For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Expressions, Part I

Original Air Date: Nov. 13, 1989

Why do we call a disreputable doctor a “quack”? Laura Erickson has the answer. (3:47) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Last week I received an intriguing letter from Duluth listener Ron Bongey, who wrote:

“I heard a radio report of a survivor of the recent San Francisco Earthquake who said he was in the bathroom, ‘naked as a jaybird,’ when the quake occurred. Where did this expression come from? Don’t jays have feathers like other birds? And how about ‘jay walking’? And ‘Cardinal sin’? Eating crow? Silly goose? And ‘goosing’. ‘Turkey’ as an epithet. Crazy as a loon. Doctors as ‘quacks.’ And why is it a ‘bluebird’ of happiness?”

Well, Ron, these are exactly the sorts of questions a hard-nosed investigative bird reporter like me likes to work on. Not only did you provide me with a delightful time researching all these interesting expressions, but you gave me enough fodder for two whole programs. The first thing I did was to lock myself into my little office and check out my own reference books. In the course of my research I discovered that “quack” is short for “quacksalver”—an archaic word taken from Dutch. Salver meant one who treated with salves, and quack came from the sound of a Mallard, the common duck in Europe as well as America. Quacking has the connotation of blowing one’s own horn—thus, the word quacksalver meant anyone who made loud, and probably inaccurate, claims to cure illness—pretty much what the shortened “quack” means today.

Bluebirds were common and popular residents throughout the American countryside, arriving with the first warm breath of spring, and seemed full of the promise of sunny, happy times ahead. Since no European birds of this placid temperament and color exist, the expression “Bluebird of Happiness” is strictly an American one. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in April, 1852, that “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

Long before Englishmen ever knew of any red crested finch from American, the word “cardinal,” taken from Latin, meant “of foremost importance, or pivotal.” So cardinal sins were those of primary importance. The position of “cardinal” in the Roman Catholic Church was named because of the primacy of the members of the College of Cardinals, who choose the pope among their numbers. Because these cardinals have traditionally worn red robes, the word “cardinal” has also referred to the color of this ecclesiastic garb. So when early European settlers came to America and discovered so distinguished a bird in cardinal-colored feathers, the name seemed pre-ordained, so to speak.

Because crows are scavengers, only desperately poor people have ever been forced to eat them, and so the expression “eat crow” came to mean to be forced into a humiliating situation.

“Silly goose” is a reference not to wild geese but to the domesticated variety, which feature prominently in all kinds of children’s stories and fables from Europe as well as America. I couldn’t find any dictionary willing to take a gander at where the expression “goosing” came from, but I myself have watched geese attack humans from the rear enough times to have my own suspicions.

All this research I did in the comfort of my own home. But some of the answers to my alert listener’s questions could only be found by making a trip to the public library. Tomorrow I will enlighten you about the sources of some of those other expressions.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

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