In my experience, chickens are not particularly chicken. There seem to be a lot of better choices (e.g. groundhogs, those ultimate wimps).
I’m not sure, but the online etymology dictionary says the usage dates back to at least the 14th century. Maybe groundhogs weren’t known back then?
Maybe it’s because (from my experience with chickens on the farm), they tend to squawk and make a big to-do when scared and running, rather than just fleeing.
That said, if it dates to the 1300s,then they wouldn’t be talking about farm chickens as we know them…
An interesting, somewhat relevent note: my family coat of arms has three chickens on it. I can’t imagine my clan would have marched to battle under a banner of cowardice, so chickens were not universally regarded as cowardly.
They still aren’t by any stretch:
I think “scaredy cat” is a much more appropriate term. If you’ve ever seen how feral cats typically behave, you’ll know what I mean.
I’ve heard that it dates back to Roman times, since the Latin words for “Frenchman” and “Chicken” are almost identical. Originally, the Romans were calling cowards Frenchmen, but it ended up getting mistranslated.
Of course, this is also the sort of factoid that Latin teachers like to make up to bamboozle their students, so take with a grain of sal.
It definitely goes back to Roman times, since Biff Tannen’s distant Roman ancestor called Marty a chicken in Back To The Future: The Animated Series. It’s also a little-known fact that the phrase “Why don’t you make like a tree and leaf” was invented then, but no Tannen since then has ever been able to get the hang of it.
Well, I can’t touch that. It’s settled.
Gallus is in fact the Latin would for Chicken (Rooster to be more specific) and also the name of the residents of Gaul, much of which is now France. So the “factoid” is at least true in that sense. Whether Romans were trying to calling cowards Frenchmen is something else, and smells too much of the latter day “cheese eating surrender monkey” stereotype for me to think it’s true.
I take issue with that, although the author of that dictionary is pretty good most of the time.
My Chambers Dictionary of Etymology cites it this way:
But, the OED cites as the first usage as cowardly in Shakespeare
Notice that the cowardly meaning is around in English between 1600-early 1700, and then isn’t used much until the 20th century.
Remember that “chicken” was originally applied only to the young of the species (modern “chick”). Perhaps they’re not saying “domestic fowl = coward” but “cowardly, like a very young thing.”
In some Asian countries, cowards are called rabbits.
Brave Sir Robin
Interestingly, the rooster is a national symbol of France.
I haven’t seen any evidence that Romans called cowards anything related to chickens; if they did, I assume they’d have said “pullus” rather than “gallus”; roosters are mean little f*ckers. Also, given that the Gauls sacked Rome in 290 BC, and gave Julius Caesar a hell of a time in 58 BC, I doubt that the Romans ever called them cowards (although they were considered a bit less fearsome than the Germani and the Helvetii). Not that the Gauls could be considered “Frenchmen” anyway – that term only became meaningful hundreds of years later, after the Franks conquered northern Gaul.
For that matter, why should a “yellow belly” connote cowardice? (Band name: Yellow-Bellied Chicken).
As a famous French comedian quipped, “because it’s the only bird that’ll sing when he’s knee deep in shite” ;).
As for why chicken are a symbol for cowardice, I’d say it’s because they’re really, really bothersome to catch, and I surmise they were even more so in the days before coops and wire fences. The little buggers are fast.
The bawk-bawk of the chicken combined with the tucked arm flapping is an irresistible challenge to young males faced with a stupid dare or unwise fight.
Next time you want to bait someone by questioning their courage, try making the sound of a rabbit or groundhog, and see how that goes over.
Now go change your armor! http://www.dailyllama.com/spam/games/images/diamond_select_robin.jpg