View Full Version : What are the origins of derogatory poultry references?
06-14-2002, 11:40 PM
1. What is the origin of the usage of the word "chicken" to denote that someone is exceptionally cowardly?
2. What is the origin of the usage of the word "chicken" in the sense of reckless daredevil games? (as in the movie "Rebel Without a Cause")
3. What is the origin of the usage of the word "turkey" as a put down of a person? (such as when George Jefferson refers to Tom Willis as a "jive turkey")
4. What is the origin of the usage of the word "turkey" to denote an exceptionally bad movie, play, or other work of art?
06-15-2002, 05:13 AM
Chickens and turkeys -- so much maligned by wordsmiths down the ages.
Perhaps it is the chicken's tendency to run or fly swiftly away from danger (although that isn't always the case), or the perceived colour of the internal organs ("chicken-livered" or yellow, cowardly) -- whatever, it seems we've been equating cowardice with the chicken since before 1400 AD, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology:
The word was applied in a disparaging sense in Middle English as early as 1330 and had the meaning of cowardly person in the phrase cherles chekyn probably before 1400, in Morte d'Arthur.
The game of "chicken" would come from this.
As for turkeys, this also from Chambers:
The turkey, generally thought of as less than intelligent, probably from its tendency to run in panic when disturbed, has been associated with a person who is inept or unable to cope (1951) and before that with theatrical productions or motion pictures that are failures (1927).
There really oughta be PR people for poultry, I tell ya.
06-15-2002, 12:09 PM
To elaborate on number 2: with the word chicken in use to describe "cowardly," the game "Chicken" called on the notion that whoever bailed out first was more of a chicken than the person who could maintain his stupidity for another few seconds.
(The game of Chicken in Rebel was not the standard game of Chicken on the highways (since it required the destruction of the vehicles on every round). The more frequent example of Chicken was for two idiots to barrel down the center-line of a street toward each other and the "chicken" was the one who veered off first. The practical nature of this game is that, as long as someone always went chicken, both vehicles were available for use for the next bit of bravado. (And, the benefit to society was that, as long as the drivers had no passengers and the road was deserted, if no one turned chicken, the gene pool was improved.) The nasty version of this was where some fool decided to play chicken with the general public, aiming the car at unsuspecting motorists out on the highway.)
06-15-2002, 05:42 PM
The OED's earliest citation for "playing chicken" is 1953's Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Go out in cars ... trying to see how close you can get to lamp-posts, playing 'chicken'The earliest citation for turkey (theatrical flop) is from Vanity Fair (1927) 'A turkey' is a third rate production The earliest citation for turkey (stupid person) is 1951, in Dictionary of American Slang (Wentworth & Flexner) So if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you'd be stuck with that turkey practically until he died I have in my notes from Dictionary of American Slang by Robert L. Chapman an entry that turkey was used to mean a stupid thing in 1941.
[edited to fix coding]
06-15-2002, 06:08 PM
Hey, is that some kind of chicken joke?
(Joanne Worley would be so proud of me ...)
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