For the Birds Radio Program: More Bird Expressions

Original Air Date: Aug. 4, 2004

Odd duck. Just ducky. “Chick,” in reference to a woman. Where did those expressions come from?

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More Bird Expressions

Last week, I received an email from a listener named Julia Simmons, who asks, “This morning you were talking about bird related expressions on your show. I thought of one that has been used to describe me at times “An odd duck”. Do you have any ideas about that one? Speaking of duck phrases, another one is “I’m just ducky.” I have to admit to using that one a lot. And where did referring to women as “chicks” come from?”

Most of the expressions in our everyday language with bird references come from our agricultural roots, because people once lived closely with chickens and ducks, who provided eggs, meat, and even down for stuffing into pillows and quilts. People couldn’t help but notice that roosters are “cocky,” except a meek one now and then that might allow females to dominate it, rendering it “henpecked.” Chickens often seem to be chattering nonsensically, giving rise to the expression “old clucks.” Women have often been described as hens, so young women, who are still attractive to men who might dismiss women my age as “old clucks,” are “chicks.”

Mallards have been bred in captivity since earliest times, and the captive breeds generally have been selectively bred to bear white feathers and pale skin. Without natural pigments, bird skin is easier to pluck and more tender for cooking. But Mallard drakes are notoriously promiscuous–they’ll mate with anything that will hold still long enough to allow them to, from other duck species to rocks. I’m sure if a Mallard drake came upon a blue dress out in a pond, he would waddle along and leave a suspicious stain. Other ducks are also promiscuous, though not reaching the level that Mallards have achieved. Female ducks ovulate daily during the time they’re laying a clutch, and because of this promiscuity, 48% of broods of baby ducks have been fathered by more than one male. So if a domesticated duck had a brief interlude with a wild Mallard, or, more rarely and so even more odd, with a drake of another species, one or two of the ducklings could well be an “odd duck.”

“Just ducky” probably refers to the contented way ducks swim and feed together.

After receiving my response, Julia wrote back with more questions. “Another bird expression I thought of is that in England women are often referred to as “birds”. That is, “Your girlfriend is really weird. That bird is off her rocker!” Do you have any ideas where that came from? And the name of your show is another interesting expression. “For the birds.” Where did that come from?

Bird” as used in England is pretty much the same as “chick” here–I think “bird” has to do with the way we humans associate fluffy, colorful feathers and song as feminine traits, though in reality it’s male birds who bear the more colorful feathers and do virtually all the singing. “For the birds” has long been used to dismiss something as too trivial for people to pay attention to–similar to the way we use “chicken scratch” to dismiss trivial amounts of money—that expression comes from the cheap weed seeds used to feed chickens, as opposed to more expensive seeds used for sowing crops. I chose the title “For the Birds” because I liked the idea of pre-empting anyone who might dismiss my program as simply for the birds, and I love that it has the double meaning of advocacy, FOR the birds.