it was apparent that Lucy had “ruffled their feathers” and “got their hackles up”.

Lucy gets first peck

Lucy gets first peck

Those chicken-based phrases are ones I’ve used and are commonly heard describing human interactions. A timid husband is henpecked because his wife rules the roost. When the kids go for a car ride the oldest gets shotgun because of their pecking order. If Aunt Helen gets stuck in the back it ruffles her feathers.

There are many other phrases we use to describe ourselves. Chickens prefer light spaces and familiar areas to sleep. When the sun goes down they’re “chicken” about the dark as they enter the coop and “come home to roost”. That being said, they don’t like being “cooped up” for long periods of time and often will “fly the coop” if given the chance.

The girls are anxious to get outside

The girls are anxious to get outside

The hens we have typically won’t sit on eggs for long periods expecting them to hatch. After Jo’s feathers grew back, she began laying eggs again. Unexpectedly one day she sat on her “nest egg” for nearly 30 hours straight. I couldn’t get her out of the nest box. She “brooded over” that egg. It was almost as though she was acting like a “mother hen”. My wife was finally able to coax her out with special chicken treats.

It wasn’t long before her tail feathers began to disappear again along with a regular supply of little white eggs. We were left with an “empty nest” with those eggs gone.

No eggs in an empty nest

No eggs in an empty nest

We have just a few hens and have had few problems when collecting eggs. We haven’t worried about “putting all of our eggs in the same basket”. We’ve never dropped an egg and haven’t had to worry about “walking on eggshells”. And of course we’ve never had “egg on our face”.

All of these phrases have obvious origins. And their transference to human actions are easily understood. When you see the bare dirt of a chicken run it’s easy to understand why bad handwriting looks like “chicken scratch”. Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; after all, the cost of their food is just “chicken feed”.

We don’t have a rooster so we don’t have to worry about “counting our chickens before they hatch”. We use the eggs regularly so we know that “you have to break eggs to make an omelet”. And we know that a “good egg” is home-raised.

Many other animal actions have factored into human speech, but I have to believe that chickens have had the most impact. I can think of no other animal that formed the basis of so many common English phrases. Obviously with that much influence, chickens “have something to crow about”.


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