Chicken Talk: A Look at Chicken-Themed Folk Expressions

by Randy Graham
art by Daphne Fossler

We humans have been hanging around with chickens for something like 8000 years. So, it’s not surprising that they’ve managed to find their way into our language. There are so many chicken-themed folk expressions and idioms that you probably use one or more of them every day. And I’ll bet that you don’t even notice that the phrases you’re using have anything to do with chickens.  

Does this sound like a cock and bull story to you? Well, before you get your hackles up and get madder than a wet hen, allow me to give you a few examples. I may wind up with egg on my face, but actually I think I’ll have something to crow about.

Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

Chickens clearly do come home to roost. On summer mornings, I throw open the coop door and the girls rush pell-mell into the great world. Life is good and the early chicken gets the worm! Yet when bedtime arrives, the chickens, like clockwork, head back to the coop. If somebody’s not there to roost it is a reason for great concern. So, before I shut the coop door, I always do a meticulous count. And before I start the count I always announce, “If you’re not here, raise your wing.” It’s an old joke and I use it every night, but I swear I get a big cackle out of the whole flock every single time! 

But, when most people use this phrase, they’re not referencing chickens. They’re actually talking about karma; somebody getting what they deserve. What’s that all about? The original use of this phrase in this context was based on the idea that bad deeds are like chickens. You put bad stuff out there and it will come back to you. Like sending your chickens out will result in their return. It is an old expression. British Poet Laureate Robert Southey, on the title page of his 1810 epic poem The Curse of Kehama, writes, “Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.” And way back in 1390, Chaucer in Canterbury Tales declared, “And ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully retorneth agayn to hym that curseth, as a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest.” Chaucer’s birds are not chickens, but it’s the same idea, right?

A Cock and Bull Story

I grew up on a farm and my Midwestern farm parents used more folk idioms than you could shake a stick at. (Oh! There’s one!) The scatological expression my mom employed to refer to somebody telling a tall tale or stretching the truth was, “Well. His butt’s full of blue mud.” And the equally scatological phrase my dad would say in the same situation was, “Yeah. I’ve heard a frog fart under water before.” “A cock and bull story” means exactly the same thing! But why?

Here’s one theory: In merry olde England, in the town of Stony Stratford, there were two inns. One was The Cock and the other was The Bull. Guests at those two inns, while quaffing a few pints, would tell wild and unbelievable tales. Both inns exist to this day, and both inns promote this theory, but is there any truth to it? Many feel it is a cock and bull story. 

Other etymologists point to the phrase in use in France in the 1600’s “coq-a-l’âne,” which crossed the channel and became the Scottish word “cockalayne.” The literal translation is “from rooster to jackass.” Thus, it’s a crazy, preposterous story that a rooster tells a donkey. I have this quibble with the etymologists promoting this origin story: A jackass is not a bull.

It is quite possible that long, long ago there was a fable about a rooster telling tall tales to a bull, and that story has become lost in the mists of time. But the expression lives on.

Rule the Roost

If you rule the roost, you’re the head honcho, the big kahuna, the top dog. Intriguingly, the earliest version of this expression occurred in 15th century England as “rule the roast.” It alluded to the fact that the master of the house would be the one to carve the meat at formal dinners. Shakespeare used the phrase in his 1591 play Henry VI, Part 2 where Gloucester refers to Suffolk as “the new-made duke that rules the roast.” 

I’m not surprised that “roast” eventually became “roost” because it is so easy to picture the rooster or alpha hen sitting at the top of the roost and ruling over their minions. I became aware of the roost-ruling dynamic almost immediately after I got my first flock. My roost has four levels, the first is about a foot off the floor and the highest is about four feet up. In my original flock, Emile the rooster took up the center position on the very top level. He was surrounded by Arlene, Barbara, Charlie, and Darcy, a clique of four barred rock hens. 

