For the Birds Radio Program: Chicken Pox

Original Air Date: June 3, 1988

Laura’s daughter has chicken pox, making Laura wonder how the disease got its name. (3:53)

Audio missing


Chicken Pox

((Recording of a Domestic Chicken)

It isn’t easy being the child of a radio birdwatcher. When most kids come down with chicken pox, their mothers get all anxious and maternal. When my little daughter Katie came down with chicken pox last week, I spent my time trying to determine exactly how chicken pox got its avian name.

My own personal guess was that it came from the appearance of the little bump in the center of each pock, which could easily conjure up the image of chicken skin to some early identifier of diseases. A few friends suggested that maybe some ancient people believed that chicken pox actually came from chickens. Because avian pox is a well-known disease of many species of birds, this speculation made sense, too, although chicken pox is caused by Varicella zoster, and avian pox by an entirely different virus, Poxvirus avian. But we now had two reasonable hypotheses to choose from. In order to determine which was correct, I called the St. Louis County Public Health Service, but that only complicated matters. The best guess they had was that the name came from the itchy nature of chicken pox—because people with it scratch like chickens. Personal observation of Katie confirms that sufferers do scratch, but somehow her technique can’t be compared to a chicken’s, so finally I consulted the highest authority on matters etymological, the Oxford English Dictionary, which demolished all three hypotheses in one fell swoop. According to the O.E.D., the name chicken pox comes from the fact that the disease is extremely mild compared to small pox—such a wimpy disease is thus called “chicken.” No kidding.

Which brings us next to the question my six year old son Joey, infused with curiosity but not yet infected with chicken pox, presented at the dining room table—“Where did the first chicken come from?” We went into a long philosophical discourse on the classic paradox, which came first—the chicken or the egg– -but it turns out that Joey merely wanted to know what kind of wild bird originally became domesticated as a chicken. That’s the kind of question the O.E.D. isn’t quite so good at, so I turned to my favorite resource of all, A Dictionary of Birds, written by the British Ornithologists’ Union, where I discovered that chickens probably come from any one or more of four species of jungle fowl inhabiting south-eastern Asia. They’ve been recorded in writings from India as early as 3200 B.C., and in China by 1400 B.C. They reached Persia at an early date, and Egypt and Crete by 1500 B.C. Cocks are found on Greek coins from at least 700 B.C. The Greeks valued them primarily as fighters, but ancient Romans used them for food—they developed a complex poultry industry which collapsed with the fall of the Roman Empire. The industry didn’t gain prominence in the western world again until the 19th century. Now there are about 37 different breeds of domestic fowl raised for food, and at least 24 ornamental breeds. The males, or cocks, are known for their fighting ability, but in spite of the definite presence of both intestines and a backbone, the females, or chickens, are considered by some to be gutless and spineless. All I can say is, better to be hen-pecked by a mild case of chicken pox than hit by a more cocksure virus. I’m glad chicken pox is a wimpy disease, and that our amazing spotted girl will soon be herself again.

(Recording of a Domestic Chicken)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”