We’re in a real chicken and egg situation here
This Big Question considers our origins but what about the origins of words (known as the study of ‘etymology’). From ‘strutting your stuff’ to ‘chickening out’, the English language is filled with sayings and phrases that are linked to chickens and eggs. Here are 6 common phrases inspired by our feathery friends, each with details about how they came about.
- ‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’
- This basically means don't make plans based on something good happening before it actually does. You never know how things could change (sometimes without your control) so it’s always best to have a ‘plan b’. It’s believed that this phrase was first recorded in print by Thomas Howell in New Sonnets and pretty Pamphlets, 1570: 'Counte not thy Chickens that vnhatched be, Waye wordes as winde, till thou finde certaintee'. That said, it's thought that a similar phrase was used by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aesop (620 to 560 BCE) in his fable (a story with a moral), The Milkmaid and her Pail’. But this is difficult to confirm as no writings by him have survived. It's all based on a word-of-mouth storytelling tradition that continues to this day. Anyhow, the milkmaid in Aesop’s story comes up with a long-winded plan to make enough money to buy a dress so the other villagers would admire her. But sadly for her, this plan is ruined at the first stage when she spills the milk she needed to make butter, and then sell to buy eggs. She was over confident and this worked against her.
- ‘Birds of a feather flock together’
- Similar to how birds of the same species fly together (often for safety against predators), this saying suggests that people with similar interests hang out together. There is some debate over how old this saying really is - with mention of it in Benjamin Jowett's 1856 translation of Plato's Republic (‘Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says’). The original Greek text dates back to around 380BC potentially making the saying very old indeed. But Plato’s text can be understood in several ways. And it seems more likely that Jowlett is saying that the proverb is old rather than Plato himself, suggesting that he’s allowed his own voice to creep into the translation. So it’s safer to say that it has been in use since at least the mid-16th century where religious philosopher, William Turner used a version of it in his text, The Rescuing of Romish Fox in 1545: 'Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.'
- ‘Your chickens have come home to roost'
- A bit similar to ‘what goes around comes around’, this saying means that the past is catching up with you. It relates mainly to when someone has done bad things and is then punished as a result. This idea of being haunted by your past is nothing new to the English language. This saying was first evident in print in Geoffrey Chaucer’s, ‘The Parson’s Tale’ whereby a bird is described returning to its nest at night time: an unfamiliar and unsettling image to a medieval audience. Likewise, the Elizabethan play ‘The lamentable and true tragedie of Arden of Feversham’ (1592) describes the unwelcome return of an arrow falling down on the shooter’s head. Chickens don’t get a mention until the 19th century in the Robert Southey poem ‘The Curse of Kehama’ (1810): 'Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.'
- ‘Walking on eggshells'
- This well-known phrase suggests that sometimes you need to watch what you say so not to upset certain people around you or be careful when bringing up a sensitive subject. There’s some debate over where this saying came from. Many people think it's linked to an earlier phrase, ‘walking on eggs’ first seen in print in 1734 in biographical accounts by English Lawyer, Roger North. Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines this saying as “to walk warily, as on delicate ground.”
- ‘Running around like a headless chicken'
- Have you ever felt like this? Maybe when you’ve had to rush around to sort something with very little time and it’s made you feel all in a tizz? As it suggests, this phrase relates to the gruesome image of when a chicken has its head cut off in preparation for being eaten. Chickens can sometimes keep running even without a head as they have a neural network in their spine which makes them go into auto-pilot mode (they’re pre-programmed to keep going!). So this phrase relates these frantic involuntary, movements to a person who is really busy doing multiple things but without much focus. The phrase’s earliest uses are unknown but here’s a bit of gory chicken trivia… the longest a chicken’s been known to live without a head is 18 months! His name was Mike or ‘Miracle Mike’, and he lived in Colorado, America (between 1945-47) - surviving on a diet of milk and water via an eyedropper, and small grains of corn!
- 'You have to break eggs to make an omelette'
- This little gem suggests that sometimes to achieve something good and useful, you have to make a mess. Great outcomes are not always straightforward. Ironically, the origins of this phrase are also pretty messy. Some people suggest that it came to English via the French language (On ne peut pas faire des omelettes sans casser les oeufs). It’s reported that François de Charette – a Royalist soldier and politician in the French Revolution (16th century)- replied to the accusation of causing the death of many people, with: ‘Yes, omelettes are not made without breaking eggs’. But some think that he was only linked to this phrase as he was famous already- and so this made for a more interesting story than if an ordinary person had said the same thing. Others have even associated the saying with the Russian leader, Lenin who said: 'лес рубят, щепки летят' which literally means 'when the wood is cut, splinters will fly'.