Q&A: Why does ‘chicken’ mean coward?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, chicken feed…

Q: Hi AWC, remember how we looked into the saying “Great Scott” – made famous by Doc in the Back to the Future movies?

A: We do remember – here is that very conversation.

Q: Okay great. Well, I have another question about those movies.

A: If it’s about time travel or kissing your mother, both are a bit messy.

Q: No, it’s about the word “chicken” – how did it become related to being a coward? Is there something about a chicken I’m not aware of?

A: It’s a good question. And to answer it, we need to do something messy.

Q: Kiss our mothers???

A: No, the other one – go back in time. To the mid-1400s.

Q: Okay, I’m not chicken – let’s do it!

A: “Chicken” in those days were often better known by the more common “hen” – due to the prevalence of the female laying variety compared to the singular rooster. Hens were seen as timid compared to the male “cocks” – the latter used to describe someone bold, brave or strong.

Q: Oh, like to be “cocky” these days?

A: Essentially. In its early days, to be a “cock” was seen as a good thing, but later became linked to more arrogant or lecherous traits.

Q: Okay, so a “hen” was weak?

A: That’s right – written in literature as “hen-herte” or hen-hearted from around 1450, and into the 1500s. Eventually this became synonymous with “chicken-hearted”. Yet simply being called a “chicken” came a little later.

Q: When?

A: Shakespeare is when.

Q: This guy again? He seems to pop up a lot.

A: He sure does. And he made the leap to simply using “chicken” in place of “one who is timorous or cowardly”. It was a big moment.

Q: Are you sure it wasn’t just a case of ‘fowl play’?

A: Haha, nope. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was one of his last plays – published in 1611. In it, we see “chicken” used as a direct insult, as a character labels soldiers who were fleeing a battlefield “chickens”.

Q: Chickens really get a rough time in all this.

A: Actually, it wasn’t always chickens. Shakespeare also wrote of “pigeon-hearted” people, but that didn’t seem to stick as much.

Q: Well it’s nice to see he at least tried.

A: What followed was a lot more writers using “chicken” for cowardly gains. It also went on somewhat of an internal organs tour – as to be “chicken-hearted” would be later joined by “chicken-livered” in the early 1800s and “chicken-gutted” by the mid-1900s.

Q: What about “to chicken out” of doing something?

A: That arrived in the early 20th century – well documented by the 1940s. Later that decade we also saw someone called a “chicken-shit” for the first time.

Q: What a wonderful time to be alive. 

A: Indeed.

Q: And speaking of which, what about “playing chicken” with another car?

A: We see this term arrive in the early 1950s – of course, yet another play on being cowardly. 

Q: Any other chicken facts?

A: One of the most curious ones is the naming of “chickenpox” in the 1730s. One of the theories as to why it was thought to have been given this name is because it was a milder, more timid version of “smallpox”.

Q: It seems unfair for the chicken to have been labelled so cowardly or timid for all these centuries. After all, didn’t it famously cross the road?

A: Haha, good point. By the way, “Why did the chicken cross the road” first appeared as a joke in a New York monthly magazine called “Knickerbocker” back in 1847 – possibly following its use in travelling minstrel shows of the time.

Q: How funny to think of this as being a new joke!

A: True. In fact, it was thought to be one of the early forms of an ironic “anti-joke” – where you expect something to happen in the punchline, but it gives you a matter-of-fact explanation instead. 

Q: Hilarious.

A: That said, another theory suggests a chicken walking into traffic to get to “the other side” was in fact a statement about dying.

Q: That’s certainly less funny. Okay, enough about chickens – it’s time to check out!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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