by Margo True, Sunset food editor
Every day, at least one person here at Sunset will ask, “When are those chickens going to lay eggs?” They’re about five months old now, and it could really happen any time. “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” suddenly isn’t a cliché. It’s actually kind of calming.
Which started me thinking about chicken lingo. There’s a lot of it. Not surprising when you consider that humans have been keeping chickens for 5000 years.
Just for starters, there’s:
Pecking Order And you thought it was an office term… Chickens actually do this; generally there’s a line of dominance in any given flock. At Sunset, Ruby is Top Hen. (Listen to her commanding croak.)
Roost Every day at dusk, a chicken will find a sheltered spot, preferably up high and snuggled next to another chicken, to sleep. A rooster is called a rooster because one of his main jobs is to herd chickens to their roost for the night.
Chicken Said by someone who does not have your best interests at heart, as in “Don’t be such a chicken—that snake won’t bite.” Also refers to the ridiculous game, started in the 1950s, in which two teenage boys drive at each other head-on or toward an obstacle, the first one to swerve being the chicken. Smart is what I call it.
Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off The ultimate in disorganization. Drawn, unfortunately, from a lot of vivid farm scenes. That’s why cones are used to contain chickens in their final moments.
Hen-Pecked Once said about a wife who verbally picked on her husband. Now, of course, nagging is equal opportunity.
Fly the Coop Vanish suddenly. An older meaning, from the late 18th century: To break out of prison.
Chicken Feed (also chicken change) Absurdly small amount of money. As in, “My starting salary as an actress was chicken feed.”
Chicken Run Pen attached to a chicken coop, where poultry wander during the day. It’s been used to describe the abandonment of marginal seats by British members of Parliament for seats they were surer to win. It was also a derisive reference in the 1970s to the flight of whites from Rhodesia as it was becoming independent Zimbabwe.
Chicken Ranch The original Chicken Ranch operated in Gilbert, Texas, as a brothel in the mid 1900s. You can guess the meaning of “chicken” in this context. Another explanation: Local farmers handed over chickens as payment for services rendered.
Brood To moodily contemplate, as in “Don’t brood over that silly boy, my dear. He wasn’t worth it.” Derived from “broody,” the inwardly focused (and pretty much immobile) state of a chicken when she’s sitting on her eggs.
Lay an Egg Not what we want for any Sunset project—except the chickens. What a strange term for failure, when you think about it.
Egghead As in, “What happened to Mary? She used to date eggheads and wear sweater sets—now she’s into surfers and raw food.” If you yourself are an egghead, you might want to check out The Chicken Book, a tome plump with fascinating facts and lore.
Egg Someone On Goad a person into doing something difficult and possibly not all that good for them. Comes from the behavior of a laying chicken’s coopmates, who surround her and cluck encouragingly when she’s about to lay.
Eggbeater 1930s term for a helicopter.
Cockpit The English theater “pit”, where orchestras now play, was originally used for cockfights (hugely popular in 18th-century London).
And… because it’s too tempting not to include…
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Punchlines, please! We’d love to see your favorites. (And add to this list, if you like. Just post a comment below.)