How do we love chickens? Let us count the words
Restaurant critic Amy Pataki and her family decided to rent chickens this summer. This is her 10th story in an occasional series on backyard livestock.
Long before I kept chickens in my backyard, I talked about them.
Messy handwriting was chicken scratch. Older folk were no spring chickens. Spending too much time inside felt like being cooped up.
The nuclear arms race was a game of chicken. A husband bullied by his wife was henpecked. If someone panicked, I said they ran around like a chicken with its head cut off.
(I did see this once on a farm. The headless bird zigged and zagged from neural reflexes until it collapsed.)
My point is this: Chickens are part of the English language because they lived closely with us for centuries. We tended to them and observed their behaviour.
For me, a newbie urban farmer, taking care of chickens brought certain phrases to life.
Let’s start with pecking order, a phrase I wrongly thought described human hierarchies. It turns out that a Norwegian zoologist published the concept in 1922 to describe chicken dominance.
It didn’t take long for my family to see that Blair, the Red Star chicken, is the top bird in our flock. She uses her beak to remind the others that she eats first.
Similarly, I used to think brooding was a kind of dark Byronic mood. Wrong again. Brooding is when our black-and-white Julep sits on her eggs out of an instinct to incubate them. (They aren’t fertilized, poor thing.) The 15th-century English word later shifted to describe human rumination.
Once, while watching Blair hesitate to jump from a knee-high garden wall, all I could think was: “Chicken.”
Conflating chickens with cowardice goes way back. By 1440, English speakers were using “henne-harte” to describe the timorous. That grew into “chicken-hearted” by 1681.
I find the reputation somewhat unwarranted. Yes, our chickens will squawk and run through the backyard at the drop of a leaf. But they also chase off intruding grackles. The chickens are no more fearful than a scaredy cat. Or a mouse.
Where English fully errs in describing chicken behaviour is the 1823 expression “mad as a wet hen.” No less a writer than P.G. Wodehouse used it in his 1923 novel Inimitable Jeeves; “My uncle will be as mad as a wet hen when he finds out that he has been fooled.”
Our girls like water, as long as it’s in the form of a warm bath administered by their three young keepers. They tolerate cold rain from the shelter of the hen house, too.
As for headless chickens, I did come across the story of Miracle Mike. He was a Colorado rooster who lived for 18 months after a farmer’s wife botched the dispatch. She chopped off most of his skull but left the base of his brain intact. Mike was kept alive until 1947 by dropping milk into his esophagus; choking was what killed him in the end.
Amy Pataki is a Toronto-based restaurant critic and reporter covering all things hospitality. Follow her on Twitter: @amypataki
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