The Language of Chickens

Our chickens certainly have a language of their own — consisting largely of squabbling and squawking, based on what I can hear from my office during the day. It got me thinking, though, of just how much we all talk about chickens, every day, whether we realize it or not.

There are an awful lot of idioms in the English language that come from living near chickens. That’s not too surprising, given that they are some of the most common livestock in the world and that their lives have been intertwined with human lives for the past 10,000 years. We’ve been sharing our land and observing their antics for quite a while, so it stands to reason that so many of our sayings are chicken-related.

I’m positive there are more, but here’s what I came up with when I put pen to paper to list our chicken idioms:

  • Chicken (or chicken shit): Our chickens don’t strike me as particularly cowardly, but they do run away from a garden rake as fast as they possibly can. The awkward flurry of action is always good for a laugh.
  • Cock-sure (or cock of the walk): We don’t have roosters of our own, but they do tend to strut around like they own the place at nearby farms.
  • Coming home to roost: Chickens do always find their way home at dusk, without any prompting, as a lot of their instincts are based on daylight. 
  • Counting your chickens before they hatch: Though we haven’t raised chicks from eggs, it’s definitely true that not every egg is fertilized or contains a live chick, and any visit to the Topsfield Fair will reveal. 
  • Feathering the nest: Broody hens like Abigail pluck out some of their own downy feathers to line the nesting box for the chicks they are hoping for. 
  • Fuss and feathers: An apt description for henhouse spats, which end up with a lot of wing-flapping and some feathers flying. The argument is almost always over food.
  • Headless chicken: We don’t have any direct experience with chickens flailing about after facing the guillotine (though Lizzy remains a good candidate). 
  • Henpecked: When a spouse is getting nagged by his wife, we say he’s henpecked. Our chickens do a lot of this to each other, and this turn of phrase seems to belittle the truly Machiavellian machinations behind their work. 
  • Nest egg: When you’re saving something valuable for the future, you’re building a nest egg — just like hens who jealously guard the eggs they’re sitting on.
  • Pecking order: This is a real thing. Chickens peck at each other and throw their weight around to figure out who’s the baddest bitch in the coop. It’s shockingly brutal — until it’s settled, and then everyone knows her place.
  • Preening: This is something chickens do when they’re molting to open up newly-emerged feathers. It comes across as terribly vain, but I think it’s really just to stop feeling itchy as feathers come in. 
  • Putting all your eggs in one basket: Never a good idea. You’ll break them all if you drop the basket, but no chicken would ever be so careless.
  • Rare as hen’s teeth: Chickens don’t have teeth — though those beaks can give quite a sharp pinch!
  • Ruling the roost: After all the henpecking and posturing, one hen emerges as the queen of the henhouse. She’s the one who gets the choice spot on the roosting bar and decides who gets to sit next to here. In our henhouse, that’s literally sitting at her right hand. Or wing.
Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments!


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