In celebration of our fine feathered friends in flight, I thought I would investigate the origin of some of the phrases we have adopted into our lexicon that use the bird as a proverbial motif. Most in this are taken from literature with the exception of one that is rooted in US military slang.
This is a small list of many phrases and proverbs that feature birds. What is your favorite bird phrase?
A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH
|Meaning: It’s better to have a small real advantage than the possibility of a greater one.
Origin:This proverb refers back to mediaeval falconry where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey).
|A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME
Meaning: I was told by a private or secret source.
Origin:The text ‘a little bird told me’ doesn’t appear in any version of the Bible. The root source of this expression is probably biblical though, from Ecclesiastes 10-20 (King James Version):
“Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.”
|THE EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE WORM
Meaning: Success comes to those who prepare well and put in effort.
Origin: This is first recorded in John Ray’s A collection of English proverbs 1670, 1678:
“The early bird catcheth the worm.”
|FOR THE BIRDS
Meaning: Trivial; worthless; only of interest to gullible people.
Origin: This phrase is of American origin and, while still in use there, has never been commonly used elsewhere. It is US Army slang and originated towards the end of WWII. An early example of its use is this piece from The Lowell Sun, October 1944, in an interview with a Sergt. Buck Erickson, of Camp Ellis, Illinois:
“Don’t take too seriously this belief that we have football at Camp Ellis solely for the entertainment of the personnel – that’s strictly for the birds. The army is a winner… the army likes to win – that’s the most fortunate thing in the world for America.”
|BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TOGETHER
Meaning: Those of similar taste congregate in groups.
Origin:This proverb has been in use since at least the mid 16th century. In 1545, William Turner used a version of it in his papist satire The Rescuing of Romish Fox:
“Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”
The first known citation in print of the currently used English version of the phrase appeared in 1599, in The Dictionarie in Spanish and English, which was complied by the English lexicographer John Minsheu:
Birdes of a feather will flocke togither.
All phrase origins in this list were taken from www.phrases.org.uk