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Bird Idioms and Proverbs (and Their Possible Origins)
Birds show up frequently in common English idioms and proverbs - “It’s time to teach Jimmy about the birds and the bees.” “A little birdie told me that you’ll probably get the job.” “I don’t want to eat at that restaurant. Their cheeseburgers are for the birds.” While we may be confused by these phrases when we’re young kids (or if we aren't native English speakers), once we hear them a few times and learn the meaning behind the words, we begin to use them ourselves without much thought. Have you ever wondered where these sayings came from?
A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush
Meaning: Better to have a sure thing now than to hold out in the hopes of something better later, since you just might lose out.
Origin: The idea behind this proverb has been around for thousands of years. In Aesop's fable, The Hawk and the Nightingale, a nightingale is caught by a hawk and begs for his life, saying that he's small and the hawk should look for larger prey. The hawk decides to stick with the bird in his talons.
Versions of the phrase itself have been around since at least the late Middle Ages. The Latin saying, Plus valet in manibus avis unica quam dupla silvis (a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the woods) traces back to the 13th century. The first recorded English version is "It is more sekyr (secure) a bird in your nest, than to have three in the sky aboue (above)," which appeared around 1450 in John Capgrave's "The Life of Saint Katharine."
Meaning: To admit to being wrong (or being proven wrong).
Origin: For someone to admit s/he is wrong is often distasteful. Crows eat carrion, and animals with such a diet are generally seen as unfit for human consumption. Therefore, eating a crow would probably be just as unpleasant as admitting one's error. The idiom seems to have come from a fictional humor story that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1850. The story, called "Can You Eat Crow?" (author unknown), told about a farmer who was tricked into eating a crow by his boarders. Versions of the story were reprinted in other newspapers, such as The Knickerbocker and San Francisco's The Daily Evening Picayune, which likely helped spread the use of the phrase.
It's For the Birds
Meaning: It's worthless.
Origin: Poor birds. Why do they get stuck with the crap? As it turns out, one of the theories about the origin of this phrase has to do with poop. Birds are sometimes seen picking through horse droppings to look for seeds, so one could think the dung was "for the birds." The Phrase Finder says it's US Army slang that came into use during World War II.
An Albatross Around One's Neck
Meaning: A burden someone must carry.
Origin: This phrase comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Back in those days, killing an albatross was seen as unlucky. In the poem, a sailor kills one, and of course the ship then runs into a streak of bad luck. The rest of the crew punishes the sailor by forcing him to wear the dead albatross around his neck.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
Meaning: People hang out with those who have similar tastes, interests, backgrounds, etc.
Origin: Many types of birds actually do form flocks with others of their species, so the inspiration for this proverb is fairly clear. However, when did people begin using the phrase? The first recorded version was found in William Turner's The Rescuing of Romish Fox from 1545: "Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together. (Birds of a kind and color flock and fly always together)."
To Flip Someone the Bird
Meaning: To make a particular rude gesture at someone.
Origin: We know the gesture, but why is it called "the bird?" According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the 1860s slang phrase, "give the big bird," which meant to hiss at somebody like a goose does when threatened. Over time, it became associated with a different rude gesture.
As far as the gesture itself, it's been around since at least ancient Greek times. We know this because it shows up in Aristophanes play, The Clouds:
SOCRATES: Well, to begin with, they’ll make you elegant in company— and you’ll recognize the different rhythms, the enoplian and the dactylic, which is like a digit.
STREPSIADES: Like a digit! By god, that’s something I do know!
SOCRATES: Then tell me.
STREPSIADES: When I was a lad a digit meant this!
[Strepsiades sticks his middle finger straight up under Socrates’ nose]
SOCRATES: You’re just a crude buffoon!
The Birds and the Bees
Meaning: Courtship and reproduction (usually used when speaking of teaching a child).
Origin: Several people believe this expression comes from the 1928 Cole Porter song, Let's Do it, Let's Fall in Love.
"And that's why birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it."
Not everybody agrees with this origin, however. Some say Tomas Carew's poem The Spring (c. 1640) contains an earlier usage:
"But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth/And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth/To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree/The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee/Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring."
Others say Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1825 poem, Work Without Hope was the origin:
"The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing/ And Winter, slumbering in the open air/ Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!"
A Little Birdie Told Me
Meaning: I was told by a source who will remain confidential.
Origin: Some people say this phrase is a reference to carrier pigeons. Others believe it came from the Dutch Er lif t'el baerd, which means "I should betray another." Still others believe it came from The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.
"Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter." (Ecclesiastes 10:20)
Whatever the source, this idiom has shown up in books of proverbs and works of literature for hundreds of years, and it's still frequently used, though more in a teasing than serious fashion.
Of course, these are just a few of the many phrases that involve our feathered friends. The fact that birds are so common in our language shows how much the little guys have touched human imagination and have inspired us throughout the centuries.