He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
We were in the Language Larder the other day, arranging the staples in alphabetical order and contemplating whether we should follow the lead of Chicago and throw out those tins of foie gras. It was then we heard on the news that the current session of the US Congress was a lame duck one. This chance (or was it?) juxtaposition of Anseriformes sent us to the Visual Thesaurus to explore the world of bird-inspired language. In very little time, our imagination had taken flight.
It's a curious thing that in addition to the many literal kinds of duck, English has so many figurative species as well: the VT catalogs four of them, and they all fit the category of things that we'd rather see than be: besides the lame duck, there is the dead duck, the sitting duck, and -- perhaps least perilous on the face of it -- the queer duck. It is possible to imagine a sort of nightmare scenario in which one's status rapidly changed from one of these to each of the others, ending up inevitably as the dead variety; but we marvel that all of these expressions have settled on the duck as their vehicle -- especially when they can all either lead to or result from one's goose being cooked.
By nature we tend to quail from litanies of ill-considered puns and we have even been known to grouse when others swan about, inflicting them on us, but when it's time to talk turkey about feathered figures of speech, it really is quite remarkable that English has such a flock of them.
While certain bird-tropes have something complimentary or respectful to say about our feathered friends -- one can, for example, soar like an eagle, or watch someone like a hawk -- it seems that most avian analogies are somewhat akin to those for the duck: the bird ends up on the short end of the stick, serving only as the carrier of a disparaging message. Chicken is a case in point: all of its standalone figurative meanings are derisive, despite the chicken being such a harmless creature. The one notable exception is spring chicken, a prima facie commendatory thing to be, or to be called; except that the expression is typically used to characterize someone who is not one.
The turkey fares little better than its smaller cousin. It's "a person who does something thoughtless or annoying" or "an event that fails badly or is totally ineffectual." These deprecations, we suspect, are the product of nearly 400 years of turkeys appearing on holiday dinner tables, during which time they have been successively bred to please the human palate and maximize the profits of their breeders, at the expense of their better natures. When we hear that Benjamin Franklin would have preferred that the turkey be the national bird of the United States, we may be inclined to snort ironically, so low have the connotations of this creature sunk in our imaginations. Franklin's observation ran thus:
For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the bald eagle], and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides... a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Though it may ruffle a few feathers to say so, we are fully in agreement with Mr. Franklin on this point, and we are sure that anyone, given an opportunity to observe this noble bird in its native habitat, would feel the same.
Is there a reason that so many of these similes are, both literally and figuratively, for the birds? We suspect that it's a phenomenon we discussed at some length in Issue No. 10, namely, the relentless anthropocentrism in language that tends to reduce any living thing that is not human to something inferior and wanting. This seems quite unfair in the case of birds, since their distinguishing capacity, flight, is the one that humankind has always most coveted.
What is perhaps more insidious, however, is the preponderance of figures of speech in English based on only two of the two dozen or so orders of birds: the earlier noted Anseriformes (broadly, waterfowl), and the Galliformes, many of whom have been noted already in this article. "Wherefore?" you may ask. Why should human culture, over millennia, have developed a much closer association with these two orders of birds than with others, to the degree that they have integrated themselves seamlessly into our discourse? We suspect that the blame for this, which humankind must bear, albatross-like, is simple: species from these two orders of birds have proven to be the tastiest. It's no accident we value the bird in hand over two of its cousins in the bush: the bird in hand is only a step away from being coq au vin. And of course it's laudable that the organization Ducks Unlimited exists to preserve the habitats of waterfowl, but part of the agenda of that organization is to insure that there will always be enough ducks to shoot!
In the end we did not make a decision about our tins of foie gras, and simply left them in the larder, between the fiddleheads and the fungi porcini. Here's a recent account of Chicago's foie gras brouhaha, in which there are new developments almost daily:
New DNA studies threaten to upset the long-standing apple cart of bird taxonomy, but it may be some comfort to know that even in the new system, fowl and waterfowl (called Galloanserae in newspeak) are one another's closest relatives and sisters to the remainder of all birds, who are to be called the Neoaves. You can read all about that here:
English owes the figurative use of "albatross" to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who we quote at the beginning of the article. If you didn't read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in high school, or even if you did, it's a great way to spend a rainy afternoon:
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves