Disclaimer: This post is filled with cliché puns, and terrible jokes that certainly need no drum roll introduction, but will most certainly have you rolling your eyes. Consider yourself warned.
Whenever I think of proverbs, the film So Dear to My Heart comes to mind. It’s an old Disney classic that tells the story of Jeremiah Kincaid, a headstrong boy who takes his black lamb to the county fair and wins “The Special Award”. Through the magic of Disney animation, the Wise Old Owl comes to life and acts as the young boy’s mentor, using proverbs to help Jeremiah make life decisions.
I recently came across a website Special Dictionary.com that lists hundreds of proverbs. The site has a search box where you can type in any subject word and it will find a list of proverbs including that word. After a few minutes of playing around, I found that the search word “chicken” displayed 54 results; the search for “rooster” displayed 25 results; and the search for “chick” (which included chicken as a partial search) displayed 172 results. (A search for “owl” only yielding 25, makes me wonder if Disney didn’t animate the wrong bird?)
Proverbs are a part of our language and history. They were the “rules of thumb”…(Ha! there’s another one!), a metaphorical teaching guide, an easy little saying to remember and learn from. After reading through some of these different sayings, some still appropriate, some of them just plain weird like “Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey.” I realized that chickens have had a substantial influence on our sense of nostalgia and folklore. With chickens being at the base of many of these “moral codes to live by”, it gives insight as to how important the chicken has been in forming some of our language and tradition.
Proverbs are handed down generation to generation, mostly through the spoken word. We say them because it’s what we heard our parents and grandparents say. Some of the proverbs on the list at Special Dictionary.com I’ve heard many times like, “they’re hatched from the same egg.” or “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched”, these still show up in modern day speech. But a quite a few I haven’t heard like, “He who spends a night with a chicken will cackle in the morning.” or “Before killing the chicken, carefully observe the character of your guest.” You have to wonder where on earth did these generate, what lesson or purpose was there to learn?
Chickens could even be used to teach couples the key to marital bliss. “A good dog does not bite a chicken and a good man does not hit his wife.” or “If you are married to a chicken obey the chicken. If you are married to a dog obey the dog.” There you go ladies, words to live by! (Evidently, married people also had a lot to learn from dogs…)
We also find chickens in superstition and wives tales. I can remember as a young child joining a cousin for a light hearted game of tug-o-war with the left over wishbone of a roasted chicken or turkey dinner. We would each make a wish, then we would hold the legs of the wishbone and pull the sides until it snapped. Whoever had the thick upper part on their side would have their wish granted. The talented and nostalgic artist Norman Rockwell eternalized this tradition is his Thanksgiving cover of The Country Gentleman in the November 19th, 1921 issue.
Another example of chicken superstition appears in the Encyclopedia of Superstitions 1949 written by Edwin and Mona Radford, “In Worchestershire, it is considered unlucky in springtime to take less than a handful of violets or primroses into a farmer’s house, it would bring destruction on his broods of ducks and chicks.” So does that mean that more than a handful is ok? Or should you just avoid violets all together? These are important things that chicken keepers need to discuss, I would hate to bring the wrong flower and cause certain peril and destruction.
Chickens are also found in traditional teaching stories as in the example of the The Little Red Hen by Florence White Williams. The Little Red Hen is a chicken with a great work ethic, who teaches her lazy friends a lesson on responsibility and the rewards of a good day’s work. She plants, waters and harvests her wheat, each time asking her friends for help. The friends make excuses and lounge around while the busy hen turns the wheat into a delicious loaf of bread. When the greedy friends come asking for a slice, the wise hen explains that they did not help her make the bread, so they shall not help her eat the bread.
We can also learn the lesson of courage, the dangers of assumption and the importance of keeping a clear mind in times of chaos through the story of Chicken Little. In the story, an acorn falls on Chicken Little’s (or Henny Penny’s) head and she assumes the sky is falling. In a frazzle, she worries all of the animals in the farmyard into a state of panic. The sly fox takes advantage of this panic and lures the animals into his den, never to be seen again.
The interesting thing is that in the creation of these tales, the author chose a chicken to personify the trait of responsibility or worry. Something about a chicken’s character won out over all the other animals that could have played the part and it has stayed a chicken through the countless re-telling of these tales.
I know in my own flock I can see the “Little Red Hen’s” among my girls. Many of our hens are not afraid to take matters into their own hands. They take advantage of feeding time and show little patience for those chickens who stand idly by. I can also see the “Chicken Little’s” among them as well. On more than one occasion a chicken will start running and squawking about who-knows-what and send the chickens, ducks, turkeys and even goats running to the barn to hide from the “imaginary thing”.
Another way that chickens have shaped bits of our culture is through language. The term “cocky” describes someone who is arrogant or self centered. “Chicken scratch” is term used to describe untidy handwriting. To be “chicken”, “chicken hearted” or “chicken livered” is a slang way of describe someone who is a coward. “Pecking order”, while still used to describe the hierarchy of chickens is also used in human settings as well. In reverse order, the term “cuckold” is an old word describing a man who’s wife is “a-wandering”. It stems from the word “cuckoo” which is a savvy bird that lays it’s eggs in other birds nests and has that bird do all the setting and raising. Cuckoo, like in our Cuckoo Maran, is named for that bird.
The presence of chickens also show up in ancient times. Cock fighting, while inhumane and a disgusting practice, is thought to be the “Oldest spectator sport dating back 6000 years to Persia.”
Chickens are also found in religious documents and ceremonies. In Indonesia, a chicken is kept present during a cremation to “absorb any evil spirits“.
Chickens also appear several times in the bible, including the passage where Jesus tells Peter – “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a cock crows, you shall deny Me three times . . . (Mathew 26:34)
And the use of the egg during Easter and spring ceremonies comes from the pagan rituals where the egg represented birth, fertility and renewal.
Lastly, while I doubt that a stand up comedian could base a successful career around the classic “chicken crossing the road” joke, it’s still worth mentioning. Here are some variations on an old joke for fun. (This is where the promised eye rolling takes place, hope you were practicing.)
Q: Why did the rubber chicken cross the road?
Q: Why did the Roman chicken cross the road?
A: She was afraid someone would Caesar!
(Sorry guys, I had to)
Whether you recognize chicken traditions by collecting eggs each day from your coop, or are one of the first ones at a wedding reception to do the chicken dance, there’s no denying that the personality and essence of these little birds have had a big impact on our human culture.
Can you think of more ways that chickens shape our customs, traditions, or history? I’d love to hear your examples! Share it with the Community by leaving a comment below, or on the Community Chickens Facebook Page.