For many people who work a typical Monday through Friday week, trying to get everything done during those precious 48 hours we call a weekend can be challenging.
It’s especially challenging if you want to experience anything that even comes close to a weekend. You know—the kind where you do nothing.
So, there was nothing unusual about a conversation I heard while standing in the grocery line on Saturday.
As I watched my half-gallon of dark chocolate with chocolate truffles ice cream melting in my cart, a man and woman were discussing the errands and other tasks that needed to be completed that day.
They were trying to maximize their effort toward completing tasks while minimizing the time spent on said tasks. You’re familiar with the equation:
If you can lower the numerator or raise the denominator, you get more stuff done in the same amount of time. Easy (unless you’re using “new” math.)
Anyway, as the couple in line was talking, I heard the woman opt for raising the denominator.
“If I stay in line and you run to the bank and then come back for me, we can kill two birds with one stone.”
I hate that expression. I get queasy when I hear it.
First, you’re not supposed to throw stones (the assumed action that leads to the double murder.) And second, why would anyone want to kill a bird, let alone two of them??
I made my way through the hot parking lot—ice cream a near total loss—to my car. As I drove home, I wondered where that awful expression came from.
Then I started to think about all the other expressions that include references to birds.
There are a lot of them.
Later that night, as I sat with my bowl of semi-soft dark chocolate with chocolate truffles ice cream, inspiration struck.
I would make a list of all the expressions I could think of, where they came from, and what they mean.
And then I’d share some of them with you.
What’s an Idiom?
An idiom is a phrase or expression whose intended meaning you won’t understand if you consider the literal meaning of the words that make up the expression.
For example, the idiom “it’s no skin off my nose” doesn’t mean the epidural cells on your beak are intact. It means you don’t care about something because it doesn’t affect you.
Also, the meaning of an idiom tends to be bound by the culture in which you find it.
You may be traveling and hear a few locals use an idiom. As they laugh, you might stand there not getting the joke.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to learn some local idioms before you travel. If you don’t, you might stick out like a sore thumb. (Like what I did there?)
By the way… don’t confuse an idiom with a proverb.
A proverb will contain a message, advice, or lesson. Idioms do not.
“Birds of a feather flock together, until the cat comes” is a proverb that is often cut short, leaving the cat out of its wisdom.
In its full iteration, the proverb is meant to warn people against fair-weather friends.
“Like water off a duck’s back,” on the other hand, is an idiom. The expression refers to anything that goes away quickly without causing any fuss or harm.
Finally, a quick note before getting to the bird idioms.
Finding the definitive origin of an idiom that could be hundreds of years old isn’t always possible. Some things, like details and Cleopatra’s tomb, are lost to history.
Another problem arises when even reputable resources can’t agree. Sometimes the gaps have been filled in with etymological folk tales. Please don’t take any of these origin stories as gospel.
What follows is recommended by the preponderance of the evidence*, with a few notes about the tough ones.
Meaning: Someone who’s been called a birdbrain has been deemed stupid or foolish.
Origin: This idiom is based on the incorrect belief that small brains hold little intelligence.
Birds have small brains but are in no way stupid, and there are many studies to prove it.
Birds can learn, play games, teach other birds, engage in teamwork, use tools, and have remarkable memories.
Some species of birds are highly social and can recognize members of their own group from amid thousands of the same type.
One group of birds called corvids (crows, ravens, jays, rooks, jackdaws, and others) are incredibly intelligent. Crows, for example, have a brain to body ratio equivalent to dolphins and just shy of humans.
Check out specific examples of smart bird brains here.
Goose is cooked
Meaning: If your goose is cooked, then you’re in big trouble and you’re not going to get out of it. You’re pretty much done for.
Origin: For such a common idiom, it’s peculiar that its origin is so mysterious. There’s one story, however, that keeps coming up in the research.
In 1415 a Czech priest named Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the papal Council of Constance. Hus was accused of being a heretic. In fact, he was a theologian, philosopher, master, dean, and rector of the Charles University in Prague who became a church reformer.
Jan’s last name, “Hus,” is very similar to the Czech word for goose, “husa.” And a burned Hus is a cooked goose.
Meaning: When someone is vulnerable and open to attack, without any protection, she’s a sitting duck (and would be well-advised to take cover.)
Origin: This idiom likely comes from the world of hunting. “Dabbling ducks,” like mallards, feed close to the surface of the water. As they look for food, they float or appear to sit on the surface.
And they do it in the middle of wide-open lakes, making them an easy shot.
The phrase first appears in England and America at about the same time—World War II. Military personnel would refer to targets that were hard to defend or easily killed, like foot soldiers unable to reach a trench, as “sitting ducks.”
