If you want to feather your nest and avoid a booby prize, remember the early bird catches the worm. Go as the crow flies and you’ll be like a duck to water. Um, what? Bird idioms are present in every language and here we look at some meanings and origins.
Knowing your bird idioms can also help you become a better birder.
An idiom is a figurative, rather than literal, phrase or expression that uses creative and sometimes vague physical imagery to describe a certain situation, or a wanted or inevitable conclusion. A proverb is a short and pithy phrase that is either meant as advice or rings true. These phrases can be very memorable in isolation, and sometimes the true meaning gets lost over the years, or wrongly interpreted at some point and then a later generation learns a wholly different expression; for instance, a stool pigeon used to mean a hunter’s decoy, but now means a police informant.
Bird idioms exist in every language, and have done for centuries. Some of them are so apt that knowing your bird idioms can also help you become a better birder.
Look at our cover image: it’s a bird in the hand. Did you know that is worth two in a bush? Or, as the Czechs put it, a sparrow in the fist is better than a pigeon on the roof, and for the Germans, a dove on the roof. This proverb has been around in the English lexicon since the 15th century, and was probably imported from other cultures, as a similar phrase exists in 7th Century Aramaic texts as the somewhat less snappy, “Better is a sparrow held tight in the hand than a thousand birds flying about in the air.”
Like many proverbs, it warns against taking risks – keep what you know you already have and don’t go after the unknown. Some historians believe it spent a long time as a falconer’s reference, and was first recorded in England in 1450 in John Capgrave’s The Life of St Katharine of Alexandria:
“It is more sekyr a byrd in your fest, Than to haue three in the sky a‐boue.” (It is more certain a bird in your fist than to have three in the sky above).
Almost a hundred years later in 1546, John Heywood, a prominent playwright and poet and a favourite of the Tudor courts, gave the English-speaking world the version that exists today. “A Bird in the Hand” is a popular English pub name and is also the name of a town in Pennsylvania, USA, presumably imported with the English settlers in 1734 when it was founded.
Staying in America, a phrase that exists there but is not really known elsewhere is “in the catbird seat”, mostly because catbirds only reside in the lower sections of Canada and the North and Central American regions. So-called because of their mewling sounds, they are also excellent mimics, like their cousins the mockingbirds and thrashers, and can recite the call of many species as if it were their own. Catbirds will perch atop the highest part of a tree, and call from there – therefore to be in this seat is to be in the best position possible, either in a superior or advantageous way. It is also believed that the phrase “sitting pretty” comes from this same behaviour. Indeed, the first time this appears in print is in James Thurber’s short story for The New Yorker in 1942 called “The Catbird Seat”, in which he references this position during a baseball game: “sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”
Like the cartoon animals, duck phrases are popular.
Like the cartoon animals, duck phrases are popular too. If you are like a duck to water, you have a natural and easy understanding of something. This comes from the exceptional ability for these waterbirds to learn how to swim within hours of hatching, seemingly with very little input from their parents, no manuals, just in they go. If you are able to experience something like water off a duck’s back, this means you can easily shrug off or disregard something that may provoke anger or frustration in others, and refers to the waterproofing oil that ducks secrete from their uropygial gland as they preen, ensuring the water simply slides off and doesn’t weigh them down beneath the surface. Perhaps not so flattering, at first, anyway, is if you are called an ugly duckling. Most baby birds aren’t the prettiest of beasts, but most will grow into a wondrous sight with shimmering iridescent feathers. This phrase comes directly from the 1843 fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen about a bullied baby swan who eventually becomes as beautiful as his peers, if not more so. If you are called this, try not to take it too badly.
All roads lead to…
Some idioms have taken a dark turn over the years, such as the phrase “as the crow flies”, which simply means to take the most direct route, without any detours. Of course, most birds fly, and many do so in a fairly straight line, but a crow is an odd choice of bird here as they actually wheel about in circles quite a bit. Perhaps it is due to the abundance of crows in fields and across farmland in the olden days (considering they are still among the most numerous these days with 120 species), and little understanding at the time of the migratory nature of many other more suitable birds to choose. Whatever the reason for choosing the crow, the earliest known record of this idiom is in the 1767 edition of The London Review of English And Foreign Liturature, by W. Kenrick:
“The Spaniaad [sic], if on foot, always travels as the crow flies, which the openness and dryness of the country permits; neither rivers nor the steepest mountains stop his course, he swims over the one and scales the other”.
This links in with popular folklore that crows are associated with death.
However, in Scotland, where there is an actual Crow Road, the phrase has a more macabre tone as a means of passage from one realm to another. The Crow Road is a 1992 novel by Iain Banks and the title itself comes from the Scottish saying that someone is “away the crow road”, meaning someone is dying. This links in with popular folklore that crows are associated with death and will pick a fallen soldier’s bones clean after battle, as well as convey their souls to the afterlife along the crow road.
Tit for tat
Last but certainly not the least, to get the booby prize or fall into a booby trap means to be the worst at something or to be tricked into something, respectively. Not named after a certain aspect of the female anatomy, there are records that state these phrases are based on the seemingly dim-witted type of gannet, the eternally adorable blue-footed booby, but it is actually vice versa: the bird was named after the word booby, which was adopted somewhere in the 16th century to describe a bit of an idiot, probably coming from the Spanish word ‘bobo’ meaning fool or dunce. There is a record written by Thomas Herbert in the 17th century, long after the word first became vernacular, that tells of sailors coming across them in the Pacific, and delightedly calling them boobies as they just sat there and allowed themselves to be captured and subsequently eaten, like most things that have never experienced predators before.
There are many phrases based on or about birds, some that sound as crazy as a loon and others that can send you on a wild goose chase, but when you know them, they can make you feel as wise as an owl.