Every night at roosting time the flock power structure would play out. First, Emile would roost on the top rung and survey his domain. Then, each hen would cautiously work her way up the roost to the top. Once there, she would carefully examine the hens already in place to see if there was a hen near her status that she could be next to. If the top rung was already full, she would look for a hen she could displace. 

When a hen was not happy with the hen next to her, she would not-so-subtly shove her body against her neighbor to force her to move. If that strategy didn’t work, she would casually peck the other hen’s toes. The pecking would escalate to the body, the neck, the head, and finally the comb. Combs are sensitive, vulnerable, and bleed easily, so the conflict would usually end before it reached that point. The lower-status hen would reluctantly move to a lower rung. Occasionally, if the lower hen felt she had a chance against the challenging hen, she would peck back. Sometimes a full-scale hen fight would ensue, which could end with Emile’s intervention.

And while all this shuffling and sorting played out, the barred rocks would be nonchalantly scratching and pecking around the coop floor. They knew that when they decided to go to bed, they would roost any old place they wanted to.

I would watch this interaction with fascination night after night. It was like watching an epic saga unfold. A coop soap opera. Reality TV with feathers. Somebody should do a cable show about chicken dynamics. The title? Rule the Roost, of course!

Pecking Order

I’ve described how I’ve gotten caught up in watching the power dynamics play out in my flock. I’m not alone in this pursuit—it happens every day in millions of coops and back yards across the world. 

In 1904, Thorleif, a ten-year-old Norwegian boy, became smitten with the interaction of a flock of chickens given to him by his parents. He spent hours throughout his childhood watching them interact. Who was pecking whom and what was she doing about it? In 1921, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe used his observations, collected since childhood, on the dominance hierarchy in chickens as the basis for his doctoral dissertation. His doctoral paper, published in German, used the term “Hackordnung” to describe this chicken behavior. When he published his paper in English in 1927, he translated this term to “pecking order.”

“Pecking order” has now seeped into popular usage to the point that it not only describes social interaction in chickens, but also in people. And it has also become, among other things, an economic theory, a card game, and a chicken restaurant in Florida. As a matter of fact, the term has become such a part of the common lexicon that most people have forgotten, or never knew, that it has anything to do with chickens!

Feeling Cooped Up

Chickens live in coops and coops tend to be small. “Feeling cooped up” means feeling like you’re trapped in a small, closed space. It is obvious from the negative connotation of the expression “cooped up” that we’ve always recognized that chickens are not happy living in such a small space. Yet, over time coops have gotten smaller and smaller—factory farmers’ attempt to squeeze more money out of their chickens by squeezing their chickens into ever shrinking spaces. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2020, 74% of laying hens in the US spent their entire lives in an unusually cruel type of coop called a battery cage. The standard is to allow each hen in a battery cage 67 square inches of living space. That’s smaller than an 8.5×11 sheet of printer paper. These ill-fated hens never have a chance to run, jump, roost, or even spread their wings. Do you think they feel cooped up?

We can all relate to feeling cooped up after having lived through this past year. Under assault by a terrible virus, we all hunkered down in our homes to shelter in place. Some citizens got so stir-crazy that they took up arms and signs and marched around their statehouses. As far as I know, their actions had no effect on the terrible virus.

While I was sheltering in place in my house, my chickens spent the first part of last spring sheltering in place in the coop. Not because of the terrible virus, but due to the persistent presence of a hawk. Now, my coop is a far cry from a battery cage – it is actually fairly plush and commodious. But spring had arrived and the world was turning green. Every day the chickens would gather at the coop door and look with unbridled anticipation at the vast utopian expanse—all those green shoots and all that bug and worm filled earth waiting for their eager beaks. But the hawk lockdown continued. Disgruntlement magnified. I’m sure I heard murmured clucks about taking up arms (actually when chickens do it, it’s called “taking up wings”) and signs and marching around my house. 

Then one day the hawk was gone. I flung open the coop door. The un-cooped chickens rushed forth and enjoyed spring’s bounty. But you can be sure they came back to the coop like clockwork at bedtime. My chickens always come home to roost.