Meaning: To be hen-pecked is to be consistently criticized, harassed, or generally dominated. The phrase is used exclusively to refer to a male bullied by a woman, typically a wife.
Origin: This idiom is derived from the behavior of chickens. Although there are several reasons why chickens tend to peck one another, our phrase comes from pecking as a means of establishing a hierarchy or “pecking order” among a flock.
A hen is a female chicken, and the idiom has fallen out of favor because of its derogatory meaning for both genders: Men without a sense of self-worth who would allow themselves to be humiliated, and women broadly described as argumentative, ill-tempered, and nagging.
According to Elyse Bruce, writing for Historically Speaking, the earliest use of this phrase was in 1671 by English poet and satirist Samuel Butler:
The henpect man rides behind his wife and lets her wear the spurs and govern the reins. He is a kind of preposterous animal, that being curbed in goes with his tail forwards. He is subordinate and ministerial to his wife, who commands in chief, and he dares do nothing without her order.
For the birds
Meaning: Worthless, trivial, or meaningless.
Origin: This one is American and isn’t found in common use in any country except the U.S.
According to The Phrase Finder, “for the birds” is Army slang and came into use around the end of WWII.
It’s a shorter version of “that’s shit for the birds.” Apparently, some birds will peck at “road apples” (horse manure) to look for seeds.
Both versions were defined in an edition of American Speech from 1944.
I found in several places speculation that the phrase is biblical in origin:
Isaiah 18:4 For this is what the Lord has told me: “I will wait and watch from my place, like scorching heat produced by the sunlight, like a cloud of mist in the heat of harvest.” 18:5 For before the harvest, when the bud has sprouted, and the ripening fruit appears, he will cut off the unproductive shoots with pruning knives; he will prune the tendrils. 18:6 They will all be left for the bird of the hills and the wild animals; the birds will eat them during the summer, and all the wild animals will eat them during the winter.
Jeremiah 16:4 They will die of deadly diseases. No one will mourn for them. And they will not be buried. Their dead bodies will lie like manure spread on the ground. They will be killed in war or die of starvation. And their corpses will be food for the birds and the wild animals.
According to the Bible, “for the birds” seems to refer to useless tree trimmings and manure.
Lay an egg
Meaning: To produce a failure or a flop.
Origin: Some sources agree there may be a relationship between “lay an egg” and a “goose egg” or “duck egg.”
All have been used in sports (the latter in cricket) to indicate no score… zero.
The egg suggests the shape of a zero (0).
A verifiable use of the term “lay an egg” is found in Variety, which was a Hollywood show-business newspaper. “Wall St. Lays an Egg” was the headline on October 30, 1929, describing Black Tuesday—the worst day of the Stock Market crash.
Meaning: A police informant.
Origin: This idiom is interesting because its meaning has changed from its original use.
The references I checked say the origin of “stool” is the early 15th century French word, “estale.” An estale was a bird, typically a pigeon, used to lure a hawk or other bird of prey into a net.
When the word became part of the English language the first “e” was omitted, and the word became “stale.” Another variant spelling was “stall” (as in “stall for time.”)
In America in the early 1800s, pigeons were used as lures to entice other pigeons into a hunter’s sight. The decoy pigeon was tied to a stump or some other object but not likely an actual three-legged stool.
Again, “stool” refers to a sort of lure or decoy.
But this only covers the first part of our idiom. What about “pigeon?”
World Wide Birds reports that since the 16th century “pigeon” has been used to mean a person who is a simpleton, a fool, or someone who let’s himself be swindled.
Literally, a stool pigeon is a fool used as a decoy. But as we know idioms are not intended as literal interpretations.
By the 1840s “stool pigeon” had firmly moved from meaning decoy to informant. Today a stool pigeon is typically a criminal who gives information to the police about other criminals and their activities.
And the last…
Kill two birds with one stone
Meaning: To accomplish two things at the same time.
Origin: A very precise origin is credited to J. Morgan Gent, author of the 1632 book, A Complete History of the Present Seat of War in Africa Between the Spaniards and Algerines.
According to Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, authors of , Gent writes, “a Berber military chief ‘came resolved to kill two Birds with one Stone, return the Spaniards their Compliments, and conduct his insolent Turks, where he was certain at least some of them would be knocked on the head.’”
This post is different from my usual stuff. Leave a comment and let me know if you like the change of pace. Thanks!
*Resources I’ve used include, Urban Dictionary, Quora, Wiktionary, World Wide Words, The Classroom, English Forums, The Free Dictionary, Know Your Phrase, Stack Exchange (English Language and Usage), Writing Explained, Extension
- Chart: www.pediaa.com