For the Birds Radio Program: "Naked as a Jaybird"
Several listeners have written or called Laura Erickson with interesting notes about the expression “Naked as a Jaybird.” (3:52)
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
“Dear Laura Erickson…My earliest recollection of ‘naked as a jaybird’ comes from comic strip reading,” writes KAXE listener Shirley Dunn. “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith used the phrase. I guess it’s a Southern colloquialism.” Shirley continues, “A bluejay during moult loses the glorious crest, the head seems to shrink by half and appears naked. No longer raucous and demanding, they are quiet and appear ashamed.”
Actually most Blue Jays don’t lose their crest feathers all at once—new feathers come in one by one as the old ones fall out in the summer, but the babies are hatched naked, unlike most songbirds, and the crests of fledglings do take a while to grow to full size, so Shirley’s guess may well be part of the truth.
Peter Igoe, of Effie, checked out John Ciardi’s book, A Browser’s Dictionary, and wrote, “some of the pejorative terms referring to jays might actually be referring to followers of John Jay, a not always revered U.S. Chief Justice in the early years of our country.”
Well, Peter’s suggestion certainly piqued my interest, so I decided to find out more about this “John Jay.” It turns out that much of the controversy surrounding him came about when George Washington appointed him to negotiate a treaty to resolve disputes between the new United States and Great Britain after the Revolutionary War. This treaty was appropriately named the Jay Treaty. It returned the Great Lakes posts to U. S. control and opened the British West Indies to U.S. ships, though under severe restrictions. It also provided that neutral commissions would determine possession of disputed areas on the Canadian-U.S. border, the amount U.S. debtors owed the British, and the amounts Britain owed for our losses in their blockade.
However, one of the biggest problems the U.S. was having with Britain was pretty much left out of the treaty—it failed to restrict British harassment with neutral U.S. ships, and it prohibited U.S. retaliation if the British did interfere with our shipping. Jay, a member of the Federalist Party, considered the treaty the best possible arrangement considering that Britain was dealing from a position of obvious and superior strength. But the opposing Democratic-Republican party insisted that Jay could have won better terms by threatening to cut off trade with the British. The Senate was sharply divided, and only passed the treaty after much debate and then by a very narrow margin, in 1795. Jokes about any controversial characters extend to clever uses of their names, so jays took on a new significance in the 1790’s the way quails do in the 1980’s.
Anyway, that certainly does explain the history of some of the negative connotations of the word jay, but I’m not sure it is related to the expression ‘naked as a jaybird,’ especially since ‘jaybird’ itself is known to be regional slang for the Blue Jay. Several listeners suggested that the term was a corruption of ‘naked as a jailbird,’ since strip searching has long been required before people are incarcerated. Anyway, it looks like the issue is still up in the air. Any listeners who discover the term ‘naked as a jaybird’ in any book predating Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, please let me know.
